The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Think You Know About Football is Wrong

Not being a fan of football (I don't like games that can end in draws, although cricket is worse) it has taken me some time to get round to reading The Numbers Game

However, a fascination with statistics and the inevitability of looking at the mathematics of in-play football trading meant that eventually I had to read the book. Most football fans could do with reading this book too as they could learn a lot from it.

The usual terrace chants of "Sack the manager!", "Get it in the net!" and "We need a new striker!" should be replaced with "We need a sports statistician!", "Keep it out of the net!" and "We need to replace the weakest link!" but probably they don't make for good chants.

Football as any statistician/scientist will tell you is a badly designed experiment [1]. Goals are a rarity compared to other sports and so luck plays its part. This is why football is played over a long season where the luck evens out over the games so that the richest club wins the league (another statistic in the book).

The game is slowly but surely dawdling its way into the 21st century with in-depth match analysis by forward thinking coaches like Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers and their backroom staff of mathematically minded helpers. Not to mention companies such as OptaSports who provide subscribers with a wealth of data with which to analyse games and improve teams. The future is big data.

A football team is only as good as its weakest link rather than its best striker is a conclusion in the book. So when Real Madrid started its Galacticos programme many years ago it was the weaker players in the team that prevented Los Blancos from getting La Decima until recently.

The media and fan's fascination with forwards and talented mid-fielders means that they are the higher paid players who are always in the news (sometimes for football related matters) rather than the equally important defenders and goal keepers keeping the ball out of the net. A good team is balanced to score goals but also to keep a clean sheet too.

This book is filled with interesting statistics about the beautiful game that might make football fans think twice before shooting their mouths off (okay it won't) but we can hope. The book will also provide some interesting research avenues for the sports trader.


[1] Skinner, G.K. and Freeman, G.H. "Are soccer matched badly designed experiments?" Journal of Applied Statistics Vol. 36, No. 10, October 2009, 1087-1095

See also