The Numbers Game, by Chris Anderson and David Sally
Sunday 02 June 2013
Roberto Martinez is a fan of football analytics, the science of compiling and analysing the rapidly increasing plethora of data on every aspect of the game. He subscribes to a sophisticated software package, yet one is entitled to ask just how much use this is, given that under the Spaniard's charge Wigan have just been relegated.
The authors of this thought-provoking exploration of football statistics counter that query by demonstrating that the figures prove a manager has only a 15 per cent influence on where any team finish in a league; other factors, notably the size of the wage bill, have a far greater impact. And furthermore, the result of any one match is 50 per cent down to luck.
All of which seems to run counter to the story of the Oakland Athletics as told in Moneyball, whereby a club with the third smallest budget in Major League Baseball achieved astonishing success by recruiting cheap, unfashionable players solely on the evidence of a forensic examination of their stats.
Perhaps that is because football action has many more variables, but some of the findings are still fascinating, overturning accepted wisdom.
For instance, corners have practically no effect on results – in the Premier League at least: crunching the numbers from 134 games producing a total of 1,434 corners showed that each corner was worth 0.022 goals; in other words, a team in the top flight scored from a corner on average only once every 10 games.
Undoubtedly the most left-field piece of research proves that in the five big European leagues, players from countries with high levels of civil conflict receive far more yellow and red cards than those from more stable nations.
One League manager told the authors: "Stats can't tell me who to sign. They can't measure the size of a player's heart." But seemingly they can measure its blackness.
The authors admit: "There is no secret recipe for success locked in the numbers. There is no magic formula." But as a highly original contribution to our understanding of what we are seeing at a match, their book is unbeatable.
Published in trade paperback by Viking, £12.99
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