How to Implement Soccernomics Without Using Numbers

Modern times have led to modern advancements, and modern movies starring Brad Pitt as a maverick. The trailer of Moneyball made me want to see the movie; the partnership of the outspoken Billy Beane and stubby Peter Brand was something I had to witness myself. Overall, the movie wasn’t bad, but it had a good idea behind it. Look at statistics, the hard-core facts, and the results are there for all to predict. This was the story of a partnership that utilized the wonders of the 21st century. Statistics, they quipped, were a message nature hides in the midst of the formalities of sport, all made available through technology. Numbers. Statistical analysis. However, while watching, the only thing I could think about was a partnership forged back when a computer was slower than a Prius.

Brian Clough and Peter Taylor won the European Cup two years in a row in 1977 and 1978 with Nottingham Forest. Forest was an average side before their arrival, the term provincial coming to mind. We’ve all heard it before. Clough, fresh from a managerial failure at Leeds United and a confusing few months at Brighton, and Taylor, fresh from a feud with Clough, reunited to promote their team to the First Division and subsequently win the league the next season. European Cup successes followed, and a legacy at Forest was achieved. All of this was compounded by the fact that unlike many successful present-day sides, Clough and Taylor never made a poor signing.

Bringing the subject back to Moneyball, it is important to point out that after Billy Beane’s successes, the theory was accepted. Teams began using the system, and “important statistics” became a thing of the past: every statistic was important. Every statistic was looked at. It evolved into a way of doing things, a style. It brought sides success. Isn’t a winning “formula” every manager’s dream?

Damien Comolli was a good friend of Billy Beane, the man who first experimented with Moneyball. Comolli has worked at Arsenal, Tottenham, and most recently Liverpool, and famously employs the idea of soccernomics. He has been known to look at statistics in his transfer dealings, and one should think that positions at top clubs show his success in his field. Except not.

Recently, none other than Arsene Wenger has spoken out against Comolli’s methods. Indeed, it seems the only players Comolli can take credit for signing are left backs; and that doesn’t include Gareth Bale. The performances of Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam apparently were the last straw in his Liverpool tenure. A poor record, indeed.

So here is the eventual argument, one that purists of the beautiful game jump to immediately. Football is a team sport. You can’t buy players based on their statistics, even if they are undervalued, just like you can’t buy the most expensive players and expect to mold a successful team. Buying a left back because of his successful pass completion into the final third would be futile if he did not track back effectively. In Moneyball, a player who did not have a working arm was recruited. It worked for a reason that I can’t explain because I don’t follow baseball. That sort of radicalism that embodied the spirit of statistical analysis in sport would be impossible in soccer. The case of Owen Hargreaves comes to mind. I’d like to offer a quote from Mick McCarthy:

“Statistics are like mini-skirts. They give you good ideas, but hide the most important things.”

He said it better than I ever could.

Brian Clough proved that you don’t need to look at statistics to compile a side that can conquer Europe on a fairly limited budget. He won the European Cup in 1977 and ’78 with Nottingham Forest. His signings included Peter Shilton, Frank Clark, Kenny Burns, and Trevor Francis, all successful at Forest and all sold for a profit. Clough’s partnership with Peter Taylor was something that no computer could recreate or improve on, and history has been a testament to that. This is the view of an idealist, of course — nostalgia playing a part in remembering the lack of similar partnerships in today’s game. Today, there is not a partnership that utilizes one man to identify a talented player, and another to get the most out of him. Instead, a manager’s influence often sees him doubling up on these duties. The role of sporting directors like Damien Comolli has been mitigated because of past notable failures. Yes, there are notable Number 2’s such as Ray Wilkins, formerly of Chelsea, and Tito Vilanova of Barcelona. However, the manager has the final say in transfer matters, and the next largest influence is from the chairman. So the question remains: In the 21st century, is this lack of reliance on intuition a good thing?


How Wenger Did It

I was shocked when Pedro Leon, formerly of Real Madrid, was not picked by Wenger last summer. He had just earned himself a move to Real Madrid from fellow capital club Getafe, helping them to a Europa League spot in his debut season. He was mainly deployed on the right side of midfield for Getafe, but was used as a substitute for Mourinho’s side. Sometimes. After a spat with the Portuguese coach, it was mutually decided that Pedro Leon would move on. Although his work rate was criticized, he was still a talented player. He just couldn’t find his way into a side with Ronaldo, DiMaria, Ozil, and Kaka. With the arrival of Jose Callejon, Pedro Leon was shipped off on loan to Getafe, where he and his side currently are laboring to stay in La Liga.

Compare his story to that of Bergkamp. The Dutchman impressed with parent club Ajax before earning himself a move to Inter Milan, where he found playing time difficult to come by. After a frustrating few months, he decided that he needed to seek first team football. Arsenal came calling, and although it was not Wenger who made the signing, it embodied the shrewd kind of business that the Frenchman would become famous for.

A prime example of good business was Thierry Henry, the man who many claim is the best striker to have graced English shores. He had a prolific time at Monaco, and a lucrative move to Juventus followed. Deployed in a role on the left, Henry found life in Italy hard, not least due to the fact that by the late 90’s, the bushy mustache he sported was already out of fashion. Arsenal picked up the Frenchman, and to say it was a good signing would be a huge understatement.

How about another member of the legendary Invincibles squad? Robert Pires was a star with Metz and his appearances caught the eye of Marseille. A €5m move and two troubled years came next for Pires, and he eventually fell out with his directors. Wenger made a swoop for him, put him on the left, and “Bobby” tortured right backs in the England for six years, picking up multiple individual gongs in the process, and a two Premier League medals.

I could go on about Patrick Vieira, Kanu, or Jens Lehman, but I won’t, in the interest of Wikipedia being over-exhausted.

So let’s look back at Pedro Leon’s case. Mourinho was so impressed with the young winger that he parted with €10m to make bring him to the Bernabeu. No apparent interest from Wenger, or any top team for that matter. Andre-Pierre Gignac, at one point France’s first choice striker, was the recipient of an even larger price tag in his move from Toulouse to Marseille. Two years later, and he is rotting on the bench at the French club, with Loic Remy and the mediocre Brazilian hitman Brandao preferred. There was interest from Fulham, but they bought Pogrebnyak instead. Lucas Barrios was first-choice last year as the spearhead of Borussia Dortmund’s attack, but has since been taken over by Robert Lewandowski. Again, Fulham were linked in January, but interest from the top clubs has been stagnant. All three of Pedro Leon, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Lucas Barrios would make fine additions to Arsenal’s squad. And they’d be cheap.

The numbers that I looked at when making these observations were limited to price-tags. You don’t need to have an economics degree to understand that Pedro Leon, a hard-working winger who likes to come inside and has a nose for goal, would be a fine long term complement to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. You don’t need to look at the amount of touches Andre-Pierre Gignac has had in his opponent’s penalty area to see that his single-minded goal scoring and physical ability would be a success in the Premier League. You don’t need to make a chart of won headers vs. lost headers to see that Lucas Barrios doesn’t miss chances very often. It’s the principle that if a player can impress at any stage in his career, if a player shows any glimpses of being world-class, then he can achieve anything with the help of a decent manager. That’s where Clough-like characters come in. Sir Alex, Wenger, and Mourinho are all similar to Clough in principle: hard man-managers who get the best of their players by motivating them. Somehow. We’ve seen it with Cantona, and we’ve seen Mancini try it with Balotelli. I’m not saying that Pedro Leon, Gignac, and Barrios are the new Pires, Henry, and Bergkamp. But they are an improvement on the overrated Gervinho, and could all benefit from Wenger’s mentorship.

Then there is the need for a Peter Taylor-like figure; however, these days, you often see Clough and Taylor’s roles combined into one role. It is unfortunate because every traditionalist wants to see such a partnership recreated. There was a glimmer of hope when sporting directors like Damien Comolli were hailed as integral figures in a football club. We now know that signing Benoit Assou-Ekotto does not rival Peter Taylor’s contributions.

Of course, this all goes with the idea that a player should be signed when his market value has depreciated unjustly, just like when I got rich by telling my parents to buy HP when one of its top executives had an affair. Contradicting me right now is probably my good friend, who once pointed out the flaws of treating players like stocks. His words:

“(Wenger) buys too many prospects, not proven quality. Which is fine if you’re buying stocks, but not when the stocks want to play for Citeh after three years.”

Bar Robin van Persie, what Arsenal stocks are Manchester City currently interested in? As a Tottenham fan, it doesn’t pain me to say that the answer is ‘none’. Wilshire will probably come good after a long injury layoff, and the investment in Oxlade-Chamberlain has looked a shrewd move by Wenger. Vermaelen has been solid, but is made of mayonnaise, as is Kieran Gibbs. Song and Koscielny are too inconsistent, and Gervinho is unarguably underwhelming. Sagna isn’t getting any younger, while Ramsey has never looked the same since that injury. Park Chu Young’s finishing is suspect, while Walcott is… well, Walcott. It is not a coincidence that Wenger’s policy of “buy young and cheap” has stuttered: if you look at it, every player has underwent psychological issues because of the sheer hype surrounding them. Don’t get me wrong. The quality in every single Arsenal prospect is evident; it’s not like Wenger is signing fifteen Bebes and ignoring expectations. He is just buying the wrong prospects: wasting money on the wrong prospects. Oh deary me.

Are numbers what you need to deem a young player good enough to succeed in the Premier League? Is the only way for Arsene Wenger to ensure that his youth policy does not backfire through statistical analysis? No.

Make the Formation Suit the Players, Not Vice-Versa

One of the most difficult things to do as a young player is to be played in a system that does not inhibit one’s strengths. Look at Germany as an example of when this kind of caution is taken. From youth levels to the senior side, the same 4-2-3-1 is utilized. In South Africa in 2010, a team of talented German youngsters fitted in seamlessly. In fact, Germany’s only loss occurred when Thomas Muller was suspended and there was no able replacement for him. In the semi-final, Piotr Trochowski was drafted in to a position he was unused to, replaced by Toni Kroos late on. Both were creative midfield players, unable to work their way inside because of Spain’s packed midfield. As a result, Germany’s plan to let Phillip Lahm overlap was futile, as Trochowski, and then Kroos were outnumbered in possession. A better option would have been to switch to a rigid 4-4-2, the formation Uruguay have used to brilliant effect during the tournament, with Ozil behind Podolski and Klose, and a three-man midfield. One fond memory begs.

Liverpool post-Alonso anyone? Alonso’s move to Madrid caused panic on the red side of Liverpool. No longer would top teams have to break down Mascherano and Alonso, with Gerrard in a role behind Torres. Liverpool waned finishing in 7th, five places worse than their previous season’s position. Over the summer the names Gareth Barry, Lorik Cana and even Lee Catermole were all mentioned, and Liverpool eventually opted for a like-for-like replacement in Alberto Aquiliani. Even when fit, the Italian never looked ready for the task of replacing Alonso. He was farmed out on loan to AC Milan in August, deemed a surplus to requirements, and Liverpool’s midfield has been completely reshuffled since.

Could anyone replace Alonso? Maybe a few midfielders in the world could, but the cash-strapped Benitez at the time could not afford them. Meanwhile, Manchester United was making do with Michael Carrick every week. Similarly, no one in Germany’s squad could replace Thomas Muller. But there were other options.

At the time, there was one player I was dying for Liverpool to sign. One player. And I’m not even a Liverpool fan. Ever Banega was looking to go out on loan from Valencia, having found life in Spain difficult to adapt to. Since a move to Everton fell through because of work permit issues, he has been capped by Argentina and linked with Juventus. He was a perfect “replacement” for Alonso, playing slightly further forward than the Spanish international. Unlike Mascherano, Banega was comfortable in a 4-4-2. Instead, Liverpool’s midfield and top-four challenge was forced to make do with Lucas. Lucas. Before he was good.

Moving on, I again address the issue of a North London side with not enough good defenders in their arsenal. Many were expecting Wenger to sign a young, central defender from France in response to Vermaelen’s constant injury problems, or because Koscielny can actually be quite rubbish. Unfortunately, his procrastination issues caused him to sign the player everyone knew would be too slow for the Premier League — Mertesacker. It remains to be seen whether Wenger’s Arsenal funding is living off Social Security, or if he missed class when the professor was doing his little bit on “investment”. However, converting Alex Song to a center back, which would complement Arsenal’s “brand of attractive football”, while instead looking for an extra midfielder to not play Coquelin would have been a much better idea. There would never be a like-for-like replacement for someone like Kolo Toure or a young Sol Campbell. It is useless to look for one. Everton commanding £20 for Phil Jagielka is testament to that. But you can shuffle things around. You need only to look as far as Wigan to see that.

In the past, I have lost $10, a pack of gum, and a pair of expensive shorts when betting on Wigan to be relegated. Under Roberto Martinez, they finally look to be safe, with a line led by Chelsea reject Franco DiSanto, Victor Moses, and Jordi Gomez. In their win against Manchester United, the winner was scored by Shaun Maloney, whose previous experience in England was a failed stint at Aston Villa. Their back line features the sometimes-impressive Antolin Alcaraz, one of the Caldwells, and left-back Figureoa, and I could go on but teary eyes make the screen difficult to see.

Wigan’s switch to a 3-4-3 has been both shocking and genius. Ed Boyce- averagely named- has been turned into an impressive right-sided midfielder, while his opposite number Jean Beausejour provides a much needed blend of flair and efficiency. James McCarthy and James McArthur are not rubbish, while Victor Moses is touted for a senior call up for England this summer after developing impressively this season. But with the 4-3-3, Wigan was stagnating. They were playing the “we play attractive football so our results don’t matter” card. And Martinez’s 3-4-3 is far from boring, using the same personnel.

I’m not saying that Wigan deserve to be Champions League winners and top of the Premier League for their efforts and change of system. I’m not saying that Manchester United should switch to a 3-4-3.  And I am certainly not saying that when things aren’t going well, just do something else. What I am saying, however, is that no two people are the same. Therefore no two teams are the same. In soccer, just like in life, there is an ideal way of doing things and a way that some would argue is much more in touch with reality. Then there is the way of doing things that is perfect, and chances are it is difficult to find. Chances are, especially since every case is different, that perfect way, that perfect system, will never be found. After decades in football, Roberto Martinez has come pretty close, but it took some time to implement. He was always looking for that perfect system for his side, even if by the time it was executed, it could only be relevant for a short period of time.

If I was to be as broad as possible, the idea of assembling a side has one principle. Soccer is a game of intuition, of being so comfortable in a system that everything else is execution in order. Looking at numbers, at statistics, does not take into account the intuition involved. The computer takes into account a set structure, while soccer is the exact opposite. The game has evolved over time, from the idea of passing being bogus, to today’s complex formations. I still believe that all players- all good players- are different, and cannot be separated or replaced by mere numbers. The fact that all footballers play the same game, therefore share a common variable, cannot work to the benefit of those trying to implement Soccernomics using intense statistical analysis. It sucks all the purity out of football. Just ask Clough and Taylor.

14 thoughts on “How to Implement Soccernomics Without Using Numbers”

  1. I’m sorry, but this article totally misses the point of Moneyball (maybe this is due to having seen the film – I am currently halfway through the book). The Oakland As used statistics to identify players that were undervalued, certainly not as a method of prediction. The players weren’t meant to be perfect, they were simply meant to affordable. As for whether it can be replicated in football, I see no reason why not. It would, however, require a huge database on statistics at a really minute level, far beyond anything that exists currently.

    1. Sorry Alex but your wrong.

      They did use it as a method of prediction, player x get on base x percentage player y on y percentage etc, etc.. and after all those required OBP and many other stats at many other positions (strike outs etc) they calculated / predicted they could win x number of games.

      So money ball was completely about prediction of a result using average’s / specific talents / stats of a player to fit a puzzle. As for footynomics (cant call it soccer sorry) there is obviously an element of truth to the approach, but it is not the only way to succeed, as in life, there are many many options/approaches to systems, and its getting a mix of several approaches that will bring success.

      I could point these out for football and the example above but I have to dash–ill get back to it

      1. I think that both of you are right. From a micro standpoint, Dust is correct in that the stats themselves were used to help define a squad that would compete. But Alex’s points about defining market inefficiencies is the larger, macro decision making change that Moneyball produced. As more teams have taken to using the initial stats defined as being undervalued, the shift in inefficiency has moved to other areas of the game.

        Macro vs Micro.

        1. The problem is that there are almost no market inefficiencies left that can be bought in free agency. The only inefficiencies left are the one that are the result of the Collective Bargaining Agreement which artificially lowers the salaries of players in their first 6 years. Because everyone is aware of this, and these players are only available externally by trade; you can’t exploit this without developing them internally. This is a long, slow process with a high amount of variance (projecting a bunch of amateur athletes is just hard).

        2. Its more cause and effect than micro vs macro.

          Oakland were forced because of budget restraints to look at the game differently.

          The impact of the “Moneyball” approach was the re-evaluation of player skills. It’s not like Oakland won a world series with moneyball, but Boston did, but they didn’t apply the “Money” side of Money ball. They took the real value of “money ball”. The new found appreciation and application for specific stats at various positions, then getting the best player stat could achieve those stats.

          As it relates to football, sure there are elements that can apply, if a system can be found that can leverage that level of focus on players skills, but football is not baseball (for a starts you can be fat and play at a professional level, so its not exactly athletic). A system can improve a player, but a player can unleash a systems full potential. A simple example may be Swansea and Barca, if they played exactly the same system then who would win?

          With swansea, there is a system that brendon plays and the players he has fit that system. In a recent interview I posted here of brendon on BBC MOD 3 he speaks of a player (can’t remember the name) that was at swansea, was successful and then went to blackburn, was not successful and then returned to swansea and is again enjoying success because of the system.

          The other assertion made by other posts that baseball isn’t a team sport like football is also incorrect, baseball is just as much a team sport as football, anytime you do anything with more than 1 person on your side that has any level of responsibility they are a part of your team.

          Football has a nesesity for professional players to have multiple essential skills at a high level for them to play any position, gone are the days when all a defender had to do was tackle and whack the ball away (I will refrain form GK jokes). Baseball requires you to be able to hit a baseball as a core fundamental (unless your in the AL, then pitchers don’t) and catch a baseball (also unless your in the AL and a designated hitter), thats it, if you are at 1st base you have a different focused set of skills than left field.

      2. You’re both right. The A’s did have a system of projection. They were probably using Runs Created to calculate the number of runs each player was worth, which can be translated into wins. However, that’s a pretty imperfect statistic. Things have gotten much better now. For instance, they completely ignored defense. This was because at the time, defense was almost unquantifiable. So they A’s did have win projections. However, they would have been high variance because they were missing about 25% of the game from the projection.

        However, the main point of the book was that certain statistics correlate with winning better. And that you have so much money to buy a certain amount of wins. The A’s being a poor team looked at trying to find stats that correlated with winning more, yet were undervalued in how much teams paid for them. For instance a player that hits with a slash line of .310/.330/.500 has a high average and quite a bit of power. But a player who hits .250/.400/.430 doesn’t. They are very likely to be just a valuable at creating runs, but the second player would be undervalued.

        The problem with the A’s strategy is every time they figured out what was undervalued, everyone soon caught up, and they soon had to depend on things that lead to increased variance and didn’t lead to as many wins. First OBP was valued properly, so the A’s focused on defense. Then defense started to be figured out and was soon valued properly. In fact all the players are valued so properly now that when analysts put a number on a player describing how many wins he’s worth (a stat called WAR), it’s fairly easy for analysts to figure out what he’ll be paid; since all the teams value wins at about the same dollar amount.

        Baseball has a huge advantage over all other sports though. Because it’s a steady state game; it’s possible to calculate the odds of almost any event happening at any state of the game. Plus since action stops after every action, it’s easy to calculate the value of that action. Free flowing games like soccer tend to be harder to quantify. Also, team games where so much of the results depends on the interaction of multiple pieces (like soccer or American Football) make it harder to separate the value of everyone.

        The best place to look for help in using a ‘Moneyball’ approach in soccer would be looking at the kind of things team in the NBA are doing. The Mavericks and the Rockets are two of the biggest users. Unfortunately a lot of the data they use to analyze is proprietary. They have cameras and tracking algorithms set to follow players around the court. Because of this we don’t have a good way of deciding how well they are doing or if what they do works.

  2. Here is my worry trying to adapt Moneyball methodologies to football. Baseball, while called a team sport, is totally individualistic when it comes to statistics. For instance, when looking at a shortstop’s zone rating to see how much range he has, it doesn’t depend on the 3rd or 2nd baseman being involved in a play. Similarly, looking at a batter’s OPS over the past 3 seasons gives you a reasonable assumption of offensive output you can expect . Maybe being surrounded by better offensive players in the batting lineup helps you see better pitches, but for the most part, the stats again are totally individualist.

    In football, there is a total dependance on the teammates surrounding you. The other things stats don’t bear out is how a player is going to perform in a bigger venue. Boston is a particularly hard city to perform in for baseball players. Some players seem to wilt under the constant eye of the fans and press (see J.D. Drew, John Lackey). The same seems to be occurring in Liverpool with Downing and Henderson. Carroll seems to be coming around.

    The bottom line is, there cannot be a total reliance on moneyball methodologies to determine a player’s future performance. That quote from Mick McCarthy is spot on.

  3. Bringing it back to football, there’s obviously the method of buying undervalued players that Wenger has become famous for. My point made in the article is that players like Gignac, Barrios, Pedro Leon, and even guys like Sulley Muntari, or Diarra’s case at Fulham, are the kind of players Moneyball/ Soccernomics would recommend. It’s all about common sense and looking for players with talent, rather than buying the finished product and hoping he’ll have the mental capacity to perform. The main idea is that Clough and Taylor would have much preferred to buy a player who lost his way a bit, put some sense into him, and then sell him for profit. There’s not enough of that in today’s game. When you look at 10 million quid for Arteta, or 18m for Aquilani, but with both having impressive statistics in terms of passes completed, etc., it becomes clear that it can’t work in football. Guys like Banega, or Alou Diarra might mold much better in Arsenal or Liverpool’s midfield.

  4. The point of Moneyball, or at least what I got out of doing extensive research instead of doing my Bio Lab Report (Yeah, I’m dedicated) is that it’s more important to look at things holistically in a side rather than the like-for-like systems. In football, that is more than relevant. It’s huge. However, statistics don’t prove a player good enough to replace another player, and they certaintly don’t prove multiple players able to replace one player. That’s the point. For example, maybe Leon Britton wouldn’t be “The English Xavi” is he wasn’t in a 4-3-3 and didn’t have Joe Allen and (bear with me) Glfyi Siggurdsson playing alongside him. Mind you, same goes for the current Barcelona side.

  5. Another thought, IMO a great youth system is the key to long term fiscal and on the field success for any football club, if you want to look at a clubs ability to “develop players” in the premier league in particular, SAF has done the best job by far.

  6. i think in general certain things need to be valued in football, however each would be in a very closed system that the data would be hard to read. oh so this player makes 30 tackles a game, my isnt he a hard working striker yet he plays for a shit team with an emphasis on closing down by the strikers. doesnt make him a hardworker, just in that sense he follows instructions.

    in general though what you find is many of the top players have stats that do kind of cross over, especialy like for like positions. ie for a CDM creator like pirlo pass completion, passes attempted, long balls and through balls paint him as a player that plays like a CDM. you can make some extrapolations off that too look for equally good like for like players or even in some cases players with similar style that are played out of position(rare)

    btw moses plays for nigeria, no england call up for him

  7. sorry by your own admission you don’t understand Sabermetrics (it’s not Moneyball it’s Sabermetrics)in context of the sport the book and movie were about. You have the understand the context of what the statistical information is telling you. In the book example it was on base percentage, the A’s could get cheaper players (under market value) who had this skill (which also was an important skill in producing runs-CONTEXT) the market overvalued other skills and this changes over time (speed or defense in later years or closers became over valued)- it was about how to field the most competitive team under the limitations of their pay roll. If you don;t think the Wigans and Swansea’s of the world could benefit from using statistical analysis (not in a vacuum- in conjunction with traditional scouting) you are missing the complete picture. Sabermetrics is more than just Billy Beane- that was a snapshot in time dating back to the early 80’s- it’s an evolving science. Currently studies on ball in play (BABIP) and fly ball per home run ratios along with defensive zone ratings, pitcher FX study on each pitch- statistical analysis is not nearly as limited and banal as you project it and every professional team uses it- the best use it wisely. I am under the impression all the big football teams pay handsomely for their own statistical analysis including Wenger.

  8. Really liked this article and found it a good read. Just one thing I had to remark upon though – your criticisms of Laurent Koscielny are very wrong. He was one of our most consistent players last season, easily better than Vermaelen and a key component of our side. He had a tricky first season in parts, definitely, but showed signs of quality and improved on that last season by adapting to the league and maturing into a fantastic player.

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