Moneyball and Football: the Beautiful Game and its difficulty with stats

This may come as a surprise to quite a few folks who read this blog but I initially created this page many moons ago to write about football in all of its glory. Then, I started commenting over on FitzJames Horse’s site on political matters and this site took on a different direction and became my repository for everything that catches my attention. At the moment, being in Australia, I am at a massive disadvantage when it comes to viewing football as it is normally on at indecent times. For instance, yesterday’s FA Cup semi between Wigan and Millwall was shown here at 3am, which for two teams who are not really great to watch is a bit of a stretch. What has become the norm for myself is that I wake up early in the morning and while getting my breakfast I catch the last 30 minutes of a Champions League tie and then make my way off to work. It’s clearly not the same kind of viewing experience as you would have back home in Europe but it’s ok I suppose.

Something that has caught my attention over the years is not the drama of the game such as a once in a season goal or dribble or a moneyballunique piece of skill but more the tactical side of the game, the preparation of the squad, the transfers, the tid bits that we hear on the grape vine, the backroom politics of the whole game, this is what I really get off on so to speak. I’m not saying I don’t like the goals or what not, they are after all the life blood of the game, it’s why we watch it after all, but perhaps like those who read women’s magazines to find out the gossip of who is backstabbing who on X-Factor when the cameras are off, I love hearing how things are going at clubs, who they have sent out to scout in an obscure continental team or who has put in a notable performance at an underage tournament.

I would say that my looking at this side of the game really came to fruition when I was in Rome for my first time with my brother and his AS Roma crazy girlfriend. They had unfortunately lost to a Diego led Juventus at the Stadio Olimpico in a comprehensive manner. Then after the game, the pundits reviewed the game, nothing different than what they do elsewhere, right? Wrong. The review of the game was close on 2 hours long, longer than the game itself (clearly). Whilst I could not understand a thing they said at the time I tapped my brother up who was busy in the flat getting ready to fly back to London, asking him what could they be talking about for so long? He started to translate for me and it was obvious that in Italy and elsewhere the level of appreciation for the game and what the responsibilities of each position in a particular, strategy, tactics etc. is so much greater than it is in English speaking countries. The panel in Italy went through key moments of the game in a style akin to something from CSI where they noted who was out of position, the decisions that had presented themselves to each of the key players in a situation and then giving weight to the decisions they made. For me, it was an eye-opener, we deal with polemics, hyperbole, dare I say it…football cliches (sorry!) rather than assessing what players do in their positions.

I have to admit though, we are thankfully moving away from the Anglo model of football commentary and analysis which is typified by the likes of Hansen et al on the dreadful Match of the Day. As seems to be the case, Sky Sports is leading the way in providing us with analysis or at least starting to but this has been added to by the likes of Lee Dixon on ITV, Gabriel Marcotti at the Times (£) and on ESPN and my own personal favourite, the excellent Football Weekly at the Guardian with James Richardson of Football Italia fame from Channel 4. As an aside, is it coincidental that the charge for change in football analysis has a particular Italian influence, whether it is Ray Wilkins (ex-AC Milan) on Sky Sports, Gabriel Marcotti or James Richardson?

So, this week I read Michael Lewis’ ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game‘ which has also been made into a film that stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the real life General Manager of the Oakland As baseball team. The As are a particularly small team, akin to the likes of Fulham in that they seemingly do better than their size should allow them to. Billy was a child baseball prodigy who on hisbilly beaneearlier performances and statistics probably should have had a career akin to the likes of Barry Bonds (sans EPO), Alex Rodriguez or ‘Pappy’ Ortiz, alas he fell by the wayside and his playing career can only be described as one of utter failure and ultimate disaster. Physically outstanding, lightening quick, tall and a great all rounder, we should now be speaking of him in the same way we speak of Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretski, yet you are asking yourself, Billy who?

Billy’s task as GM of the As is to run the squad, over see the ‘farm system’ that all Major League baseball teams have where they have affiliations with minor league teams across the US, Canada and elsewhere and if anyone in those teams are good enough they may eventually make their way to the Major Leagues and play on ESPN infront of millions, or be turfed back down to a minor league team if they have been performing sub-par or someone better comes along. Further, like every Major League team he has his vast network of scouts, usually former players who travel from high-school to high-school or distant dirt poor places in Central America or the Caribbean checking for talent that may be coming through and they wish to steal a march on their competitors by getting young talent on the books. It’s a massive and complex operation where players at all levels are being traded, snapped up or dumped continuously and you are talking about over a thousand players in a system all so that the team you have at the top of the pyramid has a chance against others around the United States.

As had been the case since baseball began as such, players were judged on statistics, yes, but also in a more subjective manner than they perhaps should have been. Former players working as scouts would assess up and coming players based on things such as their aesthetics, for instance the look of someone who pitched. It looks like he has a great pitch, or he knocks a ton of home runs in a game or he steals a lot of bases during the course of a season. However, Beane working with the As was at a severe disadvantage compared to his competitors, the likes of the Boston Red Sox (my own favourite team having grown up in Boston) or the Yankees as his team did not have anywhere near the same kind of financial muscle that these guys have and may never have it. Thus, he decided he would not play the same game as his competitors and would try and use a more scientific method for putting together a team. This is when he met Paul DePodesta, an economics graduate from Harvard. Paul introduced the use of the analytical principles of sabermetrics. They set aside the 19th century view of the game that looked for batting averages, stolen bases and runs batted and looked at others instead, primarily slugging percentage and on-base percentage. This allowed them to start looking for diamonds in the rough so to speak, guys who other teams had completely overlooked and had sent to the minor leagues or had even sent no one to view them as according to the statistics they were using they were next to useless. In 2002 they were able to put together a team of misfits that went on to make an American League record of 20 consecutive wins whilst spending a fraction on players and wages compared to their larger competitors.

Moneyball is a very interesting book, a very easy read and one I would recommend to all. However, it has gotten me thinking, especially when I read an article by Jonathon Wilson in the Guardian during the week about players, tactics, statistics and football. What is the relationship between players and tactics in football? It’s a fascinating read for anyone who has more than a superficial interest in football, otherwise known as anyone who doesn’t support Man Utd. or Chelsea. Wison’s piece was wrote after the epic finale to the Champions League quarter final between Borussia Dortmund and Malaga where the former got out of jail in injury time, the goals for which are below (how”s your Arabic?):

Crazy stuff. But a well disciplined unit such as Dortmund’s panicked in the last 10 minutes of the game and resorted to route one, the long ball game, to try and change the game in it’s favour. In this instance it was a success and it only heightened the drama in the jurgen kloppstadium and has helped give this Dortmund side a narrative where they can perhaps come back from the brink, give it their all and maybe even win the tournament for their second time, that or Real Madrid will smash them in both games, who knows but football can play out like this. However, the Dortmund side that was normally known for being technically proficient and tactically tight descended into disarray and let the occasion get to them according to their defender Subotic. So, what is the relationship between tactics and players?

Tactics make players and players make tactics and the relationship between them is vital. To give a very simple example of that, you can’t play a pressing game unless you have very fit, disciplined players. But it’s not the full truth; it’s a simplistic version of the truth.

Wilson then goes on to divide the game into two distinct yet symbiotically linked parts, the base  and the super-structure. The base is your training  for your position whether it is a goal keeper getting into a particular area of the 6 yard box when a corner is about to be taken or a tri-quartesta or ‘false 9’ occupying a space between midfield and the forward line and acting as the link or the ‘quarterback’ for an attack. The super-structure is the part we really cannot plan for, it is x, luck, chance, divine providence, it’s what happens next, where the ball is placed, whether your player reacts to something in time or makes the right decision. The base is the underlying structure, where you have placed your players and their relationship to one another. The base can help dictate the game, the super structure is the part that then says, can the players in the base create the requisite number of chances for their own team whilst limiting the number of chances your opposition creates? But this part of Wilson’s piece is perhaps the most telling for me and how it ties in with the Moneyball notion that was supposedly introduced by the Fenway Sports management of  John Henry (owner of the Boston Red Sox who use this technique in their scouting) when they took over at Liverpool which was subsequently much derided:john henry

Or let’s try to make it even simpler. Base governs which side creates more chances and what sort of chances they are; superstructure determines whether those chances are taken. But while that is an adequate definition, it disguises the full complexity of the situation, of the inter-relatedness of base and superstructure. There is always a stage before: superstructure doesn’t govern whether chances are taken, but whether the chances to create chances are taken, and whether the chances to create chances to create chances are taken, and so on in a potentially infinite regress (not to mention whether the chances to make interceptions and passes are taken). And this complexity, of course, this inter-relatedness of all things, is part of the reason why football, for all the fine work that has been done on the subject, continues to resist statistical analysis.

It should be noted that baseball is a sport that is rich on statistics. It is a sport made for statistical analysis. If I am a right handed fast pitcher, I go up against a whole lot of different batters during the incredibly long season and from those stats we can draw a lot of inferences such as the pitcher in question is better against right handed batters than left handed batters. Due to baseball centering around an event which is a one on one where one pitcher throws the ball to one batter at a time we are able to gleam a lot of useful information from this very narrow and specific type of event such as some batters may not hit a lot of home runs, in fact they may hit none, however, they are very good at getting a walk which gets them on base and in Moneyball Billy Beane and the A’s believed that this is actually more valuable in the long run than a homer as this is an event that is a lot less frequent and is also worth less than getting on base.

Football, on the other hand, is not a game where I as an individual am playing against one person at a time, in fact I can have the ball and be swarmed by up to 11 players at any one time. Further, the options open to me when I have the ball or when I don’t have the ball are a lot greater than they are in baseball, thus there are more outcomes to my being in the pitch and thus it means that football is a far tougher game to apply a Moneyball like analysis to. What stats are useful in a game? What weight should we put to them? Are there stats we are overlooking or that we should try and introduce to the game that are derivatives of the stats we have at the moment and give us a true reflection of whats going on in a game and thus allow us to produce a team that is greater than the sum of its parts? For instance, Barcelona’s Xavi had an incredible statistic from their Wednesday night draw against Paris Saint Germain when he had a pass completion record of 100%, outstanding stuff from an outstanding player, however, were all of his passes penetrating? Were they useful and help win the game? In this instance we have a statistic that actually does not tell us that much and this is the point I am getting at. Football has a huge amount of statistics, it is the single most popular sport on this planet by a country mile, tens of millions of people watch it, debate about it and love it, yet we still use the same statistics we have been for decades. Perhaps it is time that we sit down and figure out if it is possible to look at these statistics in a different light, to see how we can get more information from them and arrigo sacchihow they may add to our understanding of how someone has performed.

I do not for one instance believe we can reduce football down to the exact same kind of statistical oversight and review as baseball, there are far too many intangibles in the game and I believe we should always be mindful of Arrigo Sacchi’s insight that positions are meaningless unless looked at in relation to space, opponents, the ball and your own team-mates. As Paolo Maldini noted:

‘Before Sacchi came to Milan, the clash between two opposing players was always the key, but with him it was all about movement off the ball, and that’s where we won our matches.’

However, I do believe that we should at least try to get some more information from what we have and move away from MOTD pundits and their lazy insights.


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