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Feb 28, 2018
Feb 28, 2018

The Numbers Game book review

How has data changed the way we think about soccer?

The history of data and analytics in soccer

Why using the right kind of data is important

The Numbers Game book review

Soccer is a sport full of myths. One of the challenges for bettors is to untangle these myths and focus on the facts, to separate the signal from the noise. The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally shows how data can be used to achieve just that. Read on to find out more.

The exploration of how data is used in sport in literature is by no means new - Billy Beane’s now infamous analytical approach to baseball was popularised by Michael Lewis in his book Moneyball and there have been plenty of similar works since.

The notion of using data to improve our understanding of what happens in sport and why is one that very few people would argue with - although some will endeavour to stick to “traditional” views or opinions.

One of the great things about The Numbers Game is that it provides endless amounts of information that can be put to good use by a wide-ranging audience.

The Numbers Game, written by Chris Anderson and David Sally, gives a comprehensive overview of how data first came to prominence in the sport of soccer and why it now plays such an integral part in every aspect of the game. 

The very first words (a quote from the famous baseball writer Bill James) summarise what the reader can expect from the book and why the subject matter is so important; “In sports, what is true is more powerful than what you believe, because what is true will give you an edge.”

In addition to the insight that will help bettors make more informed decisions, Anderson and Sally’s work provides great entertainment for anyone interested in soccer. Some parts may appear to be complex and potentially off-putting to someone new to the world of data and analytics, but the authors do a great job of ensuring the book is suited to all types of reader. 

The benefits of using data

The Numbers Game is one of several books that cover the emergence of data in soccer and while these books might not be written primarily for a betting audience, there are certainly some valuable lessons that soccer bettors can learn from reading them.

Anderson and Sally make their intentions clear from the very outset. They state that “it is numbers that will challenge convention and invert norms” in their introduction and from that point on, the reader is given example after example of exactly how “it is numbers that let us glimpse the game as we have never seen it before”.

The introduction explains exactly why the use of data has had a positive impact on soccer. The authors also highlight its benefits to both bettors and bookmakers; “those involved in assessing, managing and exploiting risk, whether it be financial markets or sports gambling, tend to build elaborate forecasting models. For that, they need data.” 

Although bettors will be primarily interested in how data can be used to make a profit from betting on soccer, it is also interesting to see how teams use data to minimise their weaknesses and maximise their strengths. While even more benefits will emerge over time, data already plays a central role in the decision making process across the board for most professional teams.

The birth of data in soccer

Although it is important to understand how data and analytics are used in soccer at the present moment (and indeed how they might be used in the future), learning about the introduction and development of modern-day metrics is the obvious place to start.

A study into the performance of pre-game betting favourites shows that the favourites lose more often in soccer compared to other sports.

Anderson and Sally credit Wing Commander Charles Reep as the first ever soccer analyst. There are flaws in Reep’s ideas and approach but they were certainly revolutionary and have shaped the way players, coaches, fans and bettors view the game today.

Reep’s first paper - Skill and Chance in Association Football - was co-authored by Bernard Benjamin and published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society in 1968. The main focus of this study was on sequences of play, pass completion and shot conversion.

Having annotated and analysed over 2,200 soccer matches using just a pencil and notepad (which took about 80 hours each) during his career, Reep’s groundbreaking paper condensed 15 years worth of work and highlighted the numerical patterns that could be found in soccer.

Now, 50 years after Reep’s work was first published, soccer teams employ multiple analysts to work on performance and conditioning, tactics and player recruitment. Sports analytics companies like Opta have widespread notoriety and metrics like expected goals are quickly becoming as commonly used as shots on target.  

What data can tell us about soccer?

One of the great things about The Numbers Game is that it provides endless amounts of information that can be put to good use by a wide-ranging audience.

Whether it’s a fan looking to learn more about the game, an aspiring coach who wants to enhance his or her understanding of tactical approaches or a bettor trying to get an edge over the bookmaker, there really is something for everyone.

In sports, what is true is more powerful than what you believe, because what is true will give you an edge. Bill James

The book covers basic concepts familiar to readers of Pinnacle’s Betting Resources. The influence of luck “[soccer] is basically a 50/50 game. Half of it is luck, and half of it is skill” and confirmation bias “we do not believe it when we see it, rather we see it only when we believe” are two obvious examples.

Poisson distribution and the law of large numbers are two mathematical principles explained within the first chapter Riding Your Luck. It is in this section of the book that the authors also show how the influence of luck makes soccer one of the hardest sports to bet on.

A study into the performance of pre-game betting favourites shows that the favourites lose more often in soccer compared to other sports such as football, basketball, baseball and handball. It is also interesting to note that the median and spread of odds for the favourites in those sports is by far the widest in soccer - showing that bookmakers also have difficulty setting the odds.

Don’t just use data, use the right data

While The Numbers Game emphasises the benefits of using data in soccer, it is also made clear to the reader that “there is an advantage you can gain by being smart about the information you use”. In short, not all data is good data and what you do with it is what determines its value.

Some bettors will focus on gathering as much data as possible to try and find patterns that will help them find a value bet. In reality, this can often be a waste of time. Deduction is a crucial part of analytics and without it, data can quickly become redundant - it’s not as simple as taking the average from a big enough sample of what you think is relevant data. 

In addition to showing how commonly used metrics such as possession, number of shots and pass completion actually tell us very little about a teams performance, Anderson and Sally show how other basic data can be put to good use. The importance of an individual player, the timing of a goal and the impact a substitute can have on a game are just a few examples that will provide soccer bettors with some useful insight.

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