Tuesday 21 October 2014

When you add it all up, football is a whole lot more than simply a game of two halves

Published 07/05/2014 | 02:30

Liverpool's Luis Suarez. PA
Liverpool's Luis Suarez. PA

If you are a Liverpool fan, don't read this! When I was young and playing football, I remember the routine at the kick-off from under-eights upwards. If it was our kick-off, the two wingers (usually small lads) tapped the ball to each other and rolled it back to the centre-half, usually the biggest lad on the field, who then hoofed it up as far as possible towards the opponent's penalty box.

This we did every game without fail. We got possession and promptly gave it away – ceding possession but gaining momentarily territory. Football back then was a game of territory and was meant to be played, as much as possible, in the opponent's half. This was a rudimentary example of the "put 'em under pressure" style of football and, as far as we were concerned, it made lots of sense.

The other three most common expressions to be heard in the playing cauldron that was Hyde Road, Dalkey, was "get rid of it", "when in doubt kick it out" and "up the line". "Get rid of it" was the mantra for every manager to every footballer. The game of football, which should be a game of possession where being on the ball is rewarded, was replaced by a game of rejection where being without the football was rewarded.

The other great expression was "up the line". This meant if there was a throw-in, the only thing that a kid could do was fling the ball up the line in the hope that a team-mate would put it back into touch and, therefore, your team would gain territory.

We thought this was how football was played. Everyone in the South Dublin Schoolboys' League played this way so we thought it was normal, until we went on an under-14s trip to Germany. They didn't hoof the ball; they passed. They didn't thump the ball into touch, they kept it in play and rarely flung the ball down the line from throws.

This was all new to us. But more interestingly, their manager was counting the passes, taking notes, telling them to be patient. We got hammered four times in a week. The difference between us and those German under-14s was they measured things and we hoped for the best. Fast-forward to today and we see that, with the arrival of big data and computer advances, measurement is now central to football teams as it is in baseball, basketball and rugby.

In fact, one of the biggest differences between football and other sports is the fact that even though so much money is at stake, data analytics still doesn't play a huge part in the set-up of teams.

This is likely to change. Welcome to the economisation of football. We are about to enter a new world where all big clubs will measure everything. It is being done at the moment by some of the Premiership outfits. In time, big data will collide with big money to change the way players' performances are measured.

New American studies are now using big data, statistical techniques and economic theory about how people co-operate to get the best outcomes for the whole team. An American economics academic called Daniel Altman has come up with a new method of assessing a player's worth to the overall team.

He is not just measuring passes, tackles and goals – he is using things like a player's destructive ability to put the opposition off their stride.

He has resurrected the old economic notion called a Shapley value, which is an economic concept used in game theory to determine each team member's contribution to success. There's a great article on this at qs.com.

The odd thing about the Shapley value is it measures both positive and negative traits – as long as those traits increase the team's chances.

Take for example the game when the Italian blocker Marco Materazzi helped Italy win the 2006 World Cup by insulting the virtue of Zinedine Zidane's sister. If Materazzi was able to do this regularly, and that was enough to swing games in his team's favour, that would be seen as a helpful trait in the new data-driven world! The economist makes the assertion that most football cognoscenti are looking at the wrong measurement when assessing a player's worth.

For example, he maintains that, for the team, a player's total number of goals scored is of far less benefit than another measure which is non-penalty goals and assists per minutes played. This goals per game chart tells a story, and we know from this year that Suarez and Sturridge of Liverpool got all the glory.

However, the economist maintains that using the better measure for the team as a whole, Sergio Aguero of Man City has been a more effective player, despite commentators claiming he has had a quiet season.

It looks like his team is going to come out top as well.

As I listened to poor Liverpool crumble in the face of the might of Crystal Palace on Monday night, I thought of the effect big data and measurement will have on future football. Maybe the dry numbers men have it right, but wouldn't it be a terrible shame to see the beautiful game follow so many other sports and become hijacked and beholden to economists and statistics? Is nothing sacred?

www.davidmcwilliams.ie

Irish Independent

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