Book Review - The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Mike Hewitt

As football analytics marches onward, we take a look at a new book that promises to set you right about football.

Judging a book by its cover is widely agreed to be something that one should not do in polite society. How about by its subtitle?

"Why everything you know about football is wrong" is meant to be provocative. It's meant to be eye-catching. It's meant to make the prospective reader think 'ah, man, I thought I knew loads about football. I should buy this book immediately!' It's aggressive: straight from the off, without having even opened the book, the reader is already aware that the authors of the book stand above them. This isn't unusual, of course - the author of a book tends to know more about their subject than the reader, since otherwise the book would be largely pointless - but it's not often put in quite such stark terms: You, dear reader, are wrong in every respect, and must sit down and pay attention while we tell you why.

It's ... well, for all that it's doubtless meant to be tongue-in-cheek, it's mostly just a bit annoying.

What the subtitle does is place Anderson and Sally firmly on one side of the ongoing culture war between the nerds and the jocks, the savants and the savages, the iconoclasts and the establishment. This story has baddies: the mouth-breathing troglodytes that insist football works like football because football has always worked like football and must carry on in much the same way, because football. And it has goodies: brave mavericks who preach a football based on sound principles derived from the rigorous analysis of data, data, and more data. Football analytics - the numbers game - will:

wash away old certainties and change the game we know and love. It will be a game we view more analytically, more scientifically, where we do not accept what we have always been taught, but where we always ask why. The game will look the same, but the way we think about it will be almost unrecognizable.

Which sounds terrifically exciting, if rather unlikely. After all, the ur-book of the genre, Moneyball, may have shaken the practice of baseball in fundamental and far-reaching ways, but it hasn't transmuted the entire fanbase into ultra-informed, ultra-sceptical, ultra-rigorous analysts. Anderson and Sally, like most other authors who write about analytics, do rather rest on the unspoken presumption that football is, fundamentally, a riddle to be solved, a mystery to be unpicked, a system to be scrutinised until its secrets are revealed. Obviously football can be that, as it can be anything, but it doesn't follow that it is so for everybody. It can also be many other things -- a source of hilarity, a mine of anecdote, a window into cultural anthropological insight, an excuse for a fight -- that don't require or even take note of an analytical approach.

This presumption suffuses the first third of the book, and takes them to some odd places: places that are populated by men with a faintly strawish aspect. After setting out the mission behind the analytical "reformation" -- their preferred term -- they begin the serious business with a discussion of the role of luck in determining the outcome of a football game. Their analysis and conclusions are both interesting and illuminating, but the assertion that this will be "a surprising finding to fans who believe a team's skill entirely controls what happens on the pitch" prompts only the thought: do such fans exist? Perhaps a particularly credulous seven-year-old might truly believe that their team being better is all that matters, but in general there is no section of humanity so alive to Lady Luck's inevitable mood swings as the football fan.

Better perhaps to say that their conclusions may be surprising to any football fan that believes a match is mostly or primarily determined by skill, a more modest and more accurate proposition. For it will be no shock to anybody that "there are two routes to success in football ... One is being good. The other is being lucky. You need both to win a championship. But you only need one to win a game." But it might well be news that, by Anderson and Sally's reasoning, that the split between luck and fortune is roughly 50/50.

Perhaps this is the "you" that the book is addressed to: the fan who believes skill controls everything; the fan who only loves football because goals are rare; the fan whose support only makes sense if there is "a logic to the game". This doesn't really sound like any football fan, let alone every football fan, and it's a shame the authors felt the need to address this caricature: their findings, once the book settles down a bit, are persuasive on their own merits. It helps that unlike much writing about analytics -- most notably Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski's Soccernomics, which suffered at times from an overwhelming joylessness -- Anderson and Sally are able to keep their tone conversational and their prose convivial, and even remember to include the occasional joke.

Once the privileged place of luck has been established -- and this section really should be compulsory reading for anybody that's ever attempted to squeeze an over-arching narrative from a couple of cup games -- the book proceeds along familiar structure: first take an accepted piece of footballing 'wisdom', then analyse the underlying numbers, then discover that they don't support the initial thesis, then propose a modified or alternative formulation, which can sometimes be illustrated with a suggestion that, were it not for the numbers, might seem comical or ludicrous. So we learn that it's more important to sell Zurab Khizanishvili than to buy a superstar; that Chelsea should have eschewed Fernando Torres in favour of Darren Bent; that the only thing that distinguishes the Bundesliga from the Premier League is the shirts and the geography; and so on and so forth. There is also analysis of the idiosyncratic, counterintuitive, and successful methods of "Stoke manager" Tony Pulis and "Wigan manager" Roberto Martinez, which suffer only slightly for having fallen foul of Harold MacMillan's famous mantra: events, dear boy, events.

That the book ultimately fails to live up to its subtitle is not the fault of the authors' work so much as the fault of the larger debate into which this book has been published, a debate that demands overstatement because, well, it's an argument. Whoever's idea it was -- and it may be instructive that the cover of the Kindle edition features a different, less grandiose mission statement: Why Corners Should Be Taken Short, Teams Are Only As Good As Their Worst Players, and Changing Manager Doesn't Change Much -- and for all that it may just be marketing, it misrepresents this book as being some kind of key to a higher level of footballing consciousness. It isn't: it's mind-engaging, mind-stimulating, and even a bit mind-expanding. But mind-blowing? No.

From the ordinary fan point of view, the wider question is more-or-less moot: if you like systems, and analysis, and figuring out how things works, then this book will fit neatly into the burgeoning library of online and offline writings, and you'll enjoy it. If you don't, then you can safely ignore it without missing too much. As illuminating as much of this is, anybody nursing the idea that greater acceptance of analytics into the mainstream will put an end to people saying and believing incorrect things about football is being naive. Perhaps a few cliches will die a death, perhaps one or two columnists will set aside some established truths, but the broad sweep of footballing chitter-chat will retain its fundamental character, and be defined by plenty more than just the vitally-important-yet-terribly-reductive question of who is and isn't any good.

As for the technical side of things, well, that war is done. The reformation (as the authors profess to favour), or revolution (as their occasional references to Robespierre implies they might prefer), is more or less over. The authors may be correct to suggest that so far the financial pressures of relegation and the need for short-term sustainability have kept football clubs from embracing data-driven methods, but ultimately the need for an edge, any edge, means that analytics will be first embraced and then subsumed into the game just as nutrition, psychology, and not-drinking-sixteen-pints-of-lager-on-a-Friday have been. Early in the book, Anderson and Sally describe Everton's analytics operation, and express surprise that they sit not "near the centre of Everton's universe, right next door to the manager", but instead "along a corridor next to the canteen". One suspects that, had it been a question of office arrangements, Martin Luther might have confined himself to a sarcastic email.

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