Soccer stats, Prozone, Opta: The trouble with soccer's statistical revolution.

The stadium scene.
Jan. 27 2011 12:53 PM

Numberless Wonders

The trouble with soccer's statistical revolution.

Soccer goal. Click image to expand.
Is stats mania soccer-friendly?

It's a cliché that American sports fans are obsessed with stats while Europeans, especially soccer fans, are indifferent to them. American fans, the story goes, are numbers addicts, suffering through brief bursts of gameplay for the reward of seeing weaponized laser graphics that show that teams who complete the flying trapdoor play 48 percent of the time win 57 percent of games played at sea level. Europeans, more in tune with the romance and lore of the game, prefer to concentrate on the ineffable poetry of Cristiano Ronaldo's latest vacation photos.

Those of us who have been battered by ESPN to the point that we now instinctively shrink from percent signs will see in this cliché, for all its obvious problems, an element of truth. (Of those problems, it's probably enough to point out that several other American sports-culture tropes—the improbable comeback, the underdog story—exist not only alongside our statistical mania but in quiet opposition to it.) It's been argued, seriously, that all soccer needs to become a major sport in America is a better suite of stats. Give us the hard numbers, and we will give you Peoria.

Well, they're trying. Last fall, New England Sports Ventures, the sabermetrically inclined owners of the Boston Red Sox, bought the storied English football club Liverpool. They installed as their "director of football strategy" an executive named Damien Comolli, a Frenchman known for using unconventional scouting metrics to discover undervalued talent. Suddenly, the English press flooded with articles about Moneyballand baseball wonks and the "whirring internal cogs" of the computers that, at Liverpool and maybe throughout the game, were about to replace soccer's age-old human focus with an American-style reign of algorithms.

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For the directors of soccer clubs, the allure of a statistical revolution is obvious. As the least stat-heavy of all major sports—FIFA didn't start counting assists until 1994—soccer has always been something of a mystery even to its most accomplished practitioners. Managers train their teams and install tactics and strategize over squad selection. Then the match comes, and after 80 minutes of fruitless struggle, the goal arrives out of nowhere during a moment entirely unlike the ones the team prepared for. In a game that lives on hunches, any concrete insight, to say nothing of the kind of advanced insight that sabermetrics brought to baseball, can be a major advantage. Refine your understanding of the game by gazing into neglected data, and you can populate your team with underpriced players who excel in categories only your club knows are important. Discover something you'd overlooked about your players' tendencies, and you can fine-tune your tactics to exploit their best attributes.

Win more by spending less money—it's enough to turn the erogenous zones of most sports executives fluorescent. It's no wonder that teams have been scrambling to unearth the secret math that will put them one over on their rivals. Liverpool is only the most prominent (and the most baseball-connected) recent example. Since the arrival of advanced stats-tracking companies like Prozone and Opta in the late '90s and early 2000s, clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to gather and analyze all the data that gets kicked up on the pitch. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger famously receives 60 pages of numbers after every match. In France, Olympique Lyonnais has become a soccer power on the back of a value-maximizing transfer strategy—don't sign older players, sell any star for the right price—that's drawn endless Moneyball comparisons. In the United States, Moneyball hero and stats-analysis folk troubadour Billy Beane has himself embarked on the quest for a winning soccer metric, after persuading the Oakland A's ownership group to buy him the San Jose Earthquakes in 2007.

So the notion of soccer as a kind of quaint, starry-eyed endeavor that can't be explained by the numbers is a little outdated. There's just one problem with the sport's newfound sophistication, which is that soccer happens to be a quaint, starry-eyed endeavor that can't be explained by the numbers. That kind of statement immediately marks one as a paleo-romantic philistine in Bill James' America, but the paleo-romantics have a point when it comes to soccer. Because the complexity of the game is so enormous, reasonably thorough stat-tracking requires independent companies and expensive systems, systems whose own complexity introduces a further degree of uncertainty.

Opta's game trackers, for instance, log more than 350 different kinds of match action. These are not the same as the actions tracked by Prozone, or by the American company Match Analysis, which has worked with Beane and MLS. Before a forward-thinking soccer executive can set about replacing your hunches with precise data, he must first choose from among different, vastly complicated stat-tracking systems, each of which reflects a different philosophy. Just about the only thing to guide him when choosing between these systems is a hunch.

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