Monday, December 28, 2009

Soccernomics: A Review

For those of you looking for some interesting reading that doesn't involve vampires, Dan Brown's (in)eloquence, or the incomprehensible ramblings of an ex-Alaskan governor or a tearful conservative TV host, there is some relief. Pick up Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey-And Even Iraq-Are Destined to Become Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport. I'm sorry if what follows roams into book report territory, but it's my post and I can write what I want.

Soccernomics is co-written by Simon Kuper, familiar to some of you as the author of the classic Soccer Against the Enemy and Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe During the Second World War, and Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist. Apparently Kuper likes very long subtitles.

The thrust of Soccernomics is that the authors are seeking a way to understand soccer through statistical analysis in a very general and broad sense.

This basic premise raises a lot of immediate red flags. Taking directly from my friend Pat, soccer is the most continuous of sports, therefore statistical analysis will always play a less important role in soccer than in a sport like baseball. I think everyone agrees with this.

Fortunately, Soccernomics is more than just an attempt to develop a Moneyball approach to soccer (though that is a stated goal of the authors). Additionally, there is no attempt to create the soccer equivalent of baseball's sabremetrics like WHIP or VORP, which are aimed at objectively measuring and analyzing baseball players through statistics. Again, there is some of this is in the book, such as Arsene Wenger's well-known prediliction for statistically tracking his players with stats like meters run during a match, and I can even think of other useful stats like passing percentage that aren't actually discussed by the authors.

Still, Kuper and Szymanski provide some thought provoking statistical analyses. Some of their conclusions have strong merit, others are quite surprising, and still more plainly suffer from glaring deficiencies and biases. In fact, I often found myself simulaneously pointing out many problems with their analyses as I was reading and enoying the book. But my critique comes from the fact that I was so engrossed by the topic and I had very high expectations. I wanted something perfect and earth shattering -- something that would open up a whole new way of looking at soccer -- and what I got was flawed. Yet it was certainly an interesting read. Excellent at times even. But it won't be studied by legions of future team presidents and general managers.

The big caveat here is to always take an attempt at statistically analyzing soccer as a great exercises in sparking a debate, be it a barroom debate or a genuine intellectual one. That's why I liked Soccernomics, not because I'm going to start using its analysis as a way to judge the World Cup, but because I could debate some of its points and conclusions for hours with friends.

The main topic, which bookends Soccernomics, is an analysis of the performance of national teams. This analysis is based on how a particular nation should perform in terms of goal differential when taking into account the country's population, income (GDP per capita), and international experience, and the actual over- or under-performance (in goal differential) against the expected goal difference.

This is a simplistic explanation, as the formula the authors use involves giving each criteria a particular weight and taking into account home field. For example, home field boosts expected goal differential a certain amount, as would be expected, though it does less so in Europe than it does elsewhere across the globe. Not earth shattering on its own (homefield certainly means more to the bag-o-piss throwing Central Americans than it does the Swiss or Italians). Similarly, being twice as rich or twice as large in population correlates to a country having a certaing degree greater expected goal differential.

Some of this leads to surprising results, though when you think about it maybe it shouldn't be so surprising. Given England's small relative size they actually over-perform against the expected results. The problem of course is the public's expectations and the "conventional wisdom," which is based largely on the historical sense of England as the mother of the sport and therefore center of the soccer universe, including the English League.

There are other factors to take into account of course. In a very interesting review of the Three Lions's roster over a number of years, it seems that only about 15% of the players came from "middle class" upbringings rather than lower class, whereas the English population as a whole certainly has a greater percentage of middle class -- the implication being that England inherently limits the pool of potential young boys who have a chance of becoming the next Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard. Somewhat reminiscent of the discovery in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that Canadian hockey players benefit from being born in the early months of the year.

Despite discrediting the idea that England is an under-performer (and a few other nuggets of conventional wisdom), the authors don't take similar detail in examining other countries. They look at the data and point out some of the surprising results - other classic "underachievers" who are actually overachievers include Spain and Portugal (consider Portugal's small size, population, and GDP per capita and it's quite amazing they are so good and produce some of the best players of all-time, going back from Eusebio to Figo to C. Ronaldo). Shockingly, unified Germany and Italy are slight underachievers!

Sometimes the mere difference is that when it comes down to it, Italy and Germany might struggle through qualification, but they win when it matters. This is a big flaw of course in pure statistical analysis, because looking at win percentage and expected v. actual goal differential doesn't take into account the fact that even though a unified Germany should be winning more games at a slightly greater goal difference, the games they nonetheless won were World Cup semi-finals, not friendlies against England.

Still, you'll like looking at the lists of overachievers -- a surprising team is number one, and Armenia are big time overachievers! -- and underachievers. The list of underachievers includes one huge nation that I think we can all guess.

To the authors' credit, they inject a degree of common sense when looking at some of the numbers to determine who the best overachieving nation is (excluding Brazil, who is not only expected to do great but also overperforms!) and who is the relative worst nation. For instance, Honduras is a great overperformer, but they face much weaker competition regularly than European teams. Unfortuantely, because there's so much data here to mine through for the authors, they don't always keep everything straight. It made sense when I was reading it, but looking back it's a little confusing to compare and figure what exactly went into the "overperformers" rankings versus the "overachievers" rankings and how they are constantly breaking out tables comparing just the top European teams. Nonetheless, the great overachiever, and someday a threat to the world order of the sport is probably not the country most people would have predicted, especially considering its political, um, instability.

Another analysis I greatly enjoyed was a look at which country was the most soccer mad (this analysis in particular is very interesting, but involves huge caveats, particularly limited to just Europe due to availability of accurate and reliable data) and which country per capita is the greatest sporting nation. Unsurprisingly, considering its dominance in the Summer Olympics and international sports like basketball, tennis, and golf, the US blows away the competition in absolute sporting terms, but -- spoiler alert -- the best country in relative terms across all sports and also in soccer fandom is actually Norway.

As hinted above, a major flaw with Soccernomics is that it is largely Anglocentric in its analysis of club teams and very Euro-centric in the analysis of national teams. Part of the reason behind this makes sense practically -- Europe simply has better, more reliable statistics, both for matches and general national data. Furthermore, western Europe is the center of the game's knowledge network (think about the high demand across the globe for Dutch, German, and Italian coaches). Yet it doesn't take a genius to see the flaw in examining a sport where two of its greatest teams reside in South America. That's not to say they are ignored, but it's not sufficient to explain Brazil as an outlier by simply exclaiming it so and leaving it as such.

The big exception to this flaw in the book is the examination of Lyon in considering how to beat the transfer market. To those knowledgeable about soccer, this won't surprise much. Lyon have been a dominant team in France (though Bordeaux has finally broken their stranglehold domestically), while threatening to break through in Europe despite never splashing to sign big stars. Of course their system makes perfect sense -- buy young up-and-coming players who are likely to be undervalued, sell those same players at their peaks when someone offers you more than they're worth, always have young players ready to step into their place, and remember that center forwards are usually overvalued. There's more to why Lyon is so successful, much of it having to do with the city's particular demographics and fan history.

This is the one part where the real Moneyball analysis starts coming from the authors. Not just for Lyon (and Nottingham Forest in the early 80's and Wenger's Arsenal teams) as it pertains to the transfer market, but regarding a number of factors most closely correlated with successful teams in the English League. Transfer fees or player wages? Real Madrid will not be heartened. Is a team's league position correlated to its profits? What type of municipality (capital city, industrial or provincial city, or small town) produces the best team, and which will do so in the future? Are blonds valued correctly? Against my natural inclinations, Kuper and Szymanski say to stay away.

Of course to the reader the obvious is screaming back at them - Lyon has yet to break through in Europe, and some say they never will, while Wenger's Arsenal also have not won the Champions League (and it's looking more and more like the big money injections into teams like Manchester City and Chelsea, not to mention Man U is still Man U, will keeping them from winning the Premier League as well).

The above are just some of the questions the authors look at, and there's a lot of other good nuggets in Soccernomics. The examination of the existence of racism in the English League, an economic analysis of penalty kicks, a discussion of sport's effects on suicide rates and happiness, and an intriguing look at whether most fans are actually polygamists rather than diehards (which is surprising in countries other than the US, where you'd expect a degree of polygamist soccer fans) are all fascinating topics that are less controversial than those discussed above. Of course some also have less relevance to how the game itself functions on the field (now that racism is mostly gone from team selection). And an economist might love penalty kicks, but they'll never convince a true fan that penalties are a fair way to decide a championship. (John Terry is slowly nodding in agreement.)

I highly recommend Soccernomics for anyone who wants an engrossing read about soccer or even sports analytics, but just keep it in perspective -- the beautiful game is beautiful because of samba football, Barcelona's passing, and the great drama, not because you can statistically measure why Messi was the best player in the world or Barcelona the best team. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you'll just know it when you see it.

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