I've just finished reading Moneyball. If you haven't read it - do. Do it now. Borrow my copy.
The book sets out how any sporting side can boost their chances of winning by looking at the defining characteristics of victory and focusing exclusively on the things that increase its chances winning .
No matter how ugly, slow, old, injured or unfavourable a reputation a player might have, and no matter how bad that player might be at things that don't improve your chances of winning - if he increases your chances of success you sign him.
In Moneyball this leads the Oakland As to remarkable success in Major League Baseball.
That success is also a result of another lesson that Moneyball teaches. You see any isolated sport that relies on insiders to run things is vulnerable to attack by outsiders. Those within "the club" can tell outsiders that "you're not one of us so you don't know what you're talking about" but leave themselves open to being beaten by those outsiders with good data, facts and objectivity.
This allowed Oakland to identify that many of the most expensive players in baseball added little by way of value to a team in terms of wins. The most valued draft players, often picked on the basis of how far they hit the ball, were often not particularly good at hitting it, and some attributes generally deemed valuable turned out to have little bearing on winning baseball games.
But the secret of doing it without money [as Oakland As had to in the book] is to look at which of the attributes that lead to success are least valued by others, and then focus on these (focus on the same attributes as rich teams and their money means you will lose). And you can make money by exploiting other people's misconceptions to sell on players you can replace at a massive profit.
To do this you first have to examine your sport in the minutest detail (first lesson: the naked eye and watching games - even all the home games in a season - is useless to you).
But this is a problem in my beloved football.
We all know what wins football games - goals. More specifically scoring more goals than the opposition.
So the next question is how do you score more goals than the opposition?
In the 1980s the theory was most goals are scored in the opposition final third. So get the ball there as fast as possible. And so was born Graham Taylor's Watford. Which had great success in the league but could not cut it at international level (although Egil Olsen had more success with Norway). The 1970s Ajax system, contrary to popular belief, was also an effort to score in the most efficient manner (you swapped positions, because rather than running from left back to left wing, and back again, it was easier to run to left wing, swap with the left wing, then swap back – 70 yards less running, same defensive shape).
But in football no one ever successfully broke the mould and brought in outsiders to ditch the unqualified football men. Too many remain without good reason to justify the job they are in with anything other than “I used to play, y’know”. And too few compete with other people on the exact job skills needed for the managerial posts that now pay them in millions.
Not many football managers would survive true scrutiny. Certainly not most of the ex-players that get top-flight jobs the first time they try. Some of them work out. The vast majority don't. But in the next 12 months I guarantee another ex-player with no CV will get a top job (one in the top two divisions). It's nuts.
And that means the first people to successfully exploit this imbalance in the market will have success. Now in Taylor, Allardyce, Robson, Ferguson, O'Neil and Clough managers have succeeded in consistently beating huge piles of cash with intelligence.
But have they done the stats? Have they really ever looked at exactly what makes a team win on the pitch with academics running the numbers? Spirit, pride, passion, "game breakers", "that bit of magic", "there's just something about him". How often do you here these phrases from people paid to analyse the game?
So goals mean games. Score them and stop them.
But more than that - to take the Moneyball example - which stats correlate to victories most closely. And what are the secondary stats that lead to these stats.
To be subjective for a moment, let's look at some misconceptions.
Territory. Possession. Goals. Clean sheets. Shots. Distance covered. Tackles. Cards, red and yellow.
These are the stats people see, quote, and argue about.
I'll take them one by one.
Territory. Meaningless. Utterly, uttelry meaningless. Beckham scored from his own half. So did Alonso. 1% of a game in a final third is enough to score quite a few goals. And then look at Leeds Chelsea in December 1997. Leeds had nine men, Chelsea eleven. Chelsea camped in the opposition half, won 14 corners to none, and never looked like scoring. 0-0. England Argentina 2002? The socreline is not dependent on territory.
Possession. Do you know how often you need to touch the ball to win 3-0. Once. At your kick off (either at 0 or 45 mins). You can't score without the ball and they can't score if you have it. Fair enough the wise heads nod. But it's bollox really. Germany had more possession in 2001, 1-5 England. In 1972 England had more possession and territory – 1-3 Germany at Wembley.
Goals. Fine, more goals means you win. But how much of a goal is luck, and how much is skill? Deflections, own goals, cock ups, idiots, bad refereeing calls. Goals alone are not a reliable stat - the stats alone are so flawed.
Clean sheets. As above. With a large dollop of opposition ineptitude included. Their cock ups lead to your success. Actually, that applies to goals as well.
Shots. As the 2006 World Cup quarter finals approached, Frank Lampard had taken as many shots in that competition as Argentina. Argentina had scored 10 goals. Lampard hadn't. All shots are not equal, and treating them as such is deeply flawed logic.
Distance covered by a player. I can run 10k in 57 minutes. About the same as most Premiership players in 90. Players run more in England than in other leagues. Does that mean the league is better? Frankly, I would guess the average distance covered in the Championship is higher than in Serie A or La Liga as well.
Tackles. Right, don't get me started here. Tackles are fundamentally reactive. They are also something you do when other things have failed and the opposition is threatening. Just no.
Cards. Do they mean anything to a result? - is there any evidence that a team with "worse discipline" perform worse than a comparable team with better discipline? If there is I will shut up about this. But Arsene Wenger's shocking long term red card record at Arsenal suggests not, and Juande Ramos has seen his players collect three at Spurs, in matches resulting in one win, one draw, and one defeat.
What it all means
Without stats we can't know these things are irrelevant, but with such clear exceptions and with no figures to back up conventional wisdom, there is no reason to believe they are.
So what makes you win and lose games? Well, goals. What leads to goals, chances (note - not shots, you do not need a shot to have a chance, as evidenced by Theo Walcott's recent equalizer against Spurs last week, and a shot is often not a chance at all). Specifically finished chances. So what you need is chance conversion rate from a striker. Scrap that - two stats, chances created, and chances finished. The ratio between them needs to be established.
Chances come from for the team - the process that leads to a goal is key. Increasing your chances of creating chances. Decrease the opposition’s chances of creating chances. Increase your chances of finishing chances and vice-versa for the opposition.
For example, do crosses result in chances more often than a simple pass inside? Is the chance conversion better on crosses? What about crosses from deep as opposed to from corner of the box? And how does a cross from the left compare to a cross from the right?
A pet theory is possession won within 30 yards of the opposition goal is a key stat. Win possession there do chances nearly always ensue? If so who's best at winning possession there? Have we just stumbled upon the point of Kevin Davies? A corollary of that is how often possession is surrendered in the final third – how often is a defender caught with the ball? If it happens a lot does it undermine the benefits of that same defender's excellent heading or pace?
We need facts and stats.
Focus on this, evaluate the more and less valuable contributions to this. For example - which players contribute the most to the goals scored and conceded? If a goalkeeper worth ten goals a season is half the price of a striker worth 20 goals a season, can we spend the money saved on a striker worth at least eleven goals a season? If so, let’s exploit it (buy strikers cheap, and sell them to fund better keepers- have Reading already read this?).
But let's do it properly, test the damn theory properly. There is no reason not to do this. In fact, others not doing it is a Very Good Reason to do it indeed.
Some have tried - pipe down Boothroyd, you don't count. McClaren put prozone down and stop grinning.
Some stats are more than numbers, some stats can tell you something, they have the power of language. Others are just numbers, it is working out what counts, and not counting, that matters.
Here begins the search for new football knowledge.