Book review: Soccermatics
today at 1:10 pm
There have been a number of soccer analytics books in recent years, trying to quantify various aspects of the sport. Soccermatics wasn’t originally one of the ones on my radar, but my dad got it for me as a gift. I enjoyed Soccernomics, which reads like the Moneyball of soccer. My dad gave me this book after hearing me rave about Soccernomics, possibly thinking they were similar. Soccermatics has a similar title, but is a very different book.
The author is David Sumpter, a British mathematics professor teaching in Sweden with a number of books to his name. He tries to break down soccer into numbers in a number of different areas. There are sections on tactics, managing, betting and even predicting crowd behavior. He didn’t go after obvious subjects in every case.
Some parts are more interesting than others. Sumpter compared Barcelona’s movement to amoebas, plotting player movement during a game for tactical info. Later in the book there was a suggestion that the penalty box should be reshaped to fit higher percentage shots. The idea being shows from wide positions aren’t likely to score so a foul from that position shouldn’t result in a penalty kick. A narrower penalty area that is taller in central areas and rounded got me thinking about how it would change the game.
Some sections were less enthralling. Sumpter tried a number of betting strategies to see if he could beat the system. His conclusion was that there are maybe some biases within how people bet, but if you’re that good with the numbers, you’re better off being on the side of the bookies instead of trying to beat them. It was interesting section, but maybe not worth the time and words he put into it for such a simple realization.
Considering the subject matter can get dense or bogged down with numbers and charts, Sumpter does a good job of explaining things. It’s a mostly easy read. Unfortunately, the downside to that is things are more wordy than needed in some sections.
One thing that stood out to me was how soccer analytics and data have changed in four or so years since he wrote it. The book was originally published in the middle of the 2015-16 European season. There’s a section written after the season ended in the Pro Edition, which allows him to discuss Leicester City’s shocking Premier League title.
Opta analytics and expected goals were just becoming mainstream when he was writing the book and are far more commonplace in discussions about the sport now. That shows how nascent all of this is that four years is enough to mark significant change in the field.
Overall, Soccermatics is a mostly easy read (if you have any interest in statistics and numbers) that introduces some new concepts, but if you’re familiar with soccer analytics going in you may not find all that much revelatory in it.
Up next: When Friday Comes: Football, War and Revolution in the Middle East
(I previously said I was going to read The Arsenal Yankee, but I never got around to it and I think I’m in the mood for something else now.)