Soccer by the numbers: Soccernomics book review

soccernomicsOver the past decade or so, there has been an odd trend of political and financial analysts, economists and behaviorists writing books analyzing sports.  Some of these books have shifted the paradigm in those sports like Michael Lewis’ baseball analysis Moneyball.  Some of these books found very creative ways to portray obvious truisms (the more you practice, the better you get) like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  Some of these books looked like great ways for the author to write off the opportunity to travel the world watching sports, like Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World.  And some of these books were so unbearable, like George Will’s baseball book Men at Work, that reading it aloud has been declared as torture under the Geneva Convention.

Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski have entered this fray with Soccernomics, which was published in the UK under the much more compelling title Why England Lose.  Kuper is an anthropologist who has written several books about soccer and Syzmanski is an economics professor, and they have teamed up to use economic data and statistics to unearth new perspectives about an old game.

This is a hard task.  Of all the sports in the world, soccer is the most stat averse, and gives Kuper and Syzmanski a much more barren field to till than Lewis had when he wrote Moneyball.  It is only in the most recent years that people have bothered to track statistics about the game itself, and those stats are rarely made available for the public.  Over the past decade, a few consultancy firms have emerged to statistically categorize what happens during a game, and those firms sell their data to the major clubs.  Statistics about successful pass completion, miles run, ground covered, quality attempts on goal and other forms of analysis are hard to come by for the average soccer fan.

This is a shame because there are many age-old soccer debates which stats could help resolve, but those numbers are rarely tracked, available and deeply analyzed.  Which makes a bigger contribution to success, a great back line or terrific strikers?  Is it better to have your wingers play more forward or support the defense?  If you want to lower the quantity of goals your team gives up, is it better to invest in a great goal keeper, a great central defender or a great holding mid-fielder?

Soccer does not provide the data to provide insights to such basic questions, so Kuper and Syzmanski often have to look at issues that are more peripheral to the game.  Their analysis of why England won the World Cup in 1966 (home field advantage) and have not gotten close since (because so few English players play for non-English clubs) is compelling.  Similarly, their theory on why capital cities rarely produce Champions League winners, while not entirely convincing, is very intriguing.  Their most compelling analysis may be their look at how a few executives (Brian Clough, Arsene Wenger, Lyons’s Bernard Lacombe) bring a calculated analysis to their player selections to get extraordinary results.

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