Life’s a Pitch

The Passions of the Press Box

Michael Calvin (editor), 2012, Integr8 Books

Weymouth FC, Leeds United, Portsmouth, Fulham, Montpellier, Derby County, Crystal Palace, Sunderland. When soccer journalists would follow their heart, you would read headlines about teams you hardly hear a word about today. In “Life’s a Pitch” journalist from the BT soccer webpage teamed up to tell the stories they cannot write about most of the time, because of their personal attachment to the clubs and players involved. They tell about the one season or the one successful run a team had for a short time when it raised out of mediocrity, they talk about brilliant players who always were undervalued, players who will always be remembered for one goal they made and players who lost the support of the fans completely. If someone, not a soccer fan himself, reads the stories they might wonder why the events described have lead to such an attachment with the clubs or soccer itself. These are no songs about heroes or Champion League wins, these are mostly stories of constant disappointment, except for this one glorious season in the past. Soccer fans can relate to that and know that going with a team through hard times will strengthen the bond with a club as much as championship wins. Getting excited every summer about the new players and the positive news from the training camps, followed by the disappointment in fall, when you know this season will be just as bad as the last one, that is what it means to be a real fan. It is the failures which make a team attractive, too. Being the underdog probably relates to as many people’s life as the wish of being a winner. And sometimes if this underdog feelings fades, because the club becomes too successful, the fans might even turn their back, quite the same as the good weather fans of the Top 3,  because they cannot relate to it anymore. This underdog feeling is prominent in most of the stories in the book and allows you to understand why clubs have supporters even when they never did win anything.
The book kept me thinking about my own club and how I got attached to it. I did not really have the one event or game which did it for me. My interest in soccer and in Dynamo Dresden started when my uncle bought me my first weekly soccer newspaper and the special edition for the 1984/1985 season with all the teams in it. Since then I regularly read about soccer and up to this day I consume soccer majorly through reading news about it than watching it live or on TV. The late eighties and early nineties were the high times of the club I was able to follow, when they played in the European Cup and later after the reunion in the Bundesliga. That all ended 1995 when they dropped to the third league and then some years later even to the fourth. For a decade one disappointment followed another and they debt from the times in the Bundesliga where weighing heavy on the club, until it was at least able to come back to the second league. It is still a long road to old glories and I think the best they probably can achieve is to be an underdog in the Bundesliga but today a third league championship is as much as worth as a first league championship was in the past and the passion about following every game of the club, hasn’t changed a bit.

Biography: 0/3
History: 2/3
Background: 2/3
Tactics & Game philosophy: 0/3

Next book: The Blizzard Issue Ten (June 7th)

The Blizzard: Issue Six

Jonathan Wilson (editor), 2012

This issue of The Blizzard had a focus on Portugal, a general overview of the decline of Portuguese soccer, some Benfica and Porto history, as well as some story about the decline of the smaller clubs in both cities. Especially the article about Boavista Porta and Belenenses Lissabon shows a general problem, which does not only exists in Portugal. For both clubs, which won the Portuguese championship at some point in time, several relegations did not only mean a live in obscurity but also financial obligations which are unbearable. When a club would have to pay more for the maintenance of the stadium than it can earn every months, then there is no hope for a better future anymore. It seems that the modern professional leagues with their requirements for the stadium quality do not allow it clubs to downscale in a reasonable way when the success fails to appear. In many cases the stadiums were not even paid by these clubs but by the public (see Soccernomics), because the clubs would not be able to pay the bill in first place. At the top of the food chain a new stadium might attract bigger crowds to the game, but even at the bottom of the first leagues that is not true anymore. That means to get up in the elite of every countries league system one has to invest in a stadium which cannot be paid just by a club’s savings and then if the venture fails the clubs are not able anymore to pay the maintenance cost, so that they go bankrupt, because the cost do not downscale as much as they would need to. Therefore the clubs at the entrance to professional soccer are always at the edge of extinction because they cannot grow and shrink organically. There were several attempts, at least in Germany, to improve the situation for these clubs, e.g., by changing the league system and making it more attractive on the third or fourth level of the pyramid but in the end that just shifts the problem one level down but it will not solve the problem in general.
Two other articles follow the same language and focus on Brasil. One describes the decline of the Brasilian national team which is attributed to the stronger focus on a fast athletic game. That happened partly because one preferred to copy the European style of soccer in the past and partly because physical endurance was higher valued during the military dictatorship and therefore players were more trained for physical strength and less for good passing and technical skills. But now, because ball possession and the Jogo bonito were frowned upon, even the Germans have a better passing and possession play, as they showed in the last years semi-final, and one has to see when the Brasilian team will make it back into the world class.
The second article is a report about the supporter or ultra scene of the North Brasilian teams. The teams hardly make it to the highest ranks of the league system but their supporters are devoted. Similar to the supporters described in This Love is not for Cowards the fan groups provide an important social function, they help each other and the group gives the live of their members meaning. Very often these type of ultra groups are frowned upon, because of the regular outbursts of violence against other supporters. But their violence is not born out of these groups it is around the members of these groups every day because of where and how they live, so it is part of their live already. Therefore not allowing these fans to gather in these fan groups would mean to drive them directly into the arms of criminal organizations or xenophobic para-military groups. Therefore, when they decide they prefer to support a soccer club, they should be encouraged and helped instead of frowned at, because they might be able to remove people from the endless circle of poverty and crime and therefore help society as a whole.
In this issue there also interviews with two interesting coaches. The one with Brendan Rogers, probably one of the most progressive coaches in England’s Premier League, is somehow disappointing. Although it talks about his backgrounds and where is influences come from and about his philosophy, it stays on the surface and does not go into depth, when it comes to the tactical plan he tries to teach his teams. It is talked about the technical ability of his players but not, what different jobs the players should have on the field or how they have to move. It would have been interesting to ask how he made a ball possession play work with the lean budget of Swansea and what is different with Liverpool and why he was not able yet to transfer his game successfully to them.
The Zdenek Zeman interview had more of these information and therefore provides a nice portrait about one of the interesting characters in the Serie A.
Finally, similar to the proposal for the UEFA Europe League in Issue Four, I can only hope the proposal for a new television schedule described in this issue, will be used in Europe or the whole world to promote the watching of local teams. Again The Blizzard provides some out-of-the-box solution for current problems in soccer which allow to combine commercialization with the best deal for the supporters.

Biography: 1/3
History: 2/3
Background: 2/3
Tactics & Game philosophy: 0/3

Next book: Erbstein (March 7th)


Why England Loses, Why Spain, Germany, and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia—and Even Iraq—Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport

Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski, 2014 (3rd edition), Nation Books

I have to say that I am a big fan of statistics. As a kid in school when I went in summer to my grandparents I just needed a pair of dice and a lot of paper and a pen and I started playing soccer on paper. First I just rolled the game results, later I had a more complex system, how the performance of the players affected the result of every game. I wrote endless sheets of paper full with tables, game results, the performance of the different teams and so on. Therefore this book is definitely written for people like me who analyze the world in a scientific way even soccer. That means I definitely like the book and its approach and all critique I might have is not about the quality of the text in general but because as an “expert” I might have done things differently than described in the book.
The book is split in three big chapters, one about the teams, one about fans and one about countries and a comparison of them. In all sections statistics are used to evaluate common knowledge in soccer and to understand if the general opinion is right or wrong and if the latter, what story statistics tell, how it really is. Of course the cases, when the public opinion goes wrong are far more interesting and therefore the most room is given to them. The middle part about fans is probably the least interesting. It is good to know that there are only very few hardcore fans who support only one team but statistics about who watches more games in the stadium or TV are not really interesting to understand the game. Nevertheless, what was impressive in this part was the description, how soccer stadiums and big sports events like the World Cup and Olympia are financed by the public, the profits go to private organizations and there is no measurable improvement of the countries or cities economy, which is usually the argument, during or after the event.
The last part with a comparison of the different countries and their performance internationally is more interesting. The authors make the argument that experience, talent pool and the know-how exchange with other soccer countries are the three biggest influencing factors for success of different nations. That sounds right (and is of course supported by the statistics) but I would go a step further and would think one has to look a bit deeper by judging the talent development in the different countries and not just the talent pool, that means the number of citizens in a country. Countries like the Netherlands have a much better youth development system than England and therefore get more out of a smaller pool. Other countries, e.g. in Africa, probably could do much better, if they had an organized structure of training kids and youth players. One can also see that France’s success end of the 90s was based on the talents from Clairefontaine, Spain’s success 2008, 2010 and 2012 on the youth development of La Masia and the German success last year was based on the changes made to the youth development system in the country after the horrible European Championship in 2000. It should be quite easy to compare how many players of a country play in the top 3 or top 5 leagues in the world (England, Span, Germany, Italy, France) to see which country really has the best talent pool in the world.
The most interesting part of the book comes directly at the beginning, when the authors try to explore how players can be evaluated better based on statistical data and not on gut feeling and how teams perform based on the money they use.
At first let’s talk about the players. When the book was written first in 2009 statistics were just introduced to the soccer world, after the use of statistics in baseball were made public with Moneyball and these ideas were taken over to revolutionize soccer. Today statistics are so common in soccer that even newspapers juggle with running distances, won duels and passing statistics when they try to explain why one player is better than the other. Therefore the data and stories in the book sound a bit antique.
But in my opinion even more there is a general flaw in the argumentation Kuper and Szymanski make, which is also made by several English soccer clubs as described in the book. Both focus too much on single player statistics. This works well for Baseball and American Football, because in both games the same situations are repeated continuously and under similar conditions therefore the single player performance has much more influence on the final results. The authors of Soccernomics also explain that the test of Liverpool to buy the best dribbler, the best passing midfielder a.s.o. did not result in success but their argument is that the right statistic value is not found yet (e.g. they explain that “high intensity sprints correlate better with the winning rate than the running distance alone). If statistics fail to predict the results their argument is the “dynamics” of soccer is the reason for the failure. That is not wrong but doesn’t go far enough. What they really mean is that the group tactics are no represented by simple statistics. Even the best defender in the world is not able to show a good performance when the rest of the team shows lousy work against the ball. Even the goalgetter with a high success rate of 80% per shot would not be successful when the team is not able to get the ball into the box and he has to go move backward to get the ball at all. It is not surprising that the authors make this mistake because their role model is the Premier League and that is the definitely the one of the big leagues where tactics are at a very low level. The high level of the Premier League (if it is that high at all, just check the Champions League results of the last years) is solely achieved, because the best players are there for the most money. But one can assume that in more developed countries, from the tactical point of view, much more could be done with the same players. Just to conclude, I think it is important to look at statistical data but they only tell you something, when you use them, to understand the tactical plan a team has on the field. It might be better to buy the guy with 70% passing success than the one with 90% passing success for your center midfield, when the first has better anticipation and balancing of the teams organization on the field and that is what you need for your team.
That directly ties into their next evaluation of the success of clubs and the reasons behind them, especially the influence of money and of coaches. They identified, that when it comes to money wages have the biggest influence on a team’s success not necessarily transfer payments. So it makes sense that the best/most successful players also get most of the money. The coaches they tried to analyze by comparing the league position at the end of seasons with the position one would expect from the wages and they concluded that coaches have only a small influence on the performance of their teams. I think the statistics are flawed in this comparison because in an ideal situation the best all coaches can achieve is that every team comes out equal in comparison to the expected position, that means on average in the used statistics coaches are “useless”. Using this statistics in a comparison where the ideal result is that there is no influence might be correct (e.g. when the authors look for racism in soccer) but to see if there is a positive effect of coaches you would have to use a different measure (e.g. how much do they improve a player during his time at the club, which could be based on the goal impact value). But again the results might be flawed by the use of Premier League results. Just read the biography of Neil Warnock, a better known coach in England, and you see that work on tactical details is not a focus of him but more buying and selling players. No wonder money plays such a big role for clubs in England. Maybe a wages vs. achievements list of the Champions League might be different.
Additionally to that the authors seem also to favor the entrance of sugar daddies in the soccer world and their money doping approach to soccer. The argument is that several suggar daddies competing with each other level the game for clubs which were less successful in the past and therefore give teams a chance which would have none, because they don’t have the money.
The argument is lopsided, especially when it takes the Bundesliga as negative example, where one club (Bayern Munich) dominates the rest. I think the domination of Bayern is not different than the domination of Manchester United or Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Yes, they get the majority of the championship titles but there are always years other teams get lucky. In the last ten years only 5 of 10 championships went to Munich, the same is true for the ten years before. Most of the times teams like Dortmund, Stuttgart or Bremen were able for one or two years to have successful tranfers or they harvested the fruits of a good youth academy and therefore became competitive even with less money. A similar example is described by Kuper & Szymanski for Olympique Lyon. That means, it is possible to be better than the richest just by a good personal policy and having the right coach to make us of it. That is not only true for the top of the league, in the last four years teams like Augsburg, Fürth and Paderborn were promoted to Bundesliga the first time although they had significantly lower budgets. All of these teams were able to compete in the first league although they had not more than an above average second league budget available. What that means is there is some permeability for small teams. They might not be able to compete for ever but if the right persons are in charge they are able to surprise. Why is that in danger with sugar daddies? A good example for that in Germany is the club RB Leipzig led from Austria, which is supported by Red Bull (but you could also take the SAP supported 1899 Hoffenheim or the VW supported Wolfsburg as well). The club started in 2009 buying the license of a fifth league club and is now playing in the second league. The problem with the club is not so much that they bought second league players to play in the fifth and fourth league to get up quickly but that they also started in the region to convince youth players down to 13,14 years old to join their youth teams. At the beginning they literally tried to buy out the whole team of an age group of the club with the best youth development in the area. Although at this age one cannot make contracts with the players and pay them money one can easily pay their parents money to convince them that their kid has to change sides. Especially in East Germany, a region with high unemployment compared to the German average, that is easy to do. How many players out of these youth team will really make it to the first team? Very few, because to allow for the quick progression and promotions through the league system, every year new players are bought, which already have that level instead of taking the time to develop them. Therefore not only the players are blocked in their development these types of clubs also leave a wasteland around them because how is a club being able to compete based on good youth development and good player choice, when the best talents are already taken away, before they get even close to the first team. So, when arguing against sugar daddies, it is not because of a fight between tradition and no tradition or if money is good or bad, these type of financing a soccer club prevents to provide equal opportunity for each club to be successful with good work.
Nevertheless, the book is an excellent start to understand soccer in a better way and the mechanisms behind the scenes. Therefore it is highly recommended to read, because it provides a fresh view and new talking points when understanding success and failure in soccer.
There are now different editions of the book on the market because the authors constantly updated the text. Based on the table of contents I would say that they just added new sections to the the book based on recent developments (Sugar Daddies) or included better examples (like the rise of Spain in the last years). Therefore one should not miss anything reading the last edition only.

Biography: 0/3
History: 1/3
Background: 3/3
Tactics & Game philosophy: 0/3

Next book: Be Careful What You Wish For (Jan 17th)