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Is soccer really a numbers game?

KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

More statistics are being brought into the sport worldwide, but not many know what to do with them.

September 22, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Says U.S. national team defender Jonathan Spector of analyzing statistics in soccer: 'I understand where they're coming from, [but] it's harder in soccer than it is in baseball. It's a more free-flowing game. Sure, you can analyze certain things, but there's a lot of things players do off the ball that you can't quantify in any way.'
Says U.S. national team defender Jonathan Spector of analyzing statistics… (Christopher Lee / Getty…)

For decades many soccer coaches viewed statistics other than goals and saves as nothing more than meaningless curiosities. But now, inspired in part by the "Moneyball"-fueled rush to break every game down to the sum of its parts, the sport is taking a new look at numbers.

And while it has found value in some of those figures, it's clear not all of the numbers are adding up.

On the plus side, Major League Soccer has experimented with a lightweight wireless data-tracking system that fits under a player's jersey and blends information from a GPS, gyroscope and accelerometer into real-time measurements of effort, speed and the distance each player has covered. MLS plans to expand the microchip technology next season, making it the world's first "smart league."

Across the pond, in the deeply in debt English Premier League, coaches and general managers have begun poring over stats such as pass-completion percentage, headers won and crosses taken in an effort to identify skilled but relatively cheap talent. And former U.S. national team midfielder Earnie Stewart, now technical director for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie, is so sold on the new metrics he took his front office to see "Moneyball," the Hollywood movie about Billy Beane's sabermetrics strategy for rebuilding baseball's Oakland Athletics.

"There's a sea change occurring," says Mark Roberts, whose numbers-crunching Statzpack (company slogan: Soccer Stats Made Simple) counts the MLS' Houston Dynamo, the National Soccer Coaches Assn. of America and hundreds of high school, college and youth teams among its clients.

"The reason why we look at data points is because it's bloody useful," says Roberts,. whose company is based in Ireland. "You manage a business, you can have the best leadership and creativity, but if you don't look at data, then you're going to be lucky to succeed.

"Do I feel like there's a revolution? I actually do. But it's a quiet revolution."

And as with most revolutions, there is a strong and significant opposition that would prefer to keep things the way they are.

"There's enough data in soccer, as in all sports, that can drive you crazy," says Bruce Arena, the Galaxy's Hall of Fame coach and the most successful manager in U.S. national team history. "Soccer, it's not similar to other sports. There's so much independent decision making and play on the field by individuals.

"There's really a lot of gray areas in the statistics in soccer. Some are valid, some are not."

U.S. national team defender Jonathan Spector, a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan, agrees.

"I understand where they're coming from, [but] it's harder in soccer than it is in baseball," he says. "It's a more free-flowing game. Sure, you can analyze certain things, but there's a lot of things players do off the ball that you can't quantify in any way.

"It's good to an extent. But I don't think it shows the whole picture."

It doesn't have to, say the numbers geeks. If they know what they're looking for and where to look for it, the stats can provide a pretty detailed image. The problem then becomes not the data but the interpretation of it.

The British company Opta has been providing detailed statistical breakdowns to elite European teams for more than 15 years, for example, yet officials at many of those teams are still hopelessly old school when it comes to understanding what those numbers mean.

"The team that scores the most goals wins 100% of the time," Robin Russell, a longtime director of coaching for England's Football Assn., jokes in summing up the attitude of many.

"Statistical analysis in football has been going on for 50 years," continues Russell, founder of the online coaching website SportsPath, which, like Roberts' Statzpack, uses data primarily to assist in the coaching and development of young players. "Now with the help of tracking systems it's getting better. [But] in scouting, sometimes it's very hard to get a hold of statistics. It's still very much in its infancy."

Perhaps the best example of the limitations of soccer sabermetrics can be found in the spectacular flameout of "Moneyball" disciple Damien Comolli, the former director of football for Liverpool of the EPL. Comolli, a friend and confident of Beane, lasted only 18 months in the team's front office, but during that time he spent lavishly, doling out $56 million — the highest transfer fee ever spent on a British player — to get Andy Carroll and $116 million more for Luis Suarez, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, and Jose Enrique.

The goal at Liverpool was to find players with undervalued but useful — and, most important, measurable — skills, allowing it to maximize performance while minimizing the financial investment. Yet the team wound up $79 million in the red in 2011, so last April Comolli was out and Liverpool stumbled to an eighth-place finish.

Clearly the idea was better than its execution. And until soccer coaches and executives get a better handle both on what numbers they need and what those numbers mean, the lesson of Liverpool is likely to haunt any team that dares to take a 21st century approach to a game that, in some ways, is still rooted in the 19th century.

"You just need to understand how to analyze the data," the Galaxy's Arena says. "Isn't that the case in everything in the world? In business and education, sports. If you don't know how to analyze the data, statistics don't matter."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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