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Required Summer Reading - The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong

By Alex Fairchild



Over the past decade, the game of soccer has been analyzed not only by pundits on television and bloggers online, but also by statisticians at professional soccer clubs and analytics companies.

Opta Sports, a sport analytics firm, partnered with FourFourTwo Magazine in launching FourFourTwo StatsZone, which brought Opta's live match statistics to the smartphone. Data from every game over the past few seasons from the Champions League to Ligue 1 are available at the touch of a screen. The rise of sites like WhoScored.com have aided the game's nerds in taking soccer's numbers into the mainstream. However, statistics are not entirely prevalent... yet.

In the opening chapter of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, authors David Sally and Chris Anderson dive into the past and present of this emerging industry. Charles Reep, an accountant and Royal Air Force member turned match analyst, is examined along with modern data companies, including Opta Sports, as this movement in soccer begins to reform the game as we know it.

While teams do have the capability to collect data from companies like Opta and US-based StatDNA, it seems that they do not have the knowledge to interpret such data.    

Sally and Anderson say Roberto Martinez is one man looking to get an advantage through the numbers. The Everton and ex-Wigan gaffer, who devours statistics on a TV he has in his house loaded with information from stat firms, examines each match for hours to improve his team's guerrilla football style.

Looking at data, the authors believe, is a step in the right direction for the game in challenging what they say soccer is built around. The words "that's the way it's always been done," haunt the writers, who believe soccer must and will undergo a statistical reformation.

For example, the book dives into the importance of the manager. Year after year, managers who encounter poor runs of form are sacked. But are constant firings the best way to run a football club?

Taking into account the analysis of Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in Soccernomics, and other studies, the two conclude that managers have a limited effect on a team's success. The pair challenge the decision of Chelsea owner Roman Abromovich in his move to sack Andre Villas-Boas, after the team's Champions League defeat to Napoli, as a case study for this topic.

If Soccernomics dissected the macro world of football, be it the effects of hosting a World Cup or the wage policies of each club, The Numbers Game centers more on football itself. The production of footballers, strikers especially, are extracted as Sally and Anderson also ask whether or not all goals are created equal.

One of the more interesting pieces of the book comes through their analysis of the O-Ring Theory of Economic Development in relation to soccer. The theory, developed by Michael Kremer, asserts that even the most expensive and complex machines can fail due to their weakest link, just as the Challenger space shuttle failed due to one of its O-rings. In football terms, the book asks whether or not a multi-million pound team should take where it is strongest and reinforce that area, or aid or replace the space where it is weakest to improve performance. Fascinating insight is provided on this topic, as the pair look at what teams can do in the transfer market and in a match.

Early tactical changes are evaluated, in addition to 'normal' ones. The book describes the times in a match when each of a manager's three substitutions should be made in order to have a maximum impact on the game.

With tiki-taka having took the football world by storm via Barcelona and Spain's dominance, Sally and Anderson question if possession gives a team a better chance of winning a match. The possible death of 'Route 1' football is also studied in The Numbers Game, not to mention the efficiency of corner kicks.

One of the top football books this summer, The Numbers Game is an excellent read. In fact, you will probably have to read it a few times to absorb all of the content. Both advisers to football clubs, the authors go into great depth when discussing their findings. While a heavy statistical background is by no means required to read this book, some extra research might be necessary while reading, if you would like to fully comprehend the numbers of the studies involved. However, if reading for the great knowledge provided in these pages is all you are diving in for (which is still more than well worth your time), Sally and Anderson do an excellent job of putting their complicated findings into laymen's terminology.

Released in the both the US and UK, the book is available on Amazon and all over the web.