Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Reflections on Soccernomics

 Saturday September 21 – Swindon Town 3 Bristol City 2

“To pass, or to stop the other team from passing, you also need to know exactly where to be.  The average player only has the ball for two minutes every game, so his main job is to occupy the right positions for the other 88 minutes.”
(Kuper, Simon and Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics, p403 if it bothers you)

 Yep – I’ve been a-reading.  I’ve finally got around to picking up Soccernomics and reading the whole damn thing, largely on the journey from London to Swindon, and then back from Bristol the following day after an evening’s pleasant Pro Evo.

And quite simply: if you’re reading this, you should read Soccernomics, too.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve at least a passing interest both in football, and in the Sean O’Driscoll model currently sputtering into life at Bristol City.  This feels like a good time to be writing this, actually – after two away performances, including what’s currently last night’s dignified elimination from the League Cup at the hands of Southampton, which have seen City play well without taking anything, it’s worth looking at what doing the right things long-term actually means for a team.

That’s precisely what Soccernomics does.  Written by a football writer and a statistician, it looks not at isolated incidents but at long-term trends (and therefore I was predisposed to enjoy it, given my little rant about sample sizes last time out).  There’s a section on penalty kicks, for instance, which doesn’t promise to turn the lay reader into an expert taker or scorer of penalties, but crunches the numbers to demonstrate what method gives you the best chance of scoring a penalty – and therefore, over time, what might help the professional score 85% rather than 80% of those penalty kicks.  Small margins, but if the penalty that sways those stats is in the 90th minute of a playoff final, highly relevant ones.

What stood out was that every long-term trend associated with failure reminded me of what City used to do, of the club that we were before Derek McInnes came in (yep, sorry – using that name with positive connotations – if I’ve not lost you now, I’m delighted).  And every long-term success reminded me of what we’re doing now.  The section on how best to get value out of the transfer market is a great example.  From Kuper and Szymanski’s 12 main secrets of the market I found the following interesting:

1 – A new manager wastes money on transfers – don’t let him (compare Steve Coppell’s transfer market splurge, on players he would only work with for two games, on O’Driscoll’s “if this vision outlasts me then so be it” approach to working with Keith Burt’s signings)
2 – Use the wisdom of crowds (Gary Johnson the benign dictator, whose chief scout was his brother, vs the clear Burt/O’Driscoll/Lansdown/Pemberton? committee)
3 – Stars of recent World Cups or European Championships are overvalued; ignore them (or Slovakian players who’ve played well against Aston Villa on ITV recently?)
9 – Sell any player when another club offers more than he is worth (the difference between cashing in on Steven Davies and hanging on to Marvin Elliott after his one great season)
11 – Buy players with personal problems, then help them deal with their problems (worked for McInnes when signing Jody Morris at St Johnstone, didn’t work when he brought him here. These aren’t guarantees – it’s about chance and value, not copper-bottomed sure things.  The principle is nevertheless right.)

But most of all:

5 – Older players are overvalued / 8 The best time to buy a player is when he is in his early twenties

That one does rather put the tin lid on it for me.  How different our transfer policy feels to the days when we put out David Clarkson, Peter Styvar and Patrick Agyemang and considered it an acceptable attack.  Isn’t it great to see us playing a team as young as the one we’ve been playing recently – yes, we’ve got Marv, as well as Nicky Shorey and Marlon Harewood, but they’re players Sean was lumbered with, or free transfers, or loans, to help the likes of Aden Flint, Marlon Pack, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and co perform to their full potential.

And that will take time, of course.  You learn the game by playing it – those 10,000 hours of practice everyone talks about are vital for technical development, but young players will learn how to spend those 88 minutes when they aren’t in possession by finding out for themselves what works and what doesn’t.  By definition, if you have to master a skill, you aren’t consistently able to demonstrate it yet.  We’re seeing errors, we’re seeing them lead to goals and yep, it’s frustrating.  We’re seeing players like Bobby Reid and Emmanuel-Thomas, blessed for skill at this level, spending large amounts of time in the wrong position and only coming to life when they get the ball.  It’s the City paradox at the moment – their individual moments are getting us into games, but the collective lack of experience is probably losing them.  Several times at the County Ground this weekend I saw Emmanuel-Thomas beg for the ball whilst clearly looking along the line in an offside position.  That’s what we need to get right to win games – get him thinking properly, whilst not losing the side of his game that means scoring wonderful goals is second nature to him, and we’ll kick on.

I don’t believe we’re far off that kicking-on moment now, by the way.  Other than the Peterborough game, our league defeats have been by a single goal.  Games that turn on single goals could normally have been drawn, or even gone the other way, quite easily.  Even the 3-0 loss to Peterborough turned on an Emmanuel-Thomas miss at 1-0, followed moments later by Britt Assombalonga’s fantastic strike.  It’s also a reason to stick with O’Driscoll – our good results coming in the Cup feels like a statistical fluke more than anything.  We’ll revert to the mean soon with or without him, I’d say, and we’re far more likely to keep doing those scientifically sensible things with the rational Black Country man in charge.

Please do read Soccernomics – it really helped me rationalise why a lot of things that City are doing which feel right actually are right.  It’ll challenge you, no matter what you think about football – its conclusions about the lack of excitement in an unpredictable league, and the fickleness of large swathes of football crowds, cut against what I believed, and were the sections I read most closely for all that.  It’s also got an excellent section on the Ashton Gate 8 – and how many other Waterstones bestsellers have one of those?

Let’s stay rationa, as much as we can at least, and genuinely give ourselves a chance.

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