Book Report: The Numbers Game

The Numbers Game“It is easy…to think of soccer as a game of superstars. They provide the glamour, the genius, the moments of inspiration. They sell the shirts and fill the seats. But they do not decide who wins games and who wins championships. That honour falls to the incompetents at the heart of the defense or the miscommunicating clowns in midfield. Soccer is a weak-link game. This has profound implications for how we see soccer, how clubs should be built and teams constructed, how sides should be run and substitutions made. It changes the very way we think about the game.” (The Numbers Game – p221-222)

Title: The Numbers Game – Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong

Author: Chris Anderson and David Sally

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2013

Origin: I’m pretty sure The Numbers Game came to my attention via Amazon’s recommendation engine. I’ve already read Soccernomics, and Inverting the Pyramid, two classics of soccer writing, and the teaser for this one was irresistible.

Summary: In The Numbers Game, Anderson and Sally deconstruct the beautiful game and somehow make it even more beautiful. They take on sacred cows and turn them into ground chuck with exhaustively researched and meticulously calculated evidence.

The book is divided into several sections:

  • Before the Match: The Logic of Soccer Numbers
  • On the Pitch: Soccer ‘Intelligence’ and Why Less Can be More
  • In the Dugout: Building Teams, Managing Clubs
  • After the Match is Before the Match

Along the way we learn about the O-Ring Theory of Economic Development and its implications for soccer. We learn about coaching and team dynamics and why the outcome is impacted more  by the weakest player on the team than by the superstar. We learn why, if the number-crunchers have their way, you might be cheering in a few years when your side pays an enormous sum of money for a defender, and why you should be thankful that they don’t sack the manager after a handful of bad performances.

My Take: I loved it – especially the part about the whole damn thing. But especially the team dynamics, weakest-link, O-Ring stuff.

Read This Book If: …you’re into soccer (especially if you want to pick arguments with folks who think they know about it) or the power of analytics, really.

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Notes and Quotes:

  • I love this opening quote on p1, from Bill James, and obviously it extends beyond sports: “In sports, what is true is more powerful than what you believe, because what is true will give you an edge.”

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

  • Another good quote, this time from Albert Einstein, on p6: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
  • An important lesson on p20 about confirmation bias and the path to true insight: “But true insight only arises from the search for disconfirming evidence – why might the long ball be the wrong way to play?”
  • p22: “Analytics is not about trying to use the numbers to prove a theory, but to see what the numbers actually tell us, to discover if our beliefs are correct, and if they aren’t, to inform us what we should believe instead.”
  • p40, after explaining how luck is responsible for about 50% of the outcome of a game: “There are two routes to success in soccer, we have found. One is being good. The other is being lucky. You need both to win a championship.”

“There are two routes to success in soccer, we have found. One is being good. The other is being lucky. You need both to win a championship.”

  • But hey, don’t despair (or let the math confuse you)! p44: “Soccer might be random, but it is also predictable.”
  • I just loved this story from p64: “(Louis) Van Gaal believes that soccer works best when there is absolute and unquestioned discipline on and off the pitch. he even took exception to Luca Toni’s table manners at Bayern, when he saw the Italian striker slouched over his plate one lunchtime. ‘His back was arched so much, he looked like a question mark,’ said one eyewitness. ‘Van Gaal saw him and started shouting to sit up. When Toni took no notice, he marched over, grabbed his collar and nearly lifted him out of his seat. Suddenly he was sitting bolt upright. No one said a word. It was incredible.'”
  • To all those who don’t ‘get’ soccer, and complain that there isn’t enough scoring, p83: “It is the rarity, the preciousness, of each and every goal that makes them mean so much.”
  • This will rub people the wrong way, and they’ll disagree (as did a certain Brazilian in my office, to whom I say simply “seven”), but it’s statistically true, p90: “The differences between nations are cosmetic, shallow. The game is the same across the world’s elite soccer leagues. If it were not for the shirts, you would not be able to tell them apart.”

“The differences between nations are cosmetic, shallow. The game is the same across the world’s elite soccer leagues. If it were not for the shirts, you would not be able to tell them apart.”

  • I love it when my own suspicions are confirmed (in this case by detailed analysis of the impact of sequential goals), p101: “Strikers who score the key goals, the ones that can be directly translated into more wins and more points, are worth rather more than the flat-track bullies who appear to rub salt into wounds, scoring the third and fourth goals as victory turns into a drubbing. Simply counting strikes can be deceiving: one goal is not the same as the other.” But why does this  matter? Well, the weighted list of top scorers by impact is different than the simple list of top scorers; teams that recognize this can exploit inefficiencies in the transfer market.
  • Another entertaining quote, this time from Pep Guardiola, p113: “We play leftist (soccer). Everyone does everything.”
  • Geez, the list of awesome quotes just keeps going, this time from Thomas Huxley; p115: “the great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”
  • As a defender, this has always bugged me…players who are out of position and have to scramble to make a tackle are seen by most folks as having a great impact, while those who play impeccable positioning never have to make a tackle in the first place. But there’s a human bias towards discount what can not be observed and overly favouring that which can be observed. p127: “Not only do we consider the goals that our team score more important than the goals they do not concede, but we value the tackles they make more highly than those challenges that their preternatural sense of positioning, their game intelligence, mean they do not need to make. The best defenders are those who never tackle.”

“Not only do we consider the goals that our team score more important than the goals they do not concede, but we value the tackles they make more highly than those challenges that their preternatural sense of positioning, their game intelligence, mean they do not need to make. The best defenders are those who never tackle.”

  • p130: “0>1. Goals that don’t happen are more valuable than those that do.”
  • p136 reminds us that we’re never out of it, quoting Sepp Herberger: “The ball is round, so that the game can change direction.”
  • This short quote from p148 sums up some extensive, deep analysis, and may surprise you: “Good teams are not better at passing than bad ones. They simply engineer more easy passes in better locations, and therefore limit their turnovers.”
  • p157 confirms so much of what I’ve observed and tried to help others on my team understand: “Pass completion percentages are nice, but avoiding turnovers is the most potent weapon of all. Having the ball is good. But not giving it back is better.”
  • p161, quoting Bob Paisley: “It’s not about the long ball or the short ball; it’s about the right ball.”
  • p186, quoting Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti: “Deconstruct tactics, and you find that basically it’s a way to minimize a team’s weaknesses while maximizing its strengths. That is what it boils down to.”
  • And, because I always like to see this distinction, p186: “Tactics are not the same as strategy. Your strategy is what you plan to do over the entire season. Your tactics are what you do to get you there in the course of an individual game. To fulfill your strategy, you must get your tactics right; and your tactics must always fit your team and your opponent.”
  • And now, quoting Malcolm Gladwell, p187: “What happens when the underdogs likewise acknowledge their weakness and choose an unconventional strategy? When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win.”
  • p188, and feel free to apply the lesson in business: “The strong do not need to innovate; it is the weak who must adapt or die.”
  • Sooooo true, p191: “It is always hard to defend the unconventional in the face of defeat. Failure is accepted if you fail in a recognizable way.”

“It is always hard to defend the unconventional in the face of defeat. Failure is accepted if you fail in a recognizable way.”

  • A very important distinction, on p200, is that soccer is a weakest-link game in which, “success is determined not just by what you do well but what you don’t do badly.”
  • And now we get into some really neat team dynamics and economic theory stuff, p200. In a weakest-link game, “If you want to build a team for success, you need to look less at your strongest links and more at your weakest ones. It is there that a team’s destiny is determined, whether it will go down in history or be forever considered a failure.”

“If you want to build a team for success, you need to look less at your strongest links and more at your weakest ones. It is there that a team’s destiny is determined, whether it will go down in history or be forever considered a failure.”

  • p201 introduces “The O-Ring Theory of Economic Development”, and subsequent pages make the case that soccer is a good sporting parallel.
  • p209: Have you heard of the Zidane Clustering Theorem?
  • Use this in your next team speech, because it’s true; p213: “A team of very good players who have had their skills maximized by the use of an intelligent tactic can beat a team of superstars whose talents are exploited but not integrated.”
  • p221: “It is easy…to think of soccer as a game of superstars. They provide the glamour, the genius, the moments of inspiration. They sell the shirts and fill the seats. But they do not decide who wins games and who wins championships. That honour falls to the incompetents at the heart of the defense or the miscommunicating clowns in midfield. Soccer is a weak-link game. Like the space shuttle, one small, malfunctioning part can cause a multimillion-dollar disaster. This has profound implications for how we see soccer, how clubs should be built and teams constructed, how sides should be run and substitutions made. It changes the very way we think about the game.”
  • Do you coach something? Then you should understand the Köhler effect, which is explained on p241.
  • p242: “The Köhler effect occurs because weak links work harder to keep up, whether in an attempt to match their more talented colleagues or because they think their role is just as essential. These two factors are equally important in helping improve a weak link.”
  • I found this part quite interesting, as I’ve often scoffed at the impact of CEOs; p266-267: “Our trio of gloomy economists did indeed discover that CEOs matter statistically and economically: the demise of a CEO dropped profitability for the next two years by 28 percent, and a death in his or her family contracted profits by 16 percent. Leaders must matter because their absence or their inattentiveness causes performance to plummet. Interestingly, the death of a director on the board caused no contraction or impairment in business performance, indicating that it wasn’t the oversight and broad strategic functions of the CEO that were missed but, rather, his or her operational activities. It’s the hands-on actions of leaders that are most critical.
  • Man, I really must get around to reading The Extra 2% (I’ve had it for two years). And, I should start implementing this technique myself. p270: Andrew Friedman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, a club we’ve seen are at the forefront of analytics, says his club always ‘postmortems’ decisions at a later date. ‘We keep copious notes on the variables we knew, everything we knew going in’, he says. ‘Then we go back and look at it to review the process. It’s something we’re continuing to refine and will be in perpetuity. I hope to never get to the point where we’re content, or we feel great about everything and go into autopilot mode.'”
  • I love it when the talent theory of expertise gets kicked in the face, like it does on p275-276: “It’s less about the selection – any willing hard worker will do – and more about the training – there are right and wrong ways of doing things, and there is specific knowledge you have to have. The apprenticed is a quite distinct person from the anointed.”
  • Good advice for any business, p281: “In Chasing Stars, (Boris) Groysberg recommends that, to minimize (the non-portability of talent), companies or clubs do their best to promote from within. Where they cannot, they must have a systematic plan to add only those outsiders who fit the culture and who are then assimilated deliberately and carefully into the team. He writes, ‘Hire with care but integrated deliberately and fast.'”
  • p287; I’ve seen this before, but it’s still satisfying: “The idea that sacking managers is a panacea for a team’s ills is a placebo. It is an expensive illusion.”

“The idea that sacking managers is a panacea for a team’s ills is a placebo. It is an expensive illusion.”

  • In the margins of page 287 I noted that one thing absolutely everyone needs to understand (and especially if you’re in a leadership role or involved in athletics) is the concept of regression to the mean. Do yourself a favour and click on that link if you don’t know what it is.
  • p289 made me laugh, because it’s about the 15th book I own that cites Daniel Kahneman‘s research, and it uses one of his more famous examples to illustrate regression to the mean. Quoting part of that example, “It is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.”
  • p292 references John Wooden, and makes me think that I can be doing more with my team meetings at work, and echoes Andrew Friedman’s comments above: “Talent is not given by God. It must be honed and nurtured, sculpted and shaped. Good managers, like Wooden, script every session, so that it has an aim, a result. They must also monitor their own learning.
  • Another great quote, this time from violinist Nathan Milstein: “I asked (my mentor) how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It doesn’t really matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.'”
  • As a defender, yay! This book thoroughly gives us our due, throughout. p308: “Given the amounts of luck involved, you can play more successful soccer by following two broad strategies: either being more efficient or being more innovative than your opponents. Both efficiency and innovation should bring more attention to the darker, defensive side of the pitch.”
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Posted in Books, Management, Math and Science, Soccer, Sports
4 comments on “Book Report: The Numbers Game
  1. […] a friend and colleague asked for holiday reading recommendations, and I looked up my post about The Numbers Game – the book opened with the quote I’ve used […]

  2. […] The Numbers Game – Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong (Chris Anderson and David Sally) […]

  3. […] excellent book The Numbers Game discusses this phenomena in the context of soccer, but soccer is really just one example. The […]

  4. […] The Numbers Game (which I recently read and loved), Chris Anderson (a former goalkeeper turned Ivy League professor) […]

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