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The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Stroking Malcolm Gladwell's ego
Non-fans of football might wish to look away now. 


Are they gone? Okay then, on with the story. I am very pleased to read things like this. Not that it's well written or a thrilling read; far from it. The authors are slightly lazy with their style, throwing out a reasonable-sounding punter / pundit myth which they then bust in a rather predictable fashion. It's all a bit, "You'd think this is self-evident, wouldn't you? But, AHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhh! You're wrong." Yawn. To be fair to them, it's hard not to do just that with what is basically a myth-busting big-data-for-the-footballing-lay-person-type book. You set the reader up in his* comfortable assumption, plump up his cushions and get him a nice cup of tea, and then dash the cup to the floor, up-end the sofa and strip his clothes off as you push him out into the cold, hard light of statistical reality. It's how it's done. But it's still a bit repetitive over the course of X chapters, each dealing with its own fallacy. Plus, it lays claim to being one of those books with which you can lay waste to arguments in pubs about football. I disagree because I tried that and almost got punched.

However, I repeat I'm pleased to read such books, which include the excellent Inverting The Pyramid, Why England Lose, Brilliant Orange to name but a few, because I am inherently lazy myself, and find I often hold such opinions as espoused by the dim-witted pub punditry, or equally dim-witted former professional Gary Neville, in esteem higher than that which is their due. I'm easily swayed by enthusiasm, even if I find my cynicism, which before manifested for comic effect, becoming sharper and increasingly bitter with age, allowing me to pour forth scorn on such statements of 'fact' as score more goals and you'll win more games. When people take the time to remind me gently that I am lazy, and hold lazy opinions, then of course, I bristle (see opening paragraph for evidence...) with indignation, but also, do greatly appreciate the mind-numbing data-crunching that goes into such research as this. And it is all very interesting! I won't spoil it for you, but lots of the very scholarly studies of Myths and Facts about Football: The Economics and Psychology of the World’s Greatest Sport*** edited by Patric Andersson, Peter Ayton and Carsten Schmidt (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) are explained in simple terms, almost avoiding things like regression analysis (but not quite). It's compelling reading, and is one of those books that once you've read it, you can't quite see the game in the same way. You start to realise that the commentators are trotting out the asinine rubbish that they heard as players or from previous broadcasters. You realise that football is ripe for a statistical renaissance (to borrow the authors' own words). And you realise that neither Adrian Chiles nor Andy Townsend**** should ever be allowed near a broadcast booth again.

Is this football's Moneyball? Probably not, and the authors themselves admit that the Eureka moment that happened in baseball is an unlikely occurrence in this rather more complicated team sport. But it is an interesting foray for the average Joe Kinnear into Big Data analytics, and is well worth a read, regardless of how many times they shoe-horn Malcolm Gladwell into things.

*Forgive me for assuming the target audience might be heavily weighted towards a male demographic. I know lots of women who enjoy football, and a few who enjoy statistical analysis, but not very many** who might want to read this book.

**None

 
***My favouritest book on the subject, a sample of which you can read by following the link to the Cambridge Scholars Publishing website

****But don't let that stop you playing the ever-popular 'Andy Townsend Bingo' game next time you tune into ITV's coverage of a dead-rubber Champions League tie.

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