Moneyball and football – a flawed premise

There are several moments in Moneyball, the film which documents the rise of the Oakland A’s, when Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) ignores the joint advice of his scouts and looks at the fictional Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) and asks him to recite the statistical data that supports the buying of player A or B. This goes against the advice of the scouts, who say the player has a weird way to pitch, is too slow, too old, has a complicated personality or whatever else. Beane does not care. For him, the stats are everything. The scouts are dinosaurs – a point helped by their age (they all looking like having reserved their spots in the local cemetery) – and their empirical knowledge is essentially useless.

The message is that it does not matter what the years of experience of these scouts bring, only what the raw data mentions. When Sabermetrics, a method for objective analysis of baseball using statistics popularized by Bill James, appeared, it was very much ignored. The scouts distrusted the view that people sitting in cubicles could look at numbers and spot what all their hours in ball parks could not. On the other hand, when the Oakland A’s succeeded, scouts started being seen in the manner described above. Unfortunately, both approaches miss the point completely.

It is very much true that scouts, such as any human being, will fall prey to their own prejudices and preconceptions. If a player is built so-and-so, he cannot play in position A. If he is fast, he has to be a runner. If he has a strong arm, he must be a pitcher. This concept is immediately defeated by the most famous baseball player ever: Babe Ruth. Or by the tall and lean Usain Bolt, who runs mainly against shorter and bulkier sprinters. On the other hand, it is also true that papers filled with numbers do not tell the whole story. One player may excel in his position, but his success may be as much due to his own prowess as to that of the teammate who interacts the most with them. Conceivably it can be seen as the Lennon-McCartney effect: separate they may be good, but together they were geniuses.

Cause and effect
One other point is about the origin of the statistics. It may be true that scouts are looking at style when they should be looking at results, but it was the scouts (and possibly reporters) who came up with the relevant statistics to look at. It may sound silly, but if the statistics are now “base runs” or batting averages”, they could very well be “hand size”, “batting arc” or “average running speed”. Someone came up with the right statistics to look at, because someone figured out the relation cause-effect. That is, someone realized that the higher the batting average, the higher the total points made. Not the other way around.

Some time ago, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi published Soccernomics, a book which looked at football from the point of view of an economist, using his tools. There, they realized, for example, that the amount paid in fees for players had little correlation with the success of the team that brought in the players. A much better measure of success were the salaries paid to the players in the team. This indicator provided a very strong correlation, but may not be the whole story. Obviously nobody would expect that if Stoke increase the salaries of the whole squad to Manchester City levels, they would challenge for the title. Still, it may not be clear if the salaries are high because the victories forced the management to increase them, or if the victories came because successful players who earn high salaries were brought in. Once again, cause and effect.

The Liverpool case
The most ironic part of all this is the recent sacking of Damien Comolli. He had been brought in by Liverpool to oversee the implementation of Moneyball-rules to the club. He identified the necessary areas of intervention, identified the players necessary to bring in and did it, apparently with the blessing of Dalglish. With hindsight, the decisions were, mainly, disastrous. Only Jose Enrique and Craig Belamy were successes and Charlie Adam does not feel overpriced (he arrived on the cheap). Naturally, the casual observer will feel aggrieved with the fees paid, but should he? Moneyball was never about bringing brilliant players for peanuts. It was always about bringing players with added value for less than what they could contribute. With this in mind, and considering Liverpool elected to bring in English players, Carroll and Henderson (very young), Suarez and Downing (not old and with important sets of skills) were not bad choices. Maybe overpriced, but if you are willing to pay the price, you should not complaint.

Still, even with a Soccernomics/Moneyball devotee as Director of Football and another as owner, Liverpool haven’t had the highest success. This goes to show how difficult transposing success formulas between different sports can be. It also goes to show that, with it’s simple rules, football can still defy analysis. Statistical tools must know what to look for, otherwise they are simply a nice party trick. On the other hand, when the key issues are identified, a relation of cause and effect must be established, lest one focuses on the wrong side of the issue. In baseball, this is easy but in football the issue is much more complicated due to the multiple interactions between all the players.

This is not to say that such statistical analysis will not be possible, only that it will have to identify the key issues before it can be applied. And, as in everything in human history, the first one advancing the knowledge a bit stands to profit immensely. The question is: who will that be?

Cantre-backs at a paradigm shift

Recently Gabriele Marcotti reflected about the lower quality of centre-backs of top clubs playing in present-day football. As main culprits, he identified the increasing importance of full-backs and defensive midfielders, the decline of man-marking and simple cycles: occasionally the quality decreases. On his analysis I believe he missed one obvious follow-through: the quality of strikers at the moment (Messi, Ronaldo, Huntelaar, van Persie, Gomez, etc, etc, etc) may give the impression that centre-backs are less capable than just a decade ago. On the other hand, of course, it may be that the lower quality makes the attackers shine more. A reflection for another day.

There is however one other possibility that has probably played a role: the changes in rules – or rather the changes in the instructions given to referees. Until about 10 years ago there was still some allowance on the challenges by defenders (and here, “defender” refers to a player who is in a defensive moment of the play). Players could go for hard sliding tackles knowing that they would expect, at most, a yellow card. More often than not they would get a simple slap in the wrist and continue playing as usual. Only out of the ordinary or repeat offending would bring the caution. Red cards were reserved for harsh dissent or violent/unprofessional behaviour. That is how players such as Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Ronald Koeman, Diego Simeone, Gattuso, etc, made their living. There is no need to go back to analysing the Crazy Gang and the infamous Vinnie Jones tackle on McMahon.

For many years, the “reducers” were used to intimidate talented opponents, achieve psychological superiority or assert dominance in certain areas of the pitch. These tactics were the ones most used by dominating centre-backs, stoppers who would make clear to opposing attackers what would happen if they tried to take them on. More often than not, tackles which could bring today red cards would warrant little action from the referee. This meant that teams went frequently the standard of one strong and powerful centre-back being paired with a pacey and positionally aware partner. This remains the mould of many sides (Manchester United, Chelsea under Mourinho, Barcelona when playing Puyol and Piqué, etc).

The issue is that with the focus being more and more on letting the game flow and protecting the talented players, football is being changed into a more non-contact sport. Many simple challenges which would be completely ignored in the past are now being called as fouls and some of them even bring yellow cards. Because of this, man marking started being less important (if you cannot perform hard tackles on the opponent there is little point in sticking with him) and movement and positioning took precedence.

Unfortunately such paradigm shift is not achieved easily nor rapidly. Player who have been trained on the art of hard tackling, physical presence and last ditch blocks find it hard to adapt. it is no coincidence that some of the players mentioned by Marcotti are also adept (or started their careers) in other positions. Thiago Silva, Hummels and Kompany played often as defensive midfielders. When Pepe moved from his native Brazil to Portugal it was as a defensive midfielder. Chiellini started as left-back and Vermaelen played often in that position. All of these positions focus strongly on positioning, movement and anticipation, which is why these players have managed to switch easily to the new concept. Other have not been so lucky. Even David Luiz plays extremely well the position when concentrated, maybe because he started as attacking midfielder (which may explain his lapses in concentration).

Of course there are generations which bring brilliant defenders and others which are not so fortunate. Italy has always produced tactically aware defenders and produced the most impressive defensive pairing I can remember watching, that of Nesta and Cannavaro, two players basing their game on positioning, reading of the game, speed and anticipation. Still, in recent years Italy has been little active in that respect, with Chiellini being the most remarkable defender produced in the last 10 years.

Still, even taking these concepts into consideration, we can probably expect more and more players coming through who have been trained within the boundaries of modern football and the quality of centre-backs will again increase. One possible future trend may even be the reassignment of full-backs and defensive midfielders into centre-back positions. On tuesday, at the Barcelona-Chelsea match, we saw how Bosingwa (himself originally a midfielder) adapted perfectly to that role in the absence of an aerial threat from Barcelona. This could be the beginning of a future trend.

Notes from the semi-finals of the Champions League

1. The two matches do not herald the end of the Guardiola-led dominance of Barcelona. Barcelona still had the most chances, hit the woodwork four times, missed a penalty and saw Torres suspending his profiglacy for a moment (albeit with one of the easiest chances he will ever get). One match (or two matches) is not enough to see any trend. It may be, as Sir Alex Ferguson proved in 2000, a catalyst for change, but it cannot be used for foreseeing anything, other than with the benefit of a later hindsight. Next year expect Barcelona to be hoarding the ball for over 65% of the time and still trouncing opponents.

2. Still, the effect of four years of unprecedent success, 60+ matches per season and ageing of some key players is starting to take its toll. Xavi is still the prime playmaker in the world and Pirlo and Scholes have been proving that age is not a big factor when your main function is to stroll around and hit passes. Still, at 32 and with chronic injury problems, his influence is likely to diminish in the future. Also, at 34, Puyol is on the wane and if his playing quality may be replaced with some easiness (by means of the checkbook), his leadership qualities may not. Guardiola may have postponed all these effects, but his fourth year is starting to look like Guttmann’s third years.

3. Chelsea did “an Inter” against Barcelona, but the hard way. The result of the first leg hadn’t been that important (a 2-0 win for Barcelona would have got them through in both cases), but there were different circumstances. For one, the player who was sent-off in 2010 was Thiago Motta. Hardly a nobody, but not the main player of the side nor the most influential element of the squad, a leader by charisma and example. On the other hand, Mourinho had drilled his team for months to be ready to play in that way at the Camp Nou. Di Matteo had to take a broken team, lift it up, and make it face the worst nightmare of European football. On top of that not only the captain was sent-off, the other centre-back got injured and the substitute right-back had to play at centre-back. Still Chelsea managed to score two goals, something considerably more impressive than the 1-0 defeat/win of Inter. The only point in favour of Mourinho’s squad was that, then, nobody thought it would be possible to do it. Now it is known Barcelona have a hard time against teams playing this way.

4. Real Madrid payed also the price of having played so many matches with essential the same 11 men. This is especially true for midfielders Khedira and, most of all, Xabi Alonso, who have to double as destroyers, creators (again mainly Alonso) and compensate the fact that Ronaldo and Özil do not defend much. Against a dynamic Bayern midfield they simply could not cope.

5. Bayer showed the best way to attack Real Madrid: place wide wingers who like to cut inside and support them with fast overlapping wingbacks. This is a dangerous tactic, but if supported by intelligent hard-working midfielders and centre-backs good in covering (Boateng had two fantastic matches), it can be done. Helps if you have players such as Ribéry, Robben and Gomez in attack, though.

6. The suspensions issue is moot. The game of football got the 2 cards at the 1970 World Cup. The punishments that went along with the cards changed with time, but everyone knows right now that two yellow cards in the Campions League will result in a one-match suspension. Whether this suspension comes in the final or not is beyond the point. A reprieve on suspensions for the final would be an open charter for all types of cheating during the semi-finals. Furthermore, it would be an enormous insult to the Chelsea players who, instead of kicking the Barcelona players, held fast and avoided for the most part hard fouls with which they could be cautioned. Removing this sacrifice element would give much less lustre to the heroics put in by players such as Ramires on Tuesday.

7. Following logic, Bayern Munich should win the final. Their players fit better in Chelsea’s overall tactics and personnel than the other way around. Furthermore, the players missing for Bayern are considerably less important than for Chelsea. Also Bayern’s passing style with controlled fast thrusts forward should cause problems to an ageing Chelsea. Besides, playing in their own stadium should give them an extra lift. The semi-finals have defied logic, it’s true, but as Michael Cox points out, this round tends to be more exciting. The final usually, because of the nature of a single match, is much more likely to be a cagey affair. And that may well play into the hands of logic. Still, who knows?…

The Nomad’s Curse

This post was first written as a contribution for the excellent and unfortunately now innactive The Equaliser. The original post can be found here. The picture above was the one initially chosen by Chris to illustrate the post.

It is afternoon in Vienna, May of 1990. Benfica is scheduled to play the great Milan side of Baresi, Rijkaard, Gullit, van Basten and Sacchi the nest day for the European Cup. A black man reaches a grave and kneels. He murmurs a few words with a light weeping voice. He stands and leaves, with a glance at the grave that mixes anguish and love. The name on the grave is that of Béla Guttmann. The man is called Eusébio da Silva Ferreira. Their paths became irrevocably intertwined in Amsterdam almost 30 years earlier. Eusébio, once called the Black Panther, recalls the images in his mind.

It is minute 65 of the final of the European Cup of 1962. Benfica, the holders of the trophy are awarded a penalty kick. If converted it will put the encarnados in front for the first time in the match after the hattrick from Hungarian genius Puskas gave Real Madrid, the greates team in the history of the game, the lead. There steps up a boy in his teens. His name is Eusébio da Silva Ferreira and until just 18 months earlier he had been playing on dirt fields in the portuguese colonial holding of Mozambique and the streets of its capital, Lourenço Marques.

As he approaches the ball Santamaría, the lengendary goalkeeper of los merengues, approaches him and calls him “Maricón”, sissy. Eusébio, a simple boy with no knowledge of the Spanish language, asks his boyhood idol, Mário Coluna, whom he addresses as Mr. Coluna, what it meant. Coluna tells him with firm kindness to dispatch the ball, score the goal, go to Santamaría and call him “Cabrón”, bastard. Eusébio does so, places his club in front and, just three minutes later, adds another with what would become a signature shot: a bullet, close to the ground, to the corner of the goal.

Within half an hour José Águas, the captain of the side, lifts for the second consecutive time the trophy, thus establishing the águias (eagles) as the new dominant force in Europe after the 5 consecutive years of Real Madrid domination. The side showcases talents as Coluna, the captain José Águas, the phenomenon Eusébio and his fellow teenager Simões, defensive bulwark Germano and giant goalkeeper Costa Pereira. The star of the side, however, is manager Béla Guttmann who, a few days later, demands a bonus and a raise for his feats with the club. Having been denied he leaves the club with a threat that became a curse: «Without me, not even in one hundred years will Benfica be European Champion again».

We are back in 1990. Benfica hold their own against the might of the Italian champions. Just one year earlier they had swatted aside Steaua Bucharest in the final by 4-0. There was fear that the Portuguese club would suffer another rout. On the 68th minute a through ball finds Rijkaard running from deep. One on one with the keeper, he buries it and scores the single goal of the match. During the press conference, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the manager of Benfica, is hailed for not having been trounced. A bit farther away stands Eusébio, again the face of resignation, asking his former manager, Mr. Guttmann, why can’t he rest in peace and release them.

Since the fateful day in Amsterdam in 1962, Benfica had gone to five more finals and lost them all. Three of them still in the 1960’s, a time when the power of Eusébio was at its maximum, being showcased for the whole world to see on the World Cup Finals of 1966 in England, where he scored 9 goals, 4 of them in a one man show against North Korea during one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the tournament, and received the name of Black Panther.

Throughout his career, Eusébio’s course is the course of Benfica. Whenever he is successful, Benfica are successful. Whenever he isn’t, Benfica isn’t. The only exception are the European Cup Finals, when the curse takes effect. In 1990, the pilgrimage to the grave of that football nomad, the austro-hungarian jew who revolutionized Brazilian football and made history with Benfica, was made to request the lifting of the curse. To this day, it is still in effect. Eusébio, now 69, only hopes he will live long enough to pronounce the words «Thank you Mister, now we both can rest».

Note: the scene in the graveyard in Vienna is obviously fictionalized. The visit wasn’t.