Midweek books: Quantifying the beautiful game

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

With the English Premier League starting this weekend and a fat new American television contract switching over to NBC, spectator soccer has never been in stronger shape on these shores.

The rise of that phenomenon is fascinating in itself, and worthy of a separate topic for another time. But it really hit home for me with the reception of “Soccernomics,” by renown Dutch-British soccer journalist Simon Kuper and British sports economist Stefan Szymanski, for the 2010 World Cup.

That book provided frequent fodder on American-based soccer blogs and message boards as the tournament unfolded in South Africa, bristling with insights about England’s lack of success on that stage and how the United States is poised to become a bigger force in global soccer.

While I’ll reserve judgment on that last point, what “Soccernomics” showed is that a sport without the degree of game-level statistics as North American-entrenched sports can still reveal new and intriguing narratives. As the authors note in their introduction:

Though most fans would probably deny it, a love of soccer is often intertwined with a love of numbers. There are the match results, the famous dates, and the special joy of sitting in a pub with the newspaper on a Sunday morning “reading” the league table. Fantasy soccer games are, at bottom, numbers games.

NumbersGame7-30That section, dubbed “A Numbers Game,” references Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” which helped create greater public interest in baseball sabermetrics.

Now, an American set of stats-focused soccer co-authors, Chris Anderson and David Sally, are trying to take the argument a step further. Their book, “The Numbers Game,” has just been published in the United States and Britain, and the reaction has been generally well-received on both shores.

(Anderson, a former Cornell goalkeeper turned soccer analytics fiend, blogs about his passion at Soccer By The Numbers and has appeared at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Sally was once a baseball pitcher and now is a behavioral economist at Dartmouth, so the “Soccernomics” tag-team approach is also in effect here.)

In When Saturday Comes, the iconoclastic British soccer “fanzine,” Barney Ronay figures that the emergence of soccer analytics was inevitable, given how the sport has “evolved at its top level into a sprawlingly incontinent mass media event.” But it is a readable volume, he concludes:

This is essentially a book about “the inner truth” of football’s numbers, albeit the attempt to stretch this into an absolute truth is at times a little gauche. Why don’t all teams attempt to perfect the long throw, given its statistical success, the book demands, suggesting an obsession with aesthetics and “beauty” is behind this omission, when in fact it is as much to do with the more tangible tactical demands of rhythm and speed, a coherent and non-wishy-washy requirement for quicker, less random restarts. Barcelona can also produce some pretty convincing stats on this point.

Jack Bell, a soccer writer at The New York Times, is shruggish on the stats fad. While “data collection in soccer remains the province of the high priests of analytics,” he writes that the sport “is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the age of Big Data.”

Bell details some of the key findings explained by Anderson and Sally, including some interesting numbers revealing that corner kicks aimed directly into goal mouths don’t necessarily improve scoring chances. While that’s also veering into Nate Silver probability territory, the authors write that possession statistics — with perhaps Barcelona exempted — are often misunderstood.

Other reviews of “The Numbers Game” from: Cottagers Confidential, which also has posted a Q & A with Anderson and Sally, and Serie A Weekly.

The authors also are interviewed by Bruce Berglund for his excellent New Books in Sports podcast. Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl has done the same on his podcast.

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