Saturday, January 19, 2008

How to win leagues without cash – Ebren & Margin

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?

Numbers 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.


bluedaddy said...

You can say that again.

bluedaddy said...

Unfunnily enough, I was looking at this site only yesterday (please don't ask me why as I don't really know myself:

It's pretty bonkers.

Among the many fassscccinating things I learnt on the site is that the fifth highest goalscoring goalkeeper of all time is Johnny Vegas.

bluedaddy said...

In an attempt to prove that I am not a complete saddo, can I just say that I am about to go out now. To the pub. To meet friends. Of mine.

Zephirine said...

BD, I'm sure you're not a saddo, just as I'm sure someone will come along shortly who knows how to make an intelligent comment on this article. Unfortunately that isn't me :))

greengrass said...

Now where's that bloody anorak?

Karl, if you've...

guitougoal said...

zeph , I read with a wild surmise :)your "intelligent comment on this article" remarks-
You suddenly raised the bar too high
for me-
all I love about the game is, the instinctive part, creativity, touch, technique all the stuff you can't find in the books or analyse through data using computer,hence I am way off mark here to make an intelligent comment-I think England (medias and fans)has an inclination for over-analyzing and intellectualizing football-May be this is why the national team , one of the best on paper, can't win.If only we just let them play....they'll beat the shit out everybody.

Ebren said...

guitougoal - you can still analyse beauty. And technical analysis does not preclude beauty. Some of the greatest poets, writers, artists and musicians worked according to strict rules and forms.

And some of the best footballers are not displaying technique and inspiration - but the results of hard work. Cantona famously trained for hours longer than other players (something Beckham learned from) as did Zola.

The Brazilians train harder, learn harder, practice more and better (and that is backed up by book learning) than anyone else - you just only see the result on the pitch. Which looks instinctive.

A pianist can only play by ear if they practice hard and long enough first, so learn where the notes are - you very rarely see "instinct" or "technique" that has not been built up through a thousand games on the street or practice sessions or hours on the training part.

Keegan told England to go out and play and enjoy it - we didn't fare so well.

guitougoal said...

1-working hard, training, practicing yes I agree that's part of perfectioning your game-The most talented athlete needs it.
2-I made a specific remark about football as a very simple sport getting an extreme but non necessary rationalization.
3-I mentioned England 07 as an example , not Keegan's-Because they had 6 or 7 players who could play for any great international team but couldn't perform just because everybody around them made it too complicated-
I am not sure if I proved my point,sorry if I didn't I"ll be glad to try again since I must go now.

Ebren said...

guitougoal - sorry if that came across as an attack. It wasn't meant as such. And I agree that you can over-think football. Especially as a player.

But I don't think not thinking is a solution either.

The point of the original piece is that you need to understand your sport properly to excel as a coach.

Towards that goal, you need to cast aside any idea of thinking you understand football.

Stats, computers, technology, and analysts can help.

At the end of the day they might tell you "4-4-2, fast wingers, big-small combination up front, short passes in the middle and crosses from out wide" and you are left looking at Man U's philosophy for the last forever.

But the point is that you will know that this is right, rather than feeling it.

Additionally, the title of the piece is "how to win leagues without money".

If football is a simple game that is easily understood then the managers with the most money would win everything - and the only variable would be luck.

Ferguson at Aberdeen, Clough at Forest and Derby, O'Neil at Leicester, Allaradyce at Bolton, and Bobby Robson at Ipswich all showed that you could consistently outperform others and beat them to trophies (if not always the league) with a lot less money than them.

That implies they understood things about football that others didn't and that it is possible that football is more than just a simple game.

The argument is a call to forget everything we think we know or are told is true, and try and find something that we can prove is correct or is at least show is more likely to be correct and explain why.

Thinking about things, and "book learning" is derided in football, and the UK generally, as no substitute for experience.

But I can only ever have one man's experience, I can learn about the experiences of millions. And the experiences of people with more experience than I could have.

The article is an attempt to call for new knowledge, provable knowledge, facts that can be verified - because this sort of knowledge is sorely lacking in the beautiful game.

You don't have to think about football any more deeply than you choose - and that is one of the great joys about it.

I don't think football can be over or under thought.

Personally, I think about it quite a lot. And I would like some of the people paid to think about it, to analyse it, and who are meant to explain it's more subtle shades to the general public to be able to back up what they are saying.

Most can't, because most owe their position as managers or pundits or commentators or even "experts" to a short stint playing in the 70s, 80s or 90s. When they didn't have to think about anything more than their role on the pitch or have got there because of the people they know. They are then put in charge of clubs and leagues worth billions.

That is what I am trying to get at.

Let's take a look, and try and see if we can do it better, understand it better, and then hopefully we will have a better game.

I alluded to total football as played by Ajax in the early 70s - that is generally seen as one of the most beautiful styles ever played.

But is was designed as a way of playing football better, winning more games, being clever and efficient not pretty. Wenger's Arsenal are not trying to look good, they are trying to win.

I want to know why. And this is the only way I will find it out.

Zephirine said...

Ebren, expert football info aside, this sounds a bit like NLP 'modelling' to me - there's a lot of creepy stuff around NLP practice but the basics of 'modelling' seem quite sensible, which is that you look really carefully at what successful/gifted people are doing and assimilate it, until you can even spot things they do that they're not aware of, but which have got them where they are. Putting aside preconceptions is an important part of it.

Ebren said...

Cool Zeph. The term for this in Baseball is sabermetrics

But fundamentally it's about finding out why teams win (not why you think they win) and then looking to increase these attributes.

That and about exploiting an inefficient marketplace...

Ebren said...

I meant to add that you are working to replicate a team result, rather than an individual.

guitougoal said...

I don't think we disagree on most of these issues, we don't, in fact if you mention Kovacs or Wenger,you are contributing to my theory; these two coaches believe in total football, freedom in the middle as long as they keep a triangle of players around the ball,(arsenal specifically) they are free to move left or right, even the back-field is free to move up.But it takes special players who can run fast and can do all kind of things still keeping the ball very close to their shoes.....look no one can deny knowledge and work is a plus factor, I just don't like the lack of flexibility of most of systems designed on a black boards by the game intellectual smart-ass- particularly for national teams and btw I learned from some of the pros they don't like it either-

DoctorShoot said...

I think some commentary on employing say an out of work ex-pugilist to redifine the concept of what a 'boxer' might be...
say to deliver a couple of sharp body jabs out of sight of the ref when players are closely huddled for a corner might be a cheap way of increasing the opportunity to score quotient.
The value for money in having an opponent-disabler at close quarters cannot be underestimated, given that distance and territory are no longer important statistically and...

Ebren said...

That's the thing - a clever system is a simple one.

In the case of the Oakland As - the players are pretty much left alone (well, they are given some instructions, but it's not like they are following a NFL-style playbook).

The idea is to use these "smart arses" to work out what is effective, then letting the players (once selected) get on with being effective. The players do what they always will and all the planning goes into the selection of the players. The players will do what they are best at and are used to doing - the intelligence is in using them effectively, not trying to limit them.

If you listen to the players that worked with Cloughie and Robson (in the Ipswich days) the rules were pretty simple. Keep the effing ball. Keep the ball on the deck. And practice until everyone can pass through the eye of a needle.

So I think where we are disagreeing is that you seem to see having a system and using data as restricting freedom on the pitch (similar to what big sam tried at newcastle) - when in fact a good system and truly intelligent data liberates.

But not having data seems like a recipe for disaster. A lot of the time people either don't have data, or can't use/understand the data they have (Yes, I am looking at you McClaren).

Ebren said...

Doc - Shearer and Sheringham managed that while doing other things as well ;-)

DoctorShoot said...

yes of course... a quality player who can deliver a jood left to the solar plexis to boot... worth ten volumes of statistics...

Ebren said...

I used to train by punching volumes of statistics, the problem was I just ended up with a sore hand and the stats won.

I found that by switching to volumes of Neitzche things improved dramatically.

offstats said...

"But fundamentally it's about finding out why teams win (not why you think they win) and then looking to increase these attributes."

In a game with so many unknown quantities and random factors, it's also called chasing shadows. The mechanics of football are forever shifting, ungraspable, and as impossible to track as a deflecated shot by Flack Frank or a toe-poke by David Trézéstats.

Or maybe I'm just saying this to avoid thinking too hard about it. Maybe I should go back to the taproom for a shot of flamethrower juice.

Ebren said...

Ebren pulls offstat's head out of the beach

You won't find the answer in there hands him a half-full glass it's in the bottom of this.

offside said...

Cheers, Ebren, that feels better. But what I really want to know is why Bleudaddy would feel the need to go to a "real" pub when gg and I went to all this trouble to open a perfectly fine taproom next door.

Some people are hard to please.

Margin said...

Can I point out a couple of things here, from reading the comments.

Firstly cliches are a problem because they blind people to what happens on a football pitch.

eg - wenger believes in total football.

he doesn't. he believes in winning football matches - and he does that playing what ammounts to an on the ground version of the old george graham long ball.

his side draw teams out and then, usually through fabregas these days though bergkamp was better at it, play a simple ball beyond the line of the defence for a fast man to run on to and score.

Hence why when teams sit deep he is now happy to have his side loft high balls towards the six yard box and have Adebayor do Duncan Fergusson thing.

his side is good to watch for many reasons, but that doesn't prevent people for noticing a fairly clear and repeating strategy. Indeed watch Henry's nearly 200 goals for arsenal and around 150 (estimate)were him running onto a ball beyond the defence and scoring.

It looked no less sublime just because it was part of a game plan.


GG commented on the instinctive stuff that we all love about football.

The best two goals I've ever seen scored were Diego Maradona's incredible solo run - and Ricky Villa's phenomenal twisting and turning goal in the FA Cup final.

But they are just two goals. And each of them count only as much as the hundreds of other goals that are not down to the pure instinct of world beaters.

So should a side buy a player who may do that instinctive thing once every 20 games but little else - or buy some one else who can score a goal every three games?

andrewm said...

This is interesting - to be honest I feel Pseuds has been waiting for an article of this type for some time now - but I have a feeling it might mostly be, to put it kindly, nonsense. I need to give it another read when I have more time, but one point grabs me just now:

"Territory" is not meaningless at all. If you spend most of the match in the opposition half then clearly you are dominating them. This doesn't guarantee victory, of course, but if you can look at the stats over an entire season and see that you spent most of each match in the opposition half, then you know you're onto something.

If I have time later I'll go over the rest of the article, for the interest and amusement of no-one but myself :)

Ebren said...

AM – I think the point we were trying to make is that it is an unreliable indicator. Of course, we could be very wrong, the point is we don’t know – and if there is a strong correlation between territory and scoring/conceding goals then fine. But we have provided a couple of examples where it clearly has not been linked to victory so it is questionable. At the moment it’s an assumption – and they should be removed. Arsenal rarely need territory to score (the old comment is that they are never more dangerous than when they win possession in their own box) so I would be interested as to what their territory to goals stat is. Bolton under Big Sam would also be interesting to look at (as they seemed to be in their own half for a lot of time, but still won a lot of games and didn’t concede that many).

The point of this peice is not to provide answers, but to show they can be found, and that there is a need to start looking.

andrewm said...

"if there is a strong correlation between territory and scoring/conceding goals then fine. But we have provided a couple of examples where it clearly has not been linked to victory so it is questionable."

Yes, you have provided a couple of examples of individual games, but do you really doubt that if you consistently dominate the opposition you will consistently beat them?

When dear old Houllier trotted out his line about having more shots on goal than anyone else in the league, there was an element of desperation in it of course, but he knew he was onto something and I think most sane observers did as well. That Liverpool team didn't always win on the day, but they consistently dominated the opposition and SHOULD have won far more games than they did. There is no answer as to why they didn't win those games, but that doesn't render the stats meaningless.

I think the statement that Total Football was about being as efficient as possible is highly questionable.

andrewm said...

"Clean Sheets" - no, no, no.

Clean sheet stats are a very reliable indicator of a quality defence. I will guarantee you that there is not a team in the football league structure that has a high number of clean sheets and a poor or even average defence. How you can suggest that clean sheets rely on the opposition's ineptitude as much as your own skill is beyond me.

Margin said...

be fair ebren

it may turn out to be nonsense

It could be the self protecting insider knowledge phrased in cliches that football does so much of is actually perfectly right.

But without testing that by looking for information to back it up or knock it down why do we all assume it is true when common sense suggests some serious holes might exist.

Margin said...

Spurs have seven clean sheets in 21 games

Liverpool have eight clean sheets in 23 games

Which has the better defence?

- you and I surely know its Liverpool - but the clean sheet stat is at best ambiguous about that.

Ebren said...

The total football comments are not made up. They are comments from the people involved at the time (Cruyff, Michaels, Repp and a few others) I have read in interviews with them (both at the time they were playing and again after).

Andrew – the point is “dominating” doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s a perception from the people watching. Unless something either: a) contributes to making a goal more likely or b) contributes to making an opposition goal less likely then it doesn’t matter in terms of the result.

I agree it SEEMS likely that territory is linked – but territory doesn’t win games without goals and there are enough exceptions to make this link questionable. So let’s find out.

On clean sheets – unless you know why you have a clean sheet, the fact of having them is a little pointless. Did the opposition strikeforce have a mare? Did you shut their possession out? Did your goalie play better than he/she ever has or will?

The point is we have to go deeper, and there is no reason we should be satisfied with any stats until we understand why they matter in terms of goals scored and conceded (which are the only things that actually determine a result).

MotM said...

This is great stuff and a fine antidote to (in England) a sport, football, and a profession, journalism, that are fiercely hostile to intellectual rigour.

My bit.

Most of those stats are rubbish, except territory. The best sides play in the opposition half because:

(i) it's the best defensive strategy (and, interestingly, produces clean sheets from a weak defence);

(ii) it means that the little breaks count for more - the lucky free kick, the opposition error (see Titus Bramble yesterday);

(iii) it's mentally much more tiring for the opposition to play being pressed back, so errors come from tired minds.

Two things that I think lead directly to goals that seldom get analysed:

(i) the number of players in the box. Beckham was a great crosser because he often had three, sometimes four men to aim at, expanding his target area enormously. This allowed him to hit the ball with whip and pace and still hit a man. One of the reasons Everton are scoring so many goals is that Cahill and Osman get in the box to support Yakubu and Johnson so often - likewise, Lescott is staying in the box not hurtling back.

(ii) What leads to goals at the highest level is an injection of pace. This can come from a fast man running with the ball, rat-a-tat-tat passing or the dribble / shimmy. It is the ability to inject this pace that makes the man in "the hole" so valuable.

One other observation. I think it was Bill Shankley (maybe Paisley) who countered a charge that Liverpool were lucky with injuries by saying that they passed the ball to the man not just near the man. He was right. I'm also impressed by players who can receive the ball on the half-turn balanced to go either way (Dalglish, Beardsley, Rooney).

How to win without the money?

Buy players who are great athletes with great balance who are able to inject that pace through running (Henry), passing (Bergkamp) and thinking (Cantona). The only English players who fit (or have fitted) the bill in my time are:

Des Walker at his best,

The others (including Frank and Stevie G and Bryan Robson) are really just water-carriers to use Cantona's word.

andrewm said...

Ahem - I'm beginning to think I've completely missed the point of the article.


Margin said...


It would be interesting to see if your perceptions translated into statistical evidence.

It makes sense that territory, as it were, would have some of the impacts you suggest. But oddly we don't have any stats to prove or disprove it.

and that matters when long running posession in the other team's half might leave a side exposed to counter attacking football or undermine the building of momentum, and thus crowd out the oppotunity to exploit pace the way you describe.

And the trouble with football is that while we can debate that rationally - we can't easilly prove one thing or another because we lack the basic information to do it.

Margin said...

oh - and to win without money it is seemingly sensible to buy Jermaine Jenas

A Spurs fan freind of mine dragged up his stats for the last couple of seasons and I compared results for the games with him and without him (130 games over two and a half seasons, he's played in 92 of them)

spurs win half their games with him in the side and only a third with him missing - making him worth 17 points per league campaign if fit for 38 games - and worth 12 points per campaign when his injury lay offs are considered.

factor in that he is still young enough to recoup his £7mil fee - and consider that his wages are just £25k per week (apparently)- and you have a cost of around £100k per point. (if he is later sold for the £7mil again).

Its not a perfect assessment of the value of a player - but it surprises me that in lieu of anything better that this sort of figure isn't widely published for football.

Margin said...


you asked questions and thought about what makes a good team.

thats exactly the point of the article.

MotM said...

Margin - we don't have the info true (However, I subscribe to the view that data is the plural of anecdote).

I'm not wholly convinced by your valuation of Jenas. Another way of putting it would be to say that Jenas is the kind of player who, at his peak, will play a role in getting a club to fifth. Spurs have tied up significant resources in a player who has that potential. Tim Cahill, on the other hand, cost less as a fee but more in wages, but, crucially, has the potential to play a role for a club that finishes fourth without exhausting his potential. For the marginal cost of Cahill over Jenas you get the chance of fourth over fifth - good business if you ask me.

My dad used to say that big players were worth it, by which he meant that £100k per week for one Ronaldo is worth much more than 4x£25K per week for four Jenases. Much as I like Robbie Keane and Ledley King, they aren't top four material - Berbatov is, which is why the speculation mounts. Who are Everton's top four material? Howard, Yobo, Cahill, Yakubu, Arteta and (rolled into one) Johnson/Vaughan/Anichebe. It's why we have a chance.

bluedaddy said...

Mouth, you are looking for trouble with that E in Shankly aren't you?
I'd add players like Waddle, Le Tiss, Hoddle and Barnes to that list, unless you're saying that they are not athletes (which surely means also dropping Gazza and Teddy S too).

Some sides are happy to keep the ball without pressing too hard offensively, probing for openings or oppo players dropping out of position (Jose's Chelsea). Others will wait for the ball to come to them, forcing teams to make goal attempts from unpromising positions or lose possession through frustration or lack of quality (Arsenal). Both these methods will skew possession and territory stats.

It would be interesting to see 'conversion' stats, to see how clinical a team/player is.

But surely it is just so damn difficult to compile meaningful football stats. Consider the Inzaghi conundrum (sorry but he HAS to come up in a discussion like this). Statistically he can probably be made to seem either deadly or useless, but whichever way you look at it, something in Inzaghi's make-up results in him being an effective striker at really important moments. So like Monty at the Ryder Cup, you just have to play him, no matter what form and stats etc tell you. And so you come back to the magic 5% difference that top players and managers make. Even if that can't be measured in trophies it still comes into play in terms of keeping teams above their perceived 'natural' station.

offside said...

"So let’s find out."

Good luck lads. When you've "found out", maybe you can explain to me the last two games between France and Scotland.

Don't get me wrong, I find the discussion extremely interesting (and challenging). I just think it's a bit of a lost cause.

*shrugs - mumbles "It was just one of those games. Twice." - shrugs some more*

andrewm said...

Margin, maybe so, but my comments have been a reaction to something which I felt was in the article, and on reflection that something isn't actually there.

I would delete them, but that seems a bit OTT and anyway I'm not sure how to do that.

MotM said...

Andrew - I read and enjoyed your posts, as I invariably do. Looks like Rafa's boys are delivering.

Bluedaddy - Barnes and le Tiss, yes, but Hoddle I remember for the long pass which I always feel is over-rated (but how do I know?) Waddle I always felt a bit of a fraud.

I like the fact that football is so stats resistant - but it is strange that millions are spent by hardnosed business men or such subjective evidence as "passion".

Ebren said...

The idea of "how to win leagues without money" is that it is only on the margins that people are forced to innovate.

Arsenal, Man U, Liverpool - even Spurs and Everton - aren't forced to.

Southampton went radical for a little while (Woodward and Clifford) but bottled it, and Redknapp ain't the sort to go against conventional wisdom.

You have to make hard choices and decide what is most important out of things that are clearly desirable.

Pace, power, fitness, technique, passing, finishing, positioning, tackling, heading, crossing, free kicks. You want a player to have all of it.

But when forced to choose - what really matters. Does Gerrard's superior goalscoring and assist making make him more valuable than Carrick's superior possession retention and possession winning?

Because our eyes remember Gerrard's long-range goals and last-ditch tackles more than Carrick's short passing and interceptions - I would imagine he is overvalued and Carrick undervalued, but there is only 7 million between their price tags.

It's quite possible goals are so valuable Gerrard is more important, but it's equally possible they're not.

Incidentally, I think a man's footballing position can be judged by his opinion of certain players. Anyone who cites Owen, Crespo and Carrick without prompting can generally be relied upon to view football in a certain way.

Those that praise Gerrard, Rooney and Terry generally hold another viewpoint.

Similarly, lambasting Lampard (or Beckham before him) is generally a sign of a certain type of fan.

Now - all these players are internationals and deservingly so - but (aside from club bias - pro or anti) the choice of who you choose reflects a lot about how you view football.

Oh, and one thing that was really interesting about statistical analysis in baseball was that there is no such thing as a "big game player". Players performed to their overall averages in clinch situations as reliably as they did in the rest of the season.

Seems counter-intuitive to us - but when you think about it...These guys have been performing under pressure for schools, county's, clubs, scouts, reserve managers, coaches and international coaches.and competing against all the guys not playing every minute they are on the pitch.

It's quite possible the "big game player" is a myth in football as well as in baseball.

bluedaddy said...

Re Waddle Mouth. Is it something you've seen live?

I know he stuffed up that pen in 1990, but he played in some exciting teams, and had the balls to go abroad, and the talent to make a success of it.

Just don't ask him to cut your hair.

bluedaddy said...

But Ebren what about the 'Not a Big Game Player', the one's who 'go missing' when the crunch comes. I'm sure they exist.

Ebren said...

OMG - Mike Bassett England Manager is on at 22:00. Result, I've never seen it and now I get to learn how it's done in the pros!

offside said...

Does anybody live near Mouth's place? I'm a little concerned he might be in need of respiratory assistance for the last ten minutes of the Liverpool - Villa game.

Ebren said...

BD - counter intuitive as I said. But do we have the figures to show they under-performed rather than had an off day that would be unremarked on against Villa on a cold January night ?

Henery never scored in every game? Neither did Ronaldihno.

MotM said...

Offie - I was expecting 1-2 as the MBM preamble states and now Crouch has spolied it by equalising. Playing Kuyt instead of Crouch - unbelievable. 2-2 is good for Everton so I can breathe easy I feel. Your concern for my welfare is much appreciated!

Waddle - Did it when it didn't matter, but fair play to him for going abroad.

Are players subject to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (sort of) in that once you look at them in a team, they change?

Mike Bassett is a bit obvious in places, but v funny at times. Ricky Tomlinson is v good.

offside said...

Mouth, glad to hear you're still alive. Kuyt works hard, Crouch scores. How does that fit into Ebren and Margin's theory? Does anyone have Rafa's Rotastats?

As for Waddle doing it when it matters: Stade Vélodrome, 1992, breaking the deadlock against AC Milan with the sweetest right-foot volley into the bottom corner, 1-0 final score.

guitougoal said...

cliches?thanks, but I found myself your analyse of Wenger's strategy being a mismash of the and ultimate simplistic view-As Ebren
mentioned the total football comments are not made up-Once you saw it, you know there is no X's and O's in it.
Something you didn't mention about wenger's football is the most important:speed, which comes in the young,with an unpredictable ball movement.That's is his formula and long ball to ABed. represents just one of other options created by this style of play.

MotM said...

Offie - OM saw the best of Waddle, but Ligue 1 was hardly the toughest environment in which to shine surely?

offside said...

Mouth, indeed, La première division as it was known back then was below the English, Spanish and Italian league, but just. I believe the level was higher then than now, as the results of OM and PSG in Europe at the time attest. And that three-pronged OM attack of Waddle and Abedi Pelé switching wings around JP Papin would have been good enough for any European side at the time.

Technical question, now. I'd like to know how Carragher's contribution to Crouch's goal against Villa fits into any kind of stats category. Or is there a special category for outrageous flukes?

Ebren said...

Offie – the idea is to factor in the total goals (scored and conceded) a player contributes to a side over a season. To evaluate this you need to look at how likely a goal is to result from various situations, and what a player typically does in these. Changing the players themselves is somewhat antithetical to the Moneyball scenario (a poor side doesn’t have the resources to waste on developing a player or buying one in the hope they will improve).

Carragher’s contribution last night should not be seen in terms of one game, but how often he makes similar contributions/takes similar actions over a season, as it is the year-end tallies that count. It’s therefore quite predictable.

I can write a follow up on how I see this working. I’ve got a theory on how to do this, but so far only shared it with my co-author. Set plays and open play are effectively two separate games within a game, with their own rules. A player’s contribution to each has to be separately added together (as they are not directly related) and then factored into the whole team to try and maximise a goal difference over a season.

It’s quite doable, you just need the stats. Whether it would work is questionable, whether it would work more effectively than the experience/intuition of a coach is questionable yet again. But I think it would be a valid experiment.

Now all I need is a team to let me manage them and the resources to conduct my study ;-)

offside said...

Chief Lord Ebren Sir Your Honour,

Come to Moorea. I'll take you snorkeling or scuba-diving. We'll climb Mount Rotui at dawn, or walk up to the waterfall. We'll go fishing with Metua and rowing with the lads. We'll have a cocktail or six on the jetty at the Kaveka. You'll feel better. I guarantee it.

Ebren said...

Tempting, very tepmting. As soon as the world markets stop collapsing I'll consider it.

guitougoal said...

Very "TePmting"indeed,just the thought of 6 cocktails
got L.E in a tropical mood-Forget the stock-market Ebren,there is a perfect storm still coming at us,cocktails are going to become the best medicine for the richman.

guitougoal said...

now that I am back home with more time for blogging,
I would like to clarify some comments I made about Football total and the analogy between Ajax 70's and Arsenal 2007- There is a very long way to go for Wenger to match one day Ajax efficiency and performances but his conceptual difficulties are mainly caused by a football philosophy borrowed from Rinus Michels and J. Cruijff philosophy:
-A constant switching of positions at high speed
-a packed-midfield to control the game from the midfield (he is overstaffed on midfielders and short on defenders)
-the same two-touch football training sessions in very small area where the movement is necessary fast and the passes must be pin point.
-players switching into each other's role- requiring equal level of technical ability and physical strength.(another obstacle for him)-
-An architect on the midfield who calls the play.
"we discussed space the whole time,Johan Cruijff always talking about where they should stand and when they should not move"Hulshoff.
Finally the concept is based on a youth academy to prepare young talents (fundamental skills cannot be taught at 12 you are or you are not) how to play
Ajax was one of the first team to enlist their players at a very young age their center of formation's blue print was brought in France by Kovacs in the 60's but it took more than 10 years to the French Federation to overcome the political and financial issues attached to it.

Margin said...


the thing about the Jenas stat is that it doesn't test him at his peak - it tests an aggregate of his peak, his worst, and all those standards in between.

and he comes out at 12 points a season.

I'd love to see what Cahill's equivelent score at everton is. He is a similarly unspectacular midfeilder in a similarly unspectacular side so it would be a great comparison. But I don't have the raw material to work it out. do you?

Does Cahill - quantifiably - earn 12 points a season?

and thats the point of the article. information exists and we don't have it. Football can be quantified - and no one does it.

instead we have subjective cliche stuff like Keane (without whom along side him, berbatov seems often to play badly) is "not a top four player" but yakubu - who scores fewer goals, and at a slower rate - is.

so if everton had keane they would not have a chance?

so quantify that.

Is cahil better value for money than the £100k spurs spend per point on Jenas?

the maths can be done - compare results without cahil to results with cahil - if you want you can just list the numbers and I'll do the maths.

at present i don't know the answer and i'm genuinely interested to find out.

Margin said...


to be fair i rambled there a bit in an effort to make a point i didn't need to make.

but clearly wenger doesn't (so the cliche suggests) believe in 'total football' - otherwise he'd be appalled at his side recently lobbing balls towards Adebayor's head.

in fact he believes in winning - and does that very well (though less well in the last couple of years than he previously did).

And we should not pretend that he gets eleven instinctive footballers - give them a ball - and leaves them to it. his side has a system - they have routines they play out - and they have strategy on the pitch that we can analyise and learn from.

if he didn't then it would be hard to explain why so many of Henry's goals looked so similar. And it would be a massive coincidence that the single most noticeable thing fabregas does in a game is the same single most noticeable thing bergkamp did in a game. (those killer 40 yard balls into the space, often small space, beyond the defender but not too close to the keeper).

I agree speed is also an aspect - though look how rarely arsenal players take on and beat defenders. They far more commonly pass round people.

that is surely a decision made. is it a good one? does that depend on the player involved? I want the analysis to know.


having said that - i rambled because I'm not objective about arsenal - for a similar reason to why i'm not objective about spurs. But I want to be to learn more about them. And so I fight my instincts in that regard.

guitougoal said...

"There are as many opinions as there there are people; each has his own correct way"....right?
Once, Ebren asked me to agree to disagree
,instinctively I disagree to agree :)
ps : reference to Henry it's a good point, my last post was about new Fabregas Arsenal. Btw, I am not convinced that Arsene can prevail with this style due to the magnitude of the opposing forces in the premiership.

MotM said...

Margin - You're right to pin me down on my subjective views.

I like Keane, but Yakubu has the second highest Premier League aggregate goals last four years ex Henry. That suggests that he doesn't miss many games either.

Cahill? You really notice him when he's not there!

Margin said...


i instinctively disagree too, all else being equal. But in this instance Ebren and I are in quite a lot of agreement.

basically the pair of us have heard so many cliches trotted out as analysis by idiot commentators and fans that we'd quite like some basis on which to objectively judge football.

having said that

your outline of Wenger's position with his latest crop sounds a lot like that of many managers. They start with an outline view of their ideal plan - and then compromise it to where needed or sensible.

two examples

Bill Nicholson - started with triangular two touch passing - then was confronted with John White's incredible close ball control and made him an exception with free reign to take on and beat his man.

Brian Clough - when confronted by the rise of the off side rule in the 80s simply denied it as not fitting for his football philosophy. And within a decade Forest were relegated.

Wenger, like almost all managers, has a view on how to win games - not a phillosophy or belief. Clough was an oddball.

guitougoal said...

Compromising:good timing Margin, Wenger just did it today by including Fabregas, Abedayor and Hleb for a carling cup game.

offsideintahiti said...


"Football can be quantified". I only partly agree, and mostly disagree. SOME aspects of football can be quantified, MOST of football cannot be quantified. That's my opinion, not a fact.

"the maths can be done - compare results without cahil to results with cahil -"

You can certainly do it, but I think the results would be mostly meaningless. So many other factors change from one game to the next. Who else is playing or not playing in the absence of Cahill? Does the manager change his formation/instructions/half-time talk when Cahill is not playing? How so? Home game or away game? Who's the opposition? What system are they playing? Are the opposition specifically targeting Cahill's absence? How? Who's the ref? Is it windy? Raining? Is Margin watching from home, the pub or the stands? Is he wearing his lucky underwear? Is it a case of Schroedinger's Cahill? I could go on.

Ebren said...

Offy - it's the very difficulty that makes it fun.

Someone once said: "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."

Clever bloke.

Ebren said...

p.s. Margin's Jenas stat sounds like bollox to me too. But stupid questions often lead to interesting answers. I would see it as the start of an inquiry.

offsideintahiti said...

I don't think it's difficult, I think it's irrational.

5-1. I'd like to hear something rational from Margin in the next couple of hours. Do you think there's any chance?

Ebren said...

No chance of rationality for some time to come.

You're quite right - it is entirely irrational to try and understand the world ;-)

[p.s. I'm not being snobby, I don't understand music, I can hear a bum note a mile off and love music, and find it beautiful, I love to sing and can even read music bit. But as to why it sounds good, why the note sounds wrong in that chord I have no clue - and don't particularly want to learn. With football I want to know why, I also believe very little can't be understood if you think about it enough - I might be deluded]

offsideintahiti said...

It's a matter of outlook. I don't think it's meant to be understood in its entirety, but don't let that stop you from trying. And when you have, please do get back to me about those two France - Scotland games.

guitougoal said...

which games?those two France-Scotland games never existed-You just had a bad dream offside-how could that be?
it's like if you are thinking the Spurs can beat the Gooners,check the stats, read the books,it can't be done.
Ramos es muy bueno.

DoctorShoot said...

and from the school of not so subtle ways to get the edge over your opponent

offsideintahiti said...

Ebren, do you have the stats on the average duration of Margin's hangovers?

guitougoal said...

interesting clip about:the school of how to instigate a riot.

Margin said...

I can now confirm that Jenas is in fact the best midfielder to play the game since Hoddle. And so is Tainio.


I know its two days later - but I'll write an article on the events of Tuesday when I've calmed down.


Oh - and I agree there are many changing factors - hence the need for a large sample size.

but as Ebren says - just because it might turn out that stat means little - doesn't mean its not worth investigating.

for example - what if a regular first team player resulted in a negative points score?

Margin said...

And I should also stress that I am out celebrating with more spurs fans again tonight. So that hangover has yet to really kick in.

guitougoal said...

as long as you keep a track record of the drinks the time needed to empty each glass,the age of the bar tender, you'll be fine.
The Spurs were awesomely good Tuesday-

Ebren said...

Billy Beane on Football - less sophisticated than Margin and my (unpublished) theories. But a good read nonetheless :)

Tottenham net role in revolution as Beane pitches success on a budget

Ebren said...

And this on cricket

Ebren said...

From Motm: re-posted here as this is where the discussion started:

Okay - It's not cricket, but this is my favourite stat at the moment.

Tim Cahill: 18 Premier League appearances in which Everton gathered 40 points. In the remaining 19 to date, Everton gathered 22 points.

Extrapolate the performances with Cahill over a season, and Everton would finish with 84.4 points in third (Chelsea and Man Utd have 84 now with a game to go, Arsenal have 80). Had a Cahill-inspired Everton taken points off Chelsea or Man Utd in the games he didn't play, then even the title is in the mathematical mix.

Extrapolate the performances without Cahill and Everton would finish with 44 points or 12th just ahead of Wigan.

How to break the Big Four quadroploy? Keep Cahill fit.

Tweet it, digg it