Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Does The Team That Leads at Halftime Win? League Comparisons

Quite some time ago, a reader asked if the team that scores first wins more often. I was reminded of that question when my son asked me if he could watch the second half of the Barca-Real match the other night, with Barca leading 2-0 at the half. Frankly, I didn't know the answer, and unfortunately, the data I have collected to date do not allow me to answer that question exactly. But, I think I have the next best thing: namely, the frequencies of results (win, draw, defeat) when a team leads at halftime. To put things in perspective, take a look at distribution of match outcomes for teams (%s wins, draws, defeats) for the big four leagues from 2005/06 to 2009-10.

Not surprisingly, given what we know about similarities across the leagues by now, the distributions of outcomes are very similar, with 25-28% of matches ending in a draw, and the rest ending in a win or loss for the team in question.

So how do these outcomes differ if we know a team is leading at the half? Take a look.

All of a sudden, the odds of winning (unsurprisingly) go up significantly, while the odds of losing go down. Interestingly, leading at the half increases the odds of winning by similar margins across the leagues from slightly less than 40% overall to around 75%. A halftime lead is most valuable in the EPL, at almost 78% (77.85%) and least valuable in Serie A (73.32%) and the Bundesliga (73.88%).

One final note: given the point value of clean sheets documented in earlier posts, I thought I'd take a look at match outcomes when teams are able to keep a clean sheet at the half. Here's what you see:

Clearly, clean sheets at the half drive up the odds of winning and drive down the odds of losing significantly beyond average match outcomes. The odds of losing the match when keeping a clean sheet at the half are right around 20 percent in each of the four leagues; this is a significant improvement over the average 36-38% odds of losing across the leagues. Over the five seasons analyzed here, the frequency of losing the match after leading 1-0 at the half are (in order)  21.52% (La Liga), 20.51% (EPL), 19.48% (Bundesliga), and 20.17% (Serie A). In contrast, when teams keep a clean sheet in the first half, their odds of winning are right around the 50% mark in each of the leagues. So keeping a clean sheet in the first half is almost literally half the battle toward eventual victory. Naturally, I would expect differences across home and away teams or because of other factors, but those analyses will have to await another day.

PS: I told my son to brush his teeth and go to bed - after all, the odds were overwhelming Barca was going to win. And since he's a fan of Mesut Oezil who was taken off at the half, it was just as well.

Thanks to Don K.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Let's Make A Deal: Logrolling and Awarding the World Cup

Things used to be so easy and predictable: alternating World Cups between South America and Europe made awarding the world's biggest soccer tournament a much less exciting affair. But something happened along the way, and that something has opened the door to plenty of controversy surrounding FIFA and its Executive Committee.

So what happened, exactly? Well, to start with, let's talk about what has not happened. I don't believe that human nature has fundamentally changed over the past three decades. FIFA Exec Committee members are soccer functionaries - soccer politicians, so to speak - who are motivated by their love of the game and the prestige and excitement of making decisions about soccer at the highest level. As part of their assignment, they represent their own and their countries' interests at the table - with regard to judging bids to host World Cups or any other issue that comes before them. That's what they were in the "good old days", and that's what they are now.

So, assuming the motivations of FIFA ExCom members haven't changed, it's plausible to assume that the context in which they are asked to decide on countries' bids has changed. From what I can tell, at least three key changes have occurred:

First, the set of choices Executive Committee members choose from has expanded. That is, there are now more countries (and continents!) with viable bids to choose from, and a more varied set of considerations that go into the choice (especially as we are contemplating a bid from a continent where the tournament has not previously been held).

Second, with soccer's global reach expanding significantly in the past three decades, the monetary (and other) stakes involved in awarding the tournament have grown exponentially.

And third, FIFA is no longer deciding on one World Cup bid at a time - instead, it decided to award two tournaments simultaneously. This has made if possible for countries and continents to think about deals in an explicitly sequential way, linking the decision on the host for 2018 to the decision on 2022.

This has had two predictable consequences. One, the increased stakes of hosting the tournament have opened the door for functionaries from poorer countries to auction off their votes to a wealthy bidder. I have written about corruption in earlier posts, and this is not something that should surprise anyone. Two, the expanded choice set, coupled with the joint awarding of two World Cups has opened the door to what political scientists call "logrolling".

Logrolling - defined by Wikipedia as "the trading of favors, or quid pro quo, such as vote trading by legislative members to obtain passage of actions of interest to each legislative member" - has long been documented in decision-making bodies such as parliaments or committees. They are a fundamental aspect of collective decision-making. Logrolling is made possible, in fact, highly likely by an agenda that involves more than one item at a time, when decisions are made more than once, and when members of a legislature are relatively free to make their own decisions and when the benefits to a legislator's district are sizable. Substitute "FIFA Executive Committee members" for "members of a legislature" and "legislator's district" with "country" and you can see where this is going. Clearly, awarding two World Cups at a time is just such an expansion of the agenda (as is the expansion of the number of viable bids).

Importantly, strictly speaking, logrolling is not corruption so long as representatives of national soccer federations do not enrich themselves personally, and it should not be confused with corrupt activity. It may be unseemly or undesirable, but it is not illegal. So, recent reports that Qatar and Spain/Portugal have been colluding to trade votes about their respective bids are just what we would expect to see happen - it's the kind of thing that was built into how the decisions will be made. As Qatar's Bin Hammam explained on his website: "President Blatter said, 'Out of the nine bidding nations, eight of them have representatives in the Fifa ExCo and all of them are friends. How can I ask them not to talk or discuss issues about the World Cup bid...?'"The World Cup is the largest business of Fifa. Collusion will always have a chance to happen as far as two bids will be decided together, but we all pray that no corrupted collusion will find its way to the bids."

A political scientist couldn't have said it better. And frankly, logrolling is preferable to corruption, especially if it happens in the light of day. In the end, all the controversy - aside from outright corruption of course - is really too bad because the World Cup should be a celebration of soccer and the cultures in which it is embedded. FIFA's well-intentioned and welcome drive to make the global game a global spectacle has made for much more complicated and awkward decisions when it comes time to award the next World Cup. But that doesn't mean that it's unethical or wrong - just legislative politics in action.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Shady Deals: Corruption and International Executive Committees in Football

Let me get a couple of things out of the way. First, corruption happens in every country around the world, and it happens every day. Second, there are plenty of people in very corrupt countries who are not corrupt, and there are lots of people in very clean countries who are corrupt. It's just that in more corrupt countries more people are corrupt.

With that out of the way, I've been thinking about possible corruption as part of FIFA's decisionmaking to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, as well as UEFA's decision to award the 2012 European Cup to the joint Ukraine/Poland bid.

For starters, today's news that FIFA had banned two of its Executive Committee members from voting on the 2018 and 2022 bids was welcome news. But it also reminds us that this may just be the tip of the iceberg. After all, these are only the guys who were caught - not necessarily the only guys who are behaving in a corrupt manner. The nature of corruption is such that it is difficult to observe: both sides to the transaction have a strong incentive to keep corrupt acts secret. As a consequence, observed or revealed corruption is typically smaller than actual corruption.

Curiously, it seems, from the way FIFA has handled this, that they blame the perpetrators as much as the press that entrapped them. Sure, it's embarrassing for FIFA, especially on the heels of repeated accusations in the past that not everything is on the up and up when it comes to awarding the biggest prize in international sports competitions (aside from the Olympics). But could it actually be that FIFA, or at least some in FIFA, do not see this as actual corruption? What would lead anyone to think that these officials were not caught in the middle of a corrupt act?

Aside from the secretive nature of corruption, which makes entrapment a real issue, there is another problem with it in the context of FIFA and international sports competitions generally. In the social sciences, corruption is typically defined as the misuse of public office for private gain. And the tricky issue here is that it is not clear (a) that being on FIFA's Executive Committee qualifies as "public office", and (b) whether there has been any private gain involved, since they seem to have asked for money to build fields and a youth academy, not to line their own pockets. So without "public office" or "private gain" all you have is money changing hands and promises being made.

There is another thorny problem: culture. Acts that are seen as corrupt in one culture may not necessarily be viewed as corrupt in another - quite the contrary: the provision of gifts and material goods are seen as signs of respect and friendship in a good number of cultures. So corruption, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder, and there is always the danger of using one's own cultural understandings to judge others.

Now, having said all this, would corruption researchers be surprised by the findings that FIFA officials from Tahiti and Nigeria sought payments for their votes? Not in the least, at least with regard to the Nigerian official. Above is a chart with the current levels of corruption in the countries of FIFA Executive Committee members; the countries of the banned officials are in red. On the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (which ranges from 0 to 10), Nigeria ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Tahiti, however, is a country with medium levels of corruption. But given the overall spread of countries represented on FIFA's board, and given the high stakes involved in awarding the World Cup, the temptation and inclination to act in a way that would be considered corrupt are incredibly strong. Frankly, I am surprised there haven't been more instances of such behavior.

So, what are we to make of the allegations that there may have been corruption in awarding the 2012 European championship to the joint Ukraine/Poland bid? Looking at the distribution of corrupt countries on UEFA's Executive Committee, this wouldn't been a huge surprise either - especially considering that the Ukrainian representative, Grigoriy Surkis has been on the board since 2004, and considering that Ukraine is the most corrupt country among those represented on UEFA's Executive Committee. But this in no way implies there was corruption of any kind. In fact, UEFA seems to think there wasn't or at least that it's worth knowing, as it has started legal proceedings against the person, former Executive Committee member Cypriot Spyros Marangos, to reveal whatever information he may have.

This takes us back to the very beginning: remember that there are plenty of people in very corrupt countries who are not corrupt, and there are lots of people in very clean countries who are corrupt. How else can you explain corruption in Finnish soccer? After all, Finland is one of the cleanest, most transparent countries in the world.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Most Common Scores in Soccer: Comparing the Big Four Leagues

In an earlier post, I reported the most common scores in the English Premier League. To summarize briefly, the data showed that there are two groups of results: First, there is a group of results that occur with a frequency of around 10% each (1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-0, 0-0), totaling fewer than 50% of all matches. Second, there is a group of more mixed results, each of which occurs 5% of the time (1-2, 3-1, 3-0, 2-2), with both home and away teams scoring. And then there's everything else.

One question this raises is whether these patterns are similar in the other big leagues or whether there is something unusual about the Premier League. To answer the question, I took a look at the differences across the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A for the 2005/06-2009-10 seasons. Below are tables that calculate the frequencies (in percentages) of various outcomes, listed by goals scored in a match by home and away teams. As before, to help orient readers, I've shaded outcomes that occurred more than 10% of the time yellow; outcomes that occurred with a frequency of between 5-10% of the time green; and outcomes that occurred between 2.5-5% of the time blue. So what do we see across score lines and leagues?

As in the Premier League, one thing to notice is that there is quite a bit of variation across types of scores; and as before, 1-0 home wins and 1-1 ties are the most common scores three of the four leagues. The one league where this is not the case is the Bundesliga: there, the most common score is a 1-1 tie (12.5% of the time), followed by a 2-1 home win as the second most common score (9.7%) and a 1-0 home win (8.7%) as the third most common match score. Mind you, these differences aren't large, but they are, well, differences. Take a look.

At the same time, none of these score lines make up the majority of outcomes in any of the leagues (as the slightly fewer than 3 goals per match average would suggest). Instead, these "most common" outcomes typically occur at a rate of around +/- 10% of the time. Together, 1-0 and 1-1 are most common in Serie A where they comprise about 25% of all match outcomes. Jointly they occur least frequently in the Bundesliga in about 20% of matches.

Once we move beyond 1-0 home wins and ties at one goal a piece, scores tend to be clustered right around the 0-2 goal mark. And when there is a third goal scored by one side, it typically is scored by the home team, consistent with a home team advantage widely documented elsewhere.

The cluster of scores ranging from 0-2 goals for either team occur about 70% of the time,with the leagues relatively close together. They occur most frequently in Serie A and least frequently in the Bundesliga. So as far as scores are concerned, the Bundesliga offers a little more variety than the other leagues:

Frequency of scores ranging from 0-2 goals for home or away team

Serie A: 73.4%
EPL: 72.1%
La Liga: 70.3%
Bundesliga: 68.4%

In a future post, I'll take a look at how common it is for a half time score to be the final score. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Who Is the MVP in MLS? A "Goals Affected" Ranking

I thought this piece by Jonathan Tannenwald at Philly.com's The Goalkeeper blog was really interesting. It takes a look at this year's MLS season to calculate who may be (or, in Tannenwald's view is) the league's MVP. Since he writes for a Philadelphia news outlet, it's perhaps not a surprise that he came up with the Union's Sebastien Le Toux. But, honestly, the statistics are clearly in Le Toux's favor, and a strong case can be made that he contributed more to his team's success than perhaps any player in MLS history.

So far so good; of course, we can debate (a) whether this is a useful award in a team sport like soccer, or (b) whether this is the best way to measure individual performance in a team sport like soccer. To me, Tannenwald's piece is fun reading, but it also highlights two essential difficulties: first, that a metric like "goals affected" used here is a measure of offensive production - no less, but also no more. This begs the obvious argument that there's more to MVP play than scoring goals (especially in light of the fact that clean sheets are so valuable in soccer, for example).

Second, it points to the even trickier issue of what to do about unobserved events; that is, what are we to make of the player who is always in the right place at the right time without ever touching the ball but who makes it impossible for another team to score because of his/her actions (a great story on this in basketball appeared in the New York Times not too long ago)? Or how should we evaluate a player who runs the route that draws a defender away from the ball and who therefore makes it easier for his/her teammate to score? In basketball and hockey, we have a so-called plus-minus score, which is a crude metric we can calculate to see how the team does when a player is on the court/ice or off. But this doesn't really work in soccer, where we have very few substitutions and lineups that do not change all that much.

One of the most innovative ideas to do so has been the attempt to rely on network analysis to determine a team's most central players.  But this, too, relies on actually touching the ball. Counting the number and kinds of touches on the ball is one thing, figuring out how to assess performance in a complex team sport is another and this is one of the essential challenges in figuring out soccermetrics.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

How To Incentivize A Losing Team: Fire the Coach or Stop Talking About a Raise?

This item caught my attention a few minutes ago. In case you don't read German, it's about the Bundesliga club Werder Bremen and its General Manager Klaus Allofs who decided to suspend all contract negotiations until the northern Germans play better and more successful soccer. The club, used to being a fixture in the upper third of the table, has already exited the German football association cup, is about to exit from the Champions League. and is currently a lowly 11th in the table. Evidently, Allofs' action is not an empty threat that doesn't really affect any of the best players; in fact, it concerns former national player and current team captain Torsten Frings, starting striker Hugo Almeida, defender Sebastian Boenisch, as well as current national team members center back Per Mertesacker and goalie Tim Wiese.

Compare this kind of crisis management with the typical series of events at struggling teams. A good current example is West Ham whose strategy clearly seems to be to fire the manager should things continue to go sour (for a typical story about West Ham's current situation, click here). Despite the fact that there is relatively little evidence that changing a manager mid-season improves a team's fortunes, clubs time and again resort to firing the manager, if only to make disgruntled supporters happy, at least for a little while.

Clearly, Werder and West Ham have competing theories about who is at fault for a team's fortunes (Werder: more the players than the coach; West Ham: more the current manager than the players), or at a minimum competing theories about who can turn a sinking ship around (Werder: the players by withholding future income; West Ham: a new manager). I don't know which theory is right, but I applaud Allofs for trying something different for a change by threatening not to give a raise in the immediate future. The only hitch is that players can discount the incentive by choosing to exit the club in the hope of earning the money back in the form of a better contract elsewhere, of course. But this carries a risk: which team wants to take on a player who has been told halfway through the season to try a little harder and then doesn't and instead seeks to defect from the club? And the hitch with firing the coach is that players aren't sanctioned for playing badly. In fact, they may have an incentive to play even worse, at least in the short run, so that the manager is fired more quickly.

I'll be curious to see which team's performance will improve faster.

Tough Calls: Are There Patterns in Home-Away Referee Decision in the EPL?

Following up on the earlier post about referee foul calls in the Premiership, I thought I'd look at the next obvious question, namely whether home teams have fewer fouls called against them than away teams. The idea that there is a home team bias is old - probably as old as the game - and we all love to hate a referee who seems biased (especially when our team is losing). So, before the season gets too far ahead of where my data are, here is a simple summary graph of the average numbers of fouls called by different refs for home and away teams about one quarter into the season.

To make the data easier to digest, I have ordered the graph by the number of fouls called against the home team, with green bars indicating fouls against the home team and orange ones fouls against the away team. Take a look.

As before, a few things stand out. Some refs make systematically fewer calls, period - compare Walton at around 7 per team and match and Friend at about twice that, for example. But this is not what's interesting about this one. What I find most interesting is what we do not see: there are very few referees who call systematically more fouls on away teams. In fact, the only ones who seem to have done so on any order of real magnitude are Halsey, Dowd, and Clattenburg. And the magnitude of differential calls is modest at around 2 fouls per match. In contrast, refs like Friend, Atwell, Taylor - and Foy! - did the exact opposite - calling more fouls on home teams at a rate of 2.5-4.5. Overall, so far this year at least, it is difficult to sustain the idea that refs are systematically biased in favor of home teams.

This begs a few interesting questions, but perhaps chief among them whether some teams are systematically advantaged by refs when they play at home. That is, do refs call fewer fouls on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge or Man U at Old Trafford than their opponents? Let's take a look. The graph below shows home and away fouls called by home team.

Here again, we do not see a bias in favor of big teams playing at home. Teams that have had refs call more fouls on the away team when they themselves were playing at home include Everton, Tottenham, Birmingham, and Chelsea. This differential was most pronounced in favor of Tottenham and Birmingham at 3-4, and modest in the case of Chelsea. In contrast, a good number of teams had refs actually call more fouls on the home team; so far this season, these have included Aston Villa, Blackburn, Arsenal, Stoke, Liverpool, West Brom, and Man United.

So, taken together, it's hard to argue either in favor of a home team bias among referees, nor in favor of a "big team" bias. Whether these patterns will be sustained over the long haul of a season is a different matter, of course, but so far, the relative evenhandedness of EPL referees (at least in the aggregate) is verifiable.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Making the Grade: Diversity in MLS

Here's another way of quantifying performance in soccer leagues: diversity hiring practices in team and league offices (as well as diversity on the pitch). Turns out, MLS is a top performer among professional sports leagues in the United States, as reported by ESPN, performing particularly well when it comes to racial hiring practices and well overall with regard to gender balance. I thought this was worth pointing out and feeling good about. Well done, MLS!

For the full report comparing the various leagues, click here.

The Bundesliga: The Best League in the World?

Is the Bundesliga the Best League in the World? Well, that depends on how you look at it, but leave it to a Dutchman to make that argument (just kidding). In this really interesting piece on ESPN.com, Leander Schaerlaeckens takes a look at the success of the big professional leagues and makes a convincing case that the Bundesliga just may be the healthiest of the best leagues in the world and may eventually eclipse the English Premier League.

Why? Schaerlaeckens points to the league's strict licensing procedures and the 50+1 ownership rule, which ensure a healthy, perhaps slightly more modest, but sustainable financial footing for clubs. Coupled with high quality play and healthy attendance, the Bundesliga is on a sustained upward trajectory. Clubs aren't in debt, and in terms of competitive balance, it's a very even league, with the exception of Bayern Munich who have won many more titles than anyone else over the years. But in any given season, it's anyone's guess who is Bayern's main contender, and it's always a fun game to see if the Yankees of German soccer can be beaten this time around.

Schaerlaeckens is right on the money with his argument (pun intended). Except, I don't really buy it (ok, another pun), and for two simple and related reasons: German isn't English and Germany isn't the UK. The trouble I see with Schaerlaeckens' scenario - however much I may like it as someone who grew up with the Bundesliga - is that it is difficult to see the Bundesliga match the EPL in terms of global reach and playing quality.

In my mind, much of the growth in revenue for soccer clubs in the near future is likely to come from broadcasting rights and commercial products/merchandise. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine that English football's global advantage on these two fronts borne from centuries as a global power and colonizer can be matched by Germany any time soon (all you need to do is compare the list of former German colonies with the list of former British colonies).

The related reason - German isn't English - speaks to the fact that the league will have a difficult time competing with the EPL for the very best - i.e., global - talent among coaches and players. Let's face it, more people speak English than German. A Eurobarometer survey of Europeans in the 27 member states of the European Union conducted in 2005 showed that "English (34%) is the most widely known language besides the mother tongue followed by German (12%) and French (11%). Spanish and Russian are spoken as a foreign language by 5% of respondents." Moreover, and this is important, English is pretty much the most commonly spoken second language everywhere (and spoken by lots of folks in places like the U.S., Canada, and Australia). This simply means that England will continue to have an easier time attracting coaches and players who need to communicate with each other and the media in some way. Sure, Spain and Italy may be attractive for lifestyle reasons, but aside from Latin American Spanish speakers, the EPL is in the best position to remain the global melting pot of the best soccer talent.

The good news is this: I think the EPL model is not sustainable for much longer. UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules, which are set to go into effect in the 2012-2013 season, will level the playing field significantly and give the Bundesliga a shot at parity with the EPL. Leave it to the Germans to remind people that it's better (to quote from the article) to "survive without liabilities in the long run and with mediocre on-field success ... than being successful on the pitch in the short run, but being dead in the long run."

Thanks to Cas.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What Are The Most Common Scores in the Premier League?

What are the most common scores in soccer? Someone asked me the other day if I knew and I had to admit that I didn't. Well, I did conjecture, based on what we know from basic match facts, that the most common score lines involved something somewhere in the vicinity of fewer than three goals . But that's as far as it went; does this mean that 2-1 home teams wins were more likely than 3-0 ones, or whether 1-1 scores are as likely as 2-2 scores? I confess I really didn't know.

Take a look at Saturday's EPL scores for comparison:

Birmingham 2-2 West Ham
Blackburn 2-1 Wigan
Blackpool 2-2 Everton
Bolton 4-2 Tottenham
Fulham 1-1 Aston Villa
Man Utd 2-1 Wolverhampton
Sunderland 2-0 Stoke

These all seem perfectly "normal" or reasonable scores, don't they? But how common are they, once we compare them to many or all Saturdays in a season or across several?

Thankfully, my data archive allows me to make slightly more accurate statements about which scores are most common. Based on data for the last five years (the 2005/06-2009/10 seasons) I calculated the frequencies (in percentages) of various outcomes, listed by goals scored by home and away teams.

So what are the most and least common scores in the Premier League? To help orient readers, I've shaded outcomes that occurred more than 10% of the time yellow; outcomes that occurred with a frequency of between 5-10% of the time green; and outcomes that occurred between 2.5-5% of the time blue. For example, looking in the top left cell, we see that over the past five seasons, 8.74% of all Premier League matches ended in a 0-0 tie; moving one cell to the right, we see that 7.89% of matches ended in a 0-1 home loss, etc.

One thing to notice right off the bat is that there is quite a bit of variation across types of scores; they range from 0-0 to 9-1 and 8-0 to 0-5 and even 0-6. But these scores are not all equally likely to occur; instead, as the yellow cells show, 1-0 home wins and 1-1 ties are the most common scores in the Premiership.

At the same time, these score lines do not make up the majority of outcomes (as the slightly less than 3 goals per match average would suggest). Instead, these outcomes occur at a rate of slightly more than 10% of the time. Once we move beyond 1-0 home wins and ties at one goal a piece, scores tend to be clustered right around the 1-3 goal mark. In order of frequency, here are the Top 10 score lines in the EPL over the past five seasons:

1-0 (11.1%)
1-1 (10.6%)
2-1 (9.4%)
2-0 (9.1%)
0-0 (8.7%)
1-2 (5.8%)
3-1 (4.7%)
3-0 (4.4%)
2-2 (4.3%)
1-3 (2.4%)

Clearly, there are two groups of results: First, there is a group results that occur with a frequency of around 10% each (1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-0, 0-0), totaling fewer than 50% of matches. These five score lines never have the away team winning, and the home team never scores more than 2 goals. Second, there is a group of more mixed results that occur 5% of the time (1-2, 3-1, 3-0, 2-2), with both home and away teams scoring. And then there's everything else.

So looking back over Saturday's scores, the one that really stands out as unusual is Bolton's 4-2 win over Spurs. I hope Owen Coyle's squad know how truly unusual their success was - statistically speaking, that is.

Thanks to Don K.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Damien Comolli and Moneyball: Soccermetrics Comes to Anfield

A couple of interesting stories about Damien Comolli, Liverpool's new Director of Football Strategy who is fan of soccermetrics/sabermetrics and soccer writer Paul Tompkins' conversation with the new Liverpool owner (a related story in the Guardian from a couple of years ago is here). I think this all bodes really well for the club as it suggests a hard-nosed, evidence-driven approach by the new owners. But it also suggests a long-term strategic change rather than attempt to win at high cost right now. It'll be interesting to see how this develops.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Policing the Game: Premier League Referee Performance in 2010-11

After Mark Clattenburg's controversial decision to let Nani's goal against Tottenham stand last weekend, I thought it was about time to take a look at referees in the Premier League. Who are they? How often do they referee Premier League matches? And are there patterns to their decisions?

As of October 18, 16 referees had been in charge of Premiership matches. But referee assignments by the league have been not been exactly even. At the top end, Phil Dowd has been in charge of 8 matches, followed by Mike Dean, Mark Clattenburg, and Martin Atkinson at 7 matches. At the low end, Kevin Friend and Anthony Taylor were assigned to only two Premier League matches.

But how did they call the games? The number of fouls called per match ranged between 11 and 50, with the average number of fouls called at 29.3. So here are the averages by referee.

Averages vary across referees. Friend called over 30 fouls per match in the two matches he was in charge of, and Oliver, who refereed three, called almost 30 (as did Marriner). But lest you think that referees who called fewer games were more likely to blow the whistle, take a look at Peter Walton. Walton was in charge of only three matches, too, but called only 16.3 fouls. In the days to come, I will dig a little deeper into the calls made by different referees.