Book review: The Numbers Game

If you haven't noticed, which I'm guessing you either didn't care or you did and have continued following my work at CSNChicago.com covering the Fire anyway, I haven't been keeping this blog updated. I took a job with Comcast SportsNet Chicago to cover the Fire. As a result, I stopped posting to this blog, but I wanted to keep it alive in case I had a reason to come back to it.

I finally came up with a reason.

I have made a concerted effort to read more soccer books. I have been reading some for a while, but getting through them at a snail's pace. As my wishlist of soccer books to read has grown and grown, I finally am making a push to get through these books. I decided that it would also be a fun, and potentially even interesting to read, series to put on the blog of what I thought of these books.

So this blog may become solely soccer book reviews in the short-term. The things I planned to put on this blog (U.S. Soccer, MLS, Fire, world football) can almost all fit within what I do for CSNChicago.com. So if you're interested in that, head over to CSN's Fire page.

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer is Wrong

By Chris Anderson (Amazon link)

Having read Soccernomics before this book, it's hard not to notice the similarities in the point the authors are trying to make.

Similar to Soccernomics, The Numbers Game should give you certain revelatory statements about soccer. From Soccernomics, my favorite section was explaining how Lyon dominated France's Ligue 1 with seven straight titles and three straight UEFA Champions League quarterfinals appearances in the 2000s. Lyon was not, and still is not, a financial juggernaut, but was the closest European soccer version of Moneyball.

The Numbers Game seems to come back to the point that Moneyball is possible in soccer, but hasn't been fully realized. Stats and analysis are nascent in soccer, more so than even in baseball, which is finally starting to overcome its old, traditional ways in front offices. The data is starting to become available and it's up to clubs to find out how to efficiently use them.

Anderson explains some of the things the numbers say clubs can take advantage of. For example, the most efficient time for a losing team to make its substitutes is before the 58th minute, 73rd minute and the 79th minutes. Another topic is that improving a team's weakest player is more statistically valuable than improving its best player. How valuable a manager actually is to a club is also discussed.

Many of the topics and hypotheses are hard to explain without going into the same detail the book does. It is incredibly sourced with pages and pages of notes and a detailed bibliography as if it were a gigantic research paper as opposed to a book. That has it's pluses and minuses. The information comes from a well-researched view and makes you think about the game in ways you likely wouldn't otherwise.

On the downside, the writing can be a bit cumbersome. It's difficult to keep a good writing flow when frequently explaining a concept in great detail and referencing dozens of tables throughout the book. Don't get me wrong, I love a good chart that can tell me something, but it makes it a bit more difficult to plow through the book quickly.

The Numbers Game isn't quite Moneyball for soccer. It posits how that is possible in the game and what that might look like, but doesn't put anyone on a pedestal like Billy Beane in Moneyball. That said, Roberto Martinez and Andres Villas-Boas are discussed in some detail as forward thinking managers. This book has a bit of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers to it as well in that it gives you a different perspective to conventional wisdom and asks why things are the way they are.

It's a good read if you like soccer, but you have to like stats to truly get into it. It's not the easiest read, but one worth putting the time into.

Next up: I Think Therefore I Play by Andrea Pirlo

Filed under: Soccer books

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