Harry Redknapp had to defend himself against an angry fan over his alleged favouritism of his nephew Frank Lampard, then 17, over other, purportedly more skilled academy graduates. You’ve undoubtedly all seen the video by now. When a disgruntled supporter objects to Redknapp’s claim that Lampard is superior to those players, the manager responds by saying that football “is a game of opinions.” “You have the right to express your view, and I have the right to express my opinion.”
Since its inception, football has relied heavily on the instincts and intuition of its players. There have been many acknowledged truths in the game over the years, which we just now discover to be incorrect. That a team’s vulnerability increases after they’ve scored (in fact, this is the time when they are least likely to give up a goal); that more shots on target equal a better chance of winning (actually, this is true only 50-58 per cent of the time); and that the manager has a significant impact on the league’s standings (only 15 per cent).
Although Chris Anderson and David Sally promise breakthrough insights in The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong? the revelations are probably not groundbreaking. Thought-provoking, they also serve as a reminder of the advantage that data can provide teams when it is correctly utilised.
Some excellent examples are scattered throughout the text. How about the change in tactics by Manchester City to win the Premier League in 2011/12? A header by Vincent Kompany sealed their victory. As in the previous season, Robin van Persie’s in-swinging deliveries helped Manchester United score the most goals from set-pieces on their path to winning the Premier League. Moreover, how Wigan Athletic miraculously avoided relegation thanks to Roberto Martinez’s unconventional approach. But later in the book, these are challenged, proving that data interpretation is an art rather than a science.
For teams to gain an advantage in the game of football, they must learn to master the fluid nature of the sport. The following season, Wigan were relegated because they lacked the talent to win games and relied too heavily on Shaun Maloney’s free kicks. Moreover, only 0.02 per cent of corner kicks result in goals, making corner kicks a waste of time. A better topic would have been open play crosses, but the numbers are close to those of Jan Vecer and my research.
The top teams and managers understand that analytics is just one of many tools available to support their game theories. If you’ve ever wondered if Arsène Wenger was truly the ghostwriter for The Numbers Game, then you’re not alone.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was, of course, an early adopter of statistics. In the late 1980s, he used a friend’s programme, dubbed Top Score, to evaluate Monaco players (the programme would assign points to players depending on the actions they performed to give a final score). Wenger now relies on data to back up his theories about the game. In an interview with Total Youth Football Magazine in 2008, he stated, “Technical supremacy can be assessed.”
I can tell a player, “Listen, you keep the ball too much, we need you to pass it quickly,” when I know that his passing skill is an average of 3.2 seconds to receive and pass the ball. Look at the last three games: 2.9 seconds, 3.1 seconds, 3.2 seconds, and 4.5 seconds. “People around me don’t seem to be moving as much as they used to!” However, you can also rely on the available data.”
Those figures could have come in handy in a situation comparable to last season. When Aaron Ramsey’s midseason form was so bad, it was difficult to find room for him in the team, this was an issue. Mikel Arteta’s injury has changed his season and given him a new opportunity in the defensive midfield.
Wenger took a huge gamble by substituting Ramsey for Arteta, given Arsenal’s success percentage drops to only 23% when he is absent, and Ramsey’s confidence was so low that he couldn’t possibly reproduce Arteta’s smooth passing. Wenger, on the other hand, saw the positive impact that giving Ramsey more touches on the ball could have on Ramsey’s self-confidence and took action. After the 5-1 victory over West Ham United in January, the number of times a team lost the ball due to hesitancy, miscontrol, or dispossession dropped to 2.7. Perhaps if the passing speed numbers were easily available, we’d see an improvement. However, Ramsey points out that this was the case:
“I’m feeling fine. As my self-confidence improves, I’m able to get sunk in and get more balls back, and I’m also able to move the ball about more swiftly,”
-he declared following West Ham’s victory.
Even in the most recent season, Arsenal learned to control their luck. Anderson and Sally show in The Numbers Game that half of a match is a matter of chance. This signifies that Arsenal have already won half of the match due to their supremacy, but random variation can swing it in their favour or the other team’s favour as well.
Although Arsenal’s performance was plagued with errors in the first half, it wasn’t until their defensive shape was improved that they were able to save their season… Keeping a clean sheet is more beneficial to a team than scoring a lot of goals, as was said at the end of The Numbers Game. “That’s where we’ve made the most progress,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
To maintain the team’s morale, having such a stable defence is critical. We’re an offensive team, as I’ve repeatedly stated, but an effective offensive team requires a strong defensive foundation. That has improved greatly in the previous two months,” she said.
Wenger may use data to make better transfer window acquisitions. However, according to The Numbers Game, it’s generally better to improve your worst player rather than to buy a superstar.” When it comes to their aggressive stance toward players they label “deadwood,” supporters have a history of being correct.
Wenger, on the other hand, does not appear to be at odds with their positions. Even if Andre Santos, Sebastian Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh, Andriy Arshavin and Denilson’s performances had worsened or they didn’t fit in with the system, he was fast to discard them (but tougher to sell). Rightly so, he has always stated that he would never buy only to fill a void—often to the dismay of fans—but only if a player had the “super-quality” to make the team better.
To that end, Arsenal has signed Gonzalo Higuain, and his addition is significant because it will alter the way the Gunners attack. In the first place, this indicates that they have the goal-scorer they’ve been searching for since Robin van Persie left the club. To make up for their lack of goals, they scored from all over the field last year. It was a good start, but the squad couldn’t come up with a game-changer. More points were won last season because of Higuain’s goals than any other Arsenal player.
That does not, by itself, imply that he is the best candidate. Chelsea should have bought Darren Bent instead of Fernando Torres, according to The Numbers Game. To be fair, Torres made a mistake, but Bent has demonstrated that he lacks the qualities that Chelsea sought in an attacking midfielder by his performance. The style of Higuain, on the other hand, assists Arsenal with his ability to stretch defences thus generating more space for the squad making Arsenal’s system better. Stats aren’t the best way to measure this, however. We can only rely on Arsène Wenger’s judgement in this regard.
as a means to a different end
NB: I suppose I could have thrown in a few more intriguing details. When it comes to trying to win a game, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is right to stick to his guns and only make a switch in the 70th minute (although as The Numbers Game points out, if Arsenal is losing, he should consider making changes as early as the 58th minute). When he removes specific players after a predetermined amount of time because their returns begin to decline, this is much more of a concern (as he did for Dennis Bergkamp later in his career).
Even Wojciech Szczeszny’s goalie, Wojciech Szczesny, has the worst pass accuracy of any outfield player in the Arsenal team (64 per cent) (66 per cent). There are an estimated 380 ball turnovers every match in football, according to Sally and Anderson (or 190 times per side). When Olivier Giroud fails to make Arsenal’s average of 175 passes stick, further attacking plays are thwarted. Wenger may not see the need to have a striker in the build-up because of the purchase of Higuain. Which is a departure from previous Wenger teams.