Billy Beane

A guy who’s poor at math(s) tries to understand soccermetrics.

It’s strange that a book about the first mainstream application of analytics and sabermetrics in Major League Baseball general management was made into a movie. Clearly Columbia Pictures saw something in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball—on Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane’s use of statistics when buying players—right off the bat (chuckles); they optioned it a year after its release in 2003.

The movie is structured around Beane’s redemption as a failed baseball player, relying on revolutionary player analysis as a kind of revenge against the Old Guard that fed him the same lies about his long term prospects as a pro. But the means whereby Beane made his name in baseball is, cinematically-speaking, quite compelling, even though in the film it’s generally treated as a subplot.

Beane essentially relies on a Paul DePodesta construct whom the movie refers to as Peter Brand to use advanced statistics involving on-base percentages to assemble a championship team on an average wage bill. This is what much of the sporting world knows today as Moneyball. So when someone mentions player metrics or analytics in soccer, this is generally how it’s popularly understood.

Unfortunately, the term is now so widespread it’s trotted out whenever a player bought on the relative cheap plays extraordinary football regardless of what we know about the rationale behind their acquisition. Hence observers have often spoken of “Moneyball” in passing when referring to Newcastle United’s Papiss Cisse, purchased for around £10 million in the January transfer window, and who subsequently scored 13 times in 13 appearances since January. This despite the fact we know little about what sort of statistical rubrics were used by the club when considering the player, other than Alan Pardew’s words at the time: “He is a finisher with an already established CV in the Bundesliga, where we have monitored him for the best part of two years.”

I write this to illustrate that the popular understanding of the potential application of statistical analysis in soccer is limited by this narrow view. It is highly unlikely, for example, that soccer analytics will dramatically change how football is played, or allow managers to buy players on the cheap that will render a whole team greater than the sum of its parts and increase a club’s win percentage. The integration of advanced analytics in soccer will be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

As Sarah Rudd, Vice President of Analytics and Software Development at StatDNA, told me, soccer is similar to basketball in that the numbers confirm rather than contradict conventional tactical wisdom. Best practices in football are fluid and change over time to adapt to present circumstances and trends, as Jonathan Wilson’s history of football tactics and formations Inverting the Pyramid illustrates. In practice, advanced soccer metrics simply allow players to tweak their performances and adjust from one game to the next based on subtle but measurable weaknesses on the opposing team, for example. See Jen Chang’s recent look at Everton’s use of performance analytics.

This is not to say analytics can’t be used to deduce whether a club is overpaying mediocre players. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference held in Boston this past march, Michael Fotopoulos and Andrew Opatkiewicz released a paper titled “Salary Allocation Strategies for Major League Soccer“, a means to measure ability against wages using former Chelsea and Watford manager Gianluca Vialli’s geometric framework for player evaluation.

It’s not a perfect science by any means, but as both player analysis technology improves managers and coaches will be better able to measure player performance against wages, particularly important in single-entity, salary-capped MLS.

Chances are however there will be no single metric that will change the game, no hidden on-base percentage or other sabermetric tool that will forever alter the way the casual fan, or player, or manager, views the sport. Rather analytics will be used to tweak improvements a number of diffuse areas in the game, like optimal mix between offense and attack, best practices in formational play based on available personnel, the proficient execution of set-pieces, understanding whether crossing the flanks is an efficient use of possession, and which of the many newly available and accepted metrics are actually useful for the layperson (or blogger) in evaluating either a team or player performance, like pass completion percentages or the dreaded “assist number.” The latter will be particularly important in the evolution of soccer media, although it’s unlikely it will provoke the same kind of split we see in baseball between the narrative-driven romantics and the small-sample size-obsessed numbers nerds.

Each of these in turn will be enhanced as player analysis technology improves. It will be a slow, arduous process, but the fun part is there is still a lot to learn. Unfortunately many of the most advanced metrics are kept secret both by large analytics firms and by clubs, which largely leaves the average joe out of the loop on more complex player and team metrics. That will be the subject of a future column…