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.

Friday, January 18, 2008

January football and credit card bills - Premcorrespondent

In even numbered years, January can be a dull month for a football fan. There’s no meaningful international football until the summer, the Champions League is taking a break to count the money and in domestic football, teams are jockeying for position rather than staking claims. January used to host the two most romantic rounds of the most romantic Cup competition in the world, but a forward line of Paul Daniels, David Nixon and David Blaine couldn’t recapture the “Magic of the Cup” which is sadly a 20th century phenomenon.

Last weekend’s batch of games saw Manchester United refrain from scoring six in the first half against Allardyceless, clueless Newcastle, so they could ping in the half-dozen in the second period. A hat-trick for the Portuguese wonderkid, who could probably have had six himself if he’d wanted, illuminated a hideous mismatch. Newcastle will need saving if they are not to drop like a stone – where’s a Messiah when you need one? Oh… there.

Earlier in the day, Arsenal’s journey from sublime to, if not ridiculous, certainly a bit ordinary, continued with Garry O’Connor cancelling out Emmanuel Adebayor’s opener – the goalscorers’ names tell you all you need to know about the clubs. Dropping two midwinter points at home to the likes of Birmingham is dangerous for title contenders and Wenger will know that he can afford no more such slips. Arsenal slide to second. Fellow “Londoners” Chelsea showed how the spirit of Mourinho lives on, securing three points in an awkward fixture against resurgent Tottenham. The four points by which they trail the top duo is possibly one too many, but don’t be surprised to see Chelsea in the mix.

Speaking of which, the mix for the fourth CL spot looks very tight with four clubs level on points. Liverpool relied on Torres yet again to rescue a point at Middlesborough amidst boardroom strife – like Liverpool, Rafa is sinking. Two potential fourth placers faced off at Goodison, where Joleon Lescott;s goal suggested he could play centre-forward as well as full back and centre-half. Sven won’t be unduly concerned, as City’s home form remains strong. The other club in this mix is Aston Villa, which has been quietly, but purposefully built into a formidable team by Martin O’Neill. Their goals to see off Reading came from giant Scandanavian powerhouses, Laursen and Carew, but O’Neill has plenty of youthful pace to go with the brawn.

Elsewhere, it was business as usual as Fulham took the lead and lost, this time to West Ham, whose sensible manager should have a word with Dean Ashton’s barber; Derby conceded their usual late goal, this time to Wigan’s Sibierski, who doesn’t need a barber.

On Sunday, Roy Keane’s Sunderland showed that they have what it takes to pull away from the drop zone with two Keiron Richardson goals seeing off fading, African-free Portsmouth. The last game of the weekend was a curiously low-key derby between Blackburn and Bolton won by Jason Roberts’ late run and strike. Any club who acquires Gary Megson and loses Nicolas Anelka is probably asking for trouble, and that’s just what Bolton will get.

I’m off to pay my credit card – HOW MUCH?

NFL Divisional Playoffs - the Velvet Bear

Well, it’s a good job we had Superbowl XLI-andahalf back in November, because Superbowl XLII won’t be between the Patriots and the Colts.

In the surprise of the weekend, the Chargers overcame Indianapolis in Indianapolis by 28-24 and now go through to the AFC Championship game. It was quite some achievement by San Diego. They started the game with a half-fit Antionio Gates, who dislocated his toe last weekend. They lost star running back LJ Tomlinson with a knee injury less than halfway through the game. Then, to cap it all, quarterback Philip Rivers also picked up a knee injury.

The key to the Chargers’ success was just how well their back-ups performed. Michael Turner and Damien Sproules replaced Tomlinson and took it in turn to batter holes in the Colts’ defense. In fact, Rivers was injured throwing a short pass to Sproules, who then ran 53 yards for a touchdown. Even more remarkable was the play of backup QB Billy Volek, who had been so unreliable all year that he had only been on the field for ten plays in the entire season. What is more, he even threw an interception on his first series of plays, yet still came back to drive the team to victory, with a long, accurate, pass to Cris Chambers and then a one yard run of his own for the touchdown, thus completing the second most remarkable comeback of the weekend (we’ll get to the most remarkable one later).

The Colts themselves did little wrong. Peyton had two good passes bounce off the hands of receivers and into the waiting arms of Chargers players, but he also completed a sublime pass to tight end Dallas Clark for the game’s opening score, Clark spinning on his heel to shake off the last defender before running the ball home.

In retrospect, the Colts’ biggest mistake was probably to activate Marvin Harrison for this game. Harrison is a legend, one of the all time great wide receivers, another one who is a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame in due course. But you will notice that I haven’t mentioned him at all this season. That’s because he has been injured for half of it. And boy, did he play like a man who hasn’t been in a game for months. He only caught two passes all day and at least twice dropped catches which should’ve led to touchdowns. He clearly wasn’t ready for the game, no matter what Tony Dungy and his coaching staff felt.

The other surprise – although less of one – came in the NFC, where the Giants beat the Cowboys 21-17 in Texas Stadium. This really was a contest to find who had the least flaky quarterback. Eli Manning’s run of good, actually-I-really-can-play-like-a-franchise-quarterback form continues. Unfortunately for Dallas, so did Tony Romo’s run of I-don’t-want-to-do-this-I-have-a-sore-thumb-and-anyway-it’s-my-turn-to-have-sex-with-Jessica-Simpson form.

Basically, Romo had a stinker of a game. He completed on only 50% of his passes and never looked like the player he was, well, before he began dating Miss Simpson. At one point, he totally lost his cool with his offensive line in general and center Andre Gourode in particular – in the middle of a play. It is easy – and somewhat lazy – to draw parallels like that, but it is very coincidental that his play began going downhill the moment their relationship came to light and games like this will only further the cause of those who want to make such comparisons.

The game ended when the Cowboys, with only one timeout left and only 1.47 minutes on the clock, bizarrely went for two running plays and gained very few yards indeed. Romo then finally went for a pass, only to chuck the ball straight down the throat of the Giants’ replacement cornerback RW McQuarters. Game over. The Cowboys will forever wonder just how good this season could’ve been.

Most people had the Cowboys down as the only side who could beat the Patriots come February 3rd. If that is the case it should be a stroll for New England from now on. On Saturday night they took apart the Jacksonville Jaguars with such clinical precision, it was almost breathtaking. Jacksonville did everything, I mean everything, right. They played Randy Moss out of the game. They shut down the secondary (the deep part of the field, basically). They forced Tom Brady to throw short passes. They squeezed Laurence Moroney as he tried to run through the line of scrimmage. What did they get in return? Brady setting an NFL record for one game, by completing over 92% of his passes. Only twice did the ball go to ground, and one of those was when Wes Welker dropped a catch so simple, even Monty Panesar could’ve taken it.

I still can’t love the Patriots, but they are an awesome side to watch. I can’t see the Chargers having a prayer against them on Saturday, not unless they can get Gates, Rivers and particularly Tomlinson fit. Even then, the Patriots will have had one more day off between matches.

As an aside, 31 coaches across the NFL will be choking on their morning coffee when the league announces the Draft order for this year. The Draft is when the 32 NFL sides recruit the best college players of each year and I’ll be writing about it in much more detail nearer the time. The order in which teams pick is the reverse order in which they finish this season, with the worst team – the Dolphins, in other words – having the first pick and the Superbowl winners the 32nd.

This year, the Patriots lost their first round pick (there are seven rounds) as part of their punishment for spying on the Jets. Except that one of the ways teams trade players – there being no transfer market like in other sports – is by swapping or handing over draft picks. And, as a result of a trade made two years ago, the Patriots will have the seventh pick in the first round of the 2008 Draft. That’s right, they get the 7th best new player to enter the league. Quite where they will put him is anyone’s guess.

The final playoff game featured one of the best examples of a master demonstrating his art to his pupil that you will ever see. It also featured one of the gutsiest comeback performances that you will ever see.

Seattle Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck spent three years as Brett Favre’s understudy in Green Bay before moving to the west coast. Since then, he’s been in a losing Superbowl, been hailed as one of the best quarterbacks of his generation and almost been killed by a falling television camera. On Saturday evening, in Wisconsin, in a blizzard, Favre showed just how much he still has to learn. From the Packers’ first eight possessions, they scored touchdowns on 6. All of those six featured Favre leading them down the field from deep inside their own half. Strangely, though, it was what happened on the first two possessions that was interesting.

The Seahawks kicked off, so the Packers began with the ball. Favre passed to running back Ryan Grant, who promptly dropped the ball into the hands of a waiting Seahawk. One play later and Seattle were 7-0 up.

Green Bay again got the ball from the kick off. Favre entrusted the ball to Grant again, who this time had it stripped from his grasp. Seattle recovered the fumble, moved back up the field and went 14-0 up.

Cue Favre, as the ‘Hawks were kept to just two field goals in the rest of the match. Cue a 42-20 win for Green Bay. But also cue Ryan Grant, who came back from his disastrous opening to run for over 200 yards and score a hat-trick of tries. It was a formidable display, which overshadowed his Seahawk rival Shaun Alexander (another future Hall of Famer) – Alexander managed only 20 yards all game. Top marks to Grant for putting the early troubles behind him, but also to the Packers’ coaching staff for trusting him despite all that had gone before.

This weekend sees the Chargers visit the Patriots on Saturday and the Giants go to Green Bay on Sunday. And then the Superbowl hype can begin.

Not much other news this week, but:

- Word on the street is that both Seahawks’ coach Mike Holmgren and the Colts’ Tony Dungy are considering their futures now that their season is over. Dungy’s son has just enrolled in a high school in Texas, which is being taken as a sign that the first black coach ever to win a Superbowl may be about to step down. Holmgren goes through this ‘stay or go’ ritual every season, it seems, but rumour has it that this time, he is seriously thinking about moving on;

- The Packers have a safety named Atari Begby. Apparently his grandmother named him that. I’m wondering if he has brothers called Sinclair, Commodore and Oric;

- The Falcons have hired a new general manager (think ‘director of football’) without even meeting him. Thomas Dimitroff’s interview with owner Arthur Blank was conducted over a satellite link and apparently got him the role over the interviewees Blank did deign to meet.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Kerfuffle in the Kitchen at the Pakalolo

by Offgrass and Greenside

In the misty kitchen of our favourite hostelry, reindeer horns stick out of a giant boiling cauldron. A hatchet-faced, almost-Arsenic Pseuds XI boss (Offside) leans on the work bench, a bottle of absinthe beside him. Dressed in a bloody apron and chef’s hat, he expertly tests the sharpness of a meat cleaver. On the other side of the bench stands Greengrass in Santa Claus garb, nervously fumbling with his hat.

Offside: What can I do you for, GG?

Greengrass: Well, boss, it’s this Munni business...

Offside: Munni?

Greengrass: Yes, Munni. Here I am, the regular left-whinger in the Pseuds XI. That’s been my berth for years - never missed a game, except when I’ve been banned.

Offside: Oui - and...

Greengrass: Well, then this slip of a girl turns up and flashes her eyes at you, and you give her my place in the side. It’s not right, I mean...

Offside: GG, GG - take it easy. You’re not getting any younger, and I have to think about the future of the Pseuds XI. I just want to ease her into the squad, rotate her under your expert tutelage, sell a few shirts in Asia.

Greengrass: So I’m not being farmed out on loan to Accrington Stanley?

Offside: No way!

Greengrass: And I won’t be banished to the touchline with a sponge and some smelling salts and a little jar of Dog Fat ointment, ready to nip on and give her legs a rubbing if she gets hurt?

Offside (shudders): Dog above, no! As sure as Liverpool is the City of Culture (suddenly gets a frog in his throat and coughs it up, deftly slipping it into the cauldron) you will still be our main man on the left whinge. I’ll have Munni in the side for the Mickey Mouse Cup and a few games against the weaker teams.

Greengrass: I see.

Offside: Oui. I mean, if you insist on tiring yourself out by chasing 13-year-old Gooners all over the pitch, or if you’ve been away on international duty, you can go off to Bognor Regis for a weekend...

Greengrass: Blackpool, please!

Offside: ...or Blackpool. You can see the illuminations, gorge some cockles and candy floss, have a lie-in or two, get your fortune told, then come back to turn out in the big games - the Cup finals, the title deciders.

Greengrass: So I get to keep the number 11 jersey?

Offside: Oui.

Greengrass (leaving): Grand! Right - I’ll be off to get some training in, then. We’ve got a crib game tonight against the Wheel Tapirs. Will there be any grub on?

Offside (pensively stirring reindeer stew): Mmmm - so what IS Dog Fat?

Dear Reader,

we hope, with the aid of this virtual real-life scenario, to enlist your help in tackling some of the big issues facing top-level football today - ageism, sexism, slow-food fetischism, binge thinking, sheer greed and so on.

What do YOU think?

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