The seismic impact of Bill James’ instigation of the sabermetric revolution against Major League baseball’s previously unquestioned “truths,” traditions and assumptions regarding the inner-workings of the game continues to reverberate in the forefront of front office minds throughout the sporting universe. Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane’s real-time application of James’ analytical deconstruction of baseball statistics and the shocking counter-narrative (counter to the atrophied wisdom of baseball “guys” and bourbon-soaked scouts relying on their “gut”) they revealed about the game is one of the major revelations contained in Michael Lewis’s equally influential 2003 book Moneyball, which chronicled Beane’s successful implementation of numerous Jamesian insights to keep his cash-strapped, small market franchise competitive in the moneyed maelstrom of MLB’s American League. The publication of Moneyball coupled with the subsequent release of Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner’s Freakonomics and the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s work has elevated exhaustive, unconventional data mining and analysis into being one of the most significant decision-making tools in the sports industry and beyond.
Veteran soccer journalist Simon Kuper, author of the highly regarded Football Against the Enemy, and sports economist Stefan Szymanski have attempted to apply this objective, numerical approach to soccer tropes, truisms and conventional wisdom in their book Soccernomics in much the same way James did, explicitly announcing their aim to “introduce new numbers and new ideas to soccer” (page 4). They use data to examine questions and phenomena as disparate as whether World Cup tournaments reduce the number of suicides in host nations to exploring why England habitually under performs internationally, a crucial question that dominates the first portion of Soccernomics (actually titled Why England Loses in the United Kingdom).
One of the major roadblocks the authors confront is the dearth of statistics generated by soccer, compared to baseball, so they examine the game with a wide lens mixing relevant socio-economic data into their research methodology. Their arguments aren’t always convincing–but in some instances they lead to fascinating discoveries. One such instance occurs when Kuper and Szymanski develop a model designed to empirically demonstrate why some soccer nations habitually outperform others. The model takes into account three primary national factors: population size, wealth and international soccer experience. By applying these strands of data to international soccer results and goal differentials accumulated over the past twenty years, the authors are able to address the English question in a surprising manner. According to their model, the Three Lions may actually be over performing internationally, relative to England’s size, wealth and experience. And even more striking, the English national team’s record in successful Euro and World Cup qualifying campaigns is virtually identical to their record in unsuccessful qualification campaigns. The model provides a plethora of valuable insight into how and why the giants and minnows of the international soccer landscape came to occupy their respective places in the food-chain, as well as forecasting which nations may rise and fall through the current hierarchy going forward into the future.
Penalty kicks are one major intrinsic aspect of soccer that generate enough statistics to be analyzed in a Jamesian manner. The section in Soccernomics where Kuper and Szymanski look at statistics, academic papers on game theory and penalties (yes, they exist!!) and synthesize their findings into fresh analysis of the already legendary 2008 Champions League final in Moscow between Manchester United and Chelsea is one of the books most interesting and entertaining. The chapter is written with the style and ambience of an international mystery story starring shadowy Basque economists and Israeli professors whose connections and comprehensive research on the habits of prominent United players’ penalty taking proclivities turns into a cribsheet that ultimately reaches Chelsea’s changing room, where it was apparently heeded, with the notable exception being this site’s favorite sulky, reticent Frenchman.
The authors ponder the underlying factors behind fascinating, yet often overlooked, questions such as why provincial cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Turin have consistently produced dominant European Championship squads, while sides based in preeminent world capitols such as London, Berlin and Paris have yet to win a single Champions League title. Kuper and Syzmanski also examine why soccer often flourishes under dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the former strongmen of the Iron Curtain.
People often say that “numbers don’t lie,” but the authors of Soccernomics are far more interested in what, often, counter-intuitive truths numbers reveal and why more people don’t pay closer attention to them. If all of this sounds overtly academic and dry, it isn’t. Soccernomics is an enthralling read that will make you look at the World’s Game in an exceedingly different light.