Show me the money

By: Elite Soccer

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball changed the way we look at identifying talent in baseball, and gave Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane an opportunity to change the culture of Major League Baseball scouting.

Beane was able to work with mathematicians to create baseline data and statistics to support theories on which players to identify.

Simon Kuper and Stefon Szymanski are able to take this process a step further in regards to world soccer, as their book Soccernomics breaks down specific attributes to determine the answers to the questions of the world’s game.

Applying the interesting and financially successful analytical methods of Freakonomics to soccer, this duo of economist and sports writer create some fascinating theories supported with data that is hard to refute.

The book’s subtitle – ‘Why England lose, why Germany and Brazil win, and why the US, Japan, Australia, Turkey — and even Iraq — are destined to become the Kings of the world’s most popular sport’ – is just one of the questions examined inside. The title also offers some unique insight into a reasonable question – namely ‘why are certain countries more successful than others?’

Factors like overall population and economy tend, predictably, to be major parts of these trends, and the book even goes as far as to calculate exactly how well each country should be able to do based on these factors.

A main focus of the book is the analysis of the England national team, which it turns out has actually overachieved somewhat for its resources. Kuper and Szymanski go as far as to analyse each member of the English national team player pool’s background – what career path their parents had, where they were brought up, and more. It all offers some fascinating insight into building a team.

One of my favourite chapters focuses on the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester United and Chelsea, which ends in penalty kicks. What seems like a pure game of chance to most who have not played the sport gains some extra credence, and will make every penalty kick you see for the rest of your life more interesting.

Without wanting to give too much away, an economist had examined past penalty shootout behaviour between the two teams and had sent in advice to Chelsea about how to score past United’s Edwin van der Sar. The Blues followed the advice to great success, but managed to lose when one player slipped and fell, and another one changed his mind at the last minute. The YouTube video of the shootout becomes hilarious to watch after you’ve read the chapter.

Soccernomics is a book that makes you ask questions about why things happen in the game, and offers some great insight into possible solutions to those questions. This is a must-read for any student of the game, as well as those who really enjoy the game of soccer.

Soccernomics, By Simon Kuper and Stefon Szymanski.