Analyze This


Two weekends ago, Tim Lewis produced a longish piece for The Guardian on the growing role of analytics in football.  He interviewed a lot of the right people, including Everton’s current manager, Roberto Martinez, and Chris Anderson, co-author of The Numbers Game, probably the best book on football’s quantitative revolution.  He also does a very good job of tracing the gradual emergence of quantitative analysis in the game (a related but distinct trend from the sports science movement captured in the intimidating Football/Soccer and Science proceedings and more popularly covered in Ken Bray’s How to Score).

If nothing else, Lewis’s story–which is well worth reading–underlines the fundamental difference between American and European outlooks on quantitative analysis.  In the States, serious quantitative analysis was first developed by fans rather than by teams or the companies they employ.  As a result, a huge amount of that analysis remains open source (or functionally so) in the US.  Sure, you may have to upgrade to being an ESPN Insider if you want their best stuff, but more and more statistical information is finding its way into routine coverage of every major American sport.

Equally important is the explosion of interest in fantasy sports, which certainly drives American fans’ interest in numbers if not their genuine analytical value (this is related to Martinez’s distinction between statistics and metrics discussed by Lewis).  While plenty of Americans still believe that “heart” or “wanting it” matter more than “some numbers on a spreadsheet”, very few of them believe that statistics, at least, are irrelevant to judging player performance.  They may question specific analytical claims–that stealing bases is a counter-productive strategy, or that Shane Battier is a great basketball player–but they are happy to have statistics as a part of their sports experience.

The contrast in Europe, where fantasy leagues are popular but still effectively determined by goals, assists, and clean sheets (all of them rare occurrences in even the most lively of games), is striking.  Lewis’s account of Manchester City’s experiment with releasing “free data” from the 2011-12 Premier League season underlines the differing state of affairs.  There are, of course, lots of proprietary analytics in American sports, but that industry has emerged from a public discourse, whereas the reverse situation is facing European fans.  Some good sources of more complicated statistical analysis–usually driven by Opta stats–are available: FourFourTwo Statszone is probably the best known, though other sites, like Squawka, are emerging daily.  But none of these sites facilitate data dumps that would enable interested fans to easily manipulate even this largely aggregated data. Though I’m speculating here, I’d guess that Opta itself has something to do with that.  Such a proprietary environment is conducive neither to the rapid creation of new knowledge nor to the education of the average fan.

The state of the resulting discussion can be tracked in Lewis’s framing of the “analytics” debate.  The fact that Lewis would suggest that “most teams favor 4-4-2” in his account of Martinez’s use of innovative formations is, frankly, shocking.  Independent of any significant analytical knowledge, basic tactical awareness would invalidate this statement as an accurate view of contemporary football.  Though tactical trends are in constant motion, it’s probably safe to say that 4-2-3-1 has been the default formation for most big clubs for some time now.  One wonders whether Lewis actually believes this statement about the prevalence of 4-4-2, or rather believes that a significant portion of his readers will continue to think of it as the norm.  The latter is more shocking than the former, in my view.

As an interesting aside, the analytically-inclined Kickdex blog recently produced an analysis suggesting that, at least in the Premier League, evidence suggests that 4-2-3-1 has, on the whole, outperformed 4-4-2.  As these stats don’t include this season’s results, where Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City have usually employed a 4-4-2 to great success, it will be interesting to see if the trend Kickdex has identified will continue.  But my guess would be that a similar analysis of Champions League football would reveal an even greater and earlier dominance of 4-2-3-1.

I have to confess, it’s hard for me to take the analytics vs. romantics debate seriously.  While statistics can certainly be misused, it’s hard to plausibly entertain the notion that thoughtful analysis has nothing to add to our understanding of the beautiful game (or that that knowledge will somehow taint its beauty).  Take, for instance, the recent post at 5 Added Minutes suggesting that we had the warning signs for Manchester United’s decline in last year’s come-from-behind victories.  Surely this analysis deepens our understanding of the problems facing Moyes, and enriches our appreciation of the game rather than cheapening it.

To take the opposite tack, consider Richard Whittal‘s Onion-worthy account of what it would look like if we applied football logic to the real world.  The beautiful game is neither too good nor too trivial for the tools we use to understand other human (and natural) phenomena.  Analytics are here to stay.  We will all be better for it.


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