Sunday, June 6, 2010

Statistics are just numbers

Cultural anthropology through Dutch soccer

I spent the weekend in Portland at a friend's wedding, and one of the side benefits was catching up with two friends and their new born son. The husband and I are always chattering about soccer whenever we get together (especially Arsenal as we are both supporters), and the topic of my blog came up. He's a regular reader, and while he enjoys the blog he did feel compelled to mention the change in tone just prior to my recent trip to Europe. He singled out this post for comment, inquiring why I moved away from statistical commentary and spoke with a different voice in asking for readers' recommended books. I think such inquiry provides a perfect opportunity for me to clarify my purpose for this blog and comment on one of those recommended books.

First, this blog is an outgrowth of my belief that statistics can illuminate unseen relationships, but they cannot be dealt with independently of the wider context of the subject area they are being used within. As my Portland friend commented earlier in that visit, we Americans are obsessed with statistics compared to other nations. Our obsession often leads us to look for patterns or significance where there are none. The mark of a good statistician is one who, in their normal course of study of a subject, stumble upon a question that may be best addressed with statistical analysis - that is, the use of statistics should be a rare occurrence in most fields. The same should be no different in soccer.

The challenge comes in building a blog around soccer statistics when my stated goal is to not be in search of patterns that don't actually exist. To me, this blog is a journey in understanding the many facets of the world's most popular sport. Statistics will greatly aid in that journey - to make sense of some larger truths in the sport. However, statistics often only describe the most likely outcome of an average event and not the actual outcome of a specific one, which is why we play each and every match to determine the actual outcome. In the same manner, I see statistics only being part of my journey through the world of soccer. Statistics related to the latest happenings in the soccer world will make up the bulk of my posts, but I also don't want to lose touch with the human element of the game. Soccer shapes our human experience, and to a greater degree our human experience shapes the game of soccer. I want to understand the humanity that produces the numbers I study. With that explanation, I now dive into one of those recommended books from my previous post.

At the urging of a regular reader/re-tweeter I picked up Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer by David Winner. It was a late addition to my reading material for my trip, and I was a bit sad I couldn't get it on the Kindle as it would have kept my bag weight down. Nonetheless, it came highly recommended and had the side benefit of helping describe the culture from which many of my co-workers come. After completing this book, I only wish I had read it earlier. It would have made my nearly three years of working with the Dutch much easier.

The book, more than anything, is a fascinating study of how such a small nation that outperforms expectations copes with the inevitable defeat it faces in major tournaments. This over performance has been quantified in the Soccernomics model, where the Dutch score a half goal more per match than the model predicts and they sit 9th out of 49 European teams in this category used to gauge over-performance (see Figure 14.4 in Soccernomics). The book starts at the beginning of post-war Dutch soccer to explain how coping with over-achievement became a Dutch soccer challenge.

To younger fans like me, Dutch soccer can be found everywhere today. Even Brilliant Orange acknowledges this, singling out Arsene Wenger's Arsenal squads as one of the professional embodiments of Dutch "Total Football" outside of the Eredivisie. This wasn't the case in the early 1970's. At that time, the Dutch were perfecting their version of soccer and unleashed it upon the world in Germany in 1974. At that World Cup the Netherlands began its run of over achievement. The heartbreaking loss in 1974 and the expected loss of 1978 set up the Dutch soccer story and was dealt with in the Dutch psyche as something to be accepted, largely tolerated, and in some ways celebrated.

The book goes through and weaves compelling stories of Dutch cultural impact on their style of soccer. Chapter 14 explains how Dutch land constraints and use lead to a different visualization of the soccer pitch, while Chapter 25 explains how their strategies of multiple uses of the same space on the pitch are also reflected in the unique layout and use of space at Schipol International Airport. In Chapter 18, the author explains how Dutch collaborative democracy is a handicap for their soccer team, and how the atheistic Dutch are still shamed about outstanding achievement based upon their Calvinist cultural mores. Such belief structures make accepting failure to win a championship all that much easier, and Chapter 6 explains how such democratic tendencies doomed the great national team of the 70's. Chapter 15 details the Dutch struggle with their role in the Holocaust, and how the adoption of the Jews by Ajax as a way to cope with that past has bred modern anti-Semitic chants from rival clubs. Chapter 13 explains how anti-German feelings, which were largely absent in the Netherlands until the late-70's, rose and fell in the 80's and 90's via the heated battles between the two nations' soccer clubs.

One of the final chapters plays right into one of the themes from Soccernomics. In the chapter entitled "5 out of 6: Frank, Patrick, Frank, Jaap, Patrick, Paul... and Gyuri" (read the book to understand the chapter numbering system), author David Winner takes us behind the scenes of a debate within Dutch soccer: to win, or not to win, by penalty kicks. It seems that in their pursuit of playing their beautiful game, Dutch teams of the 80's and 90's felt winning by penalty kicks was beneath them. If they couldn't win in 90 or 120 minutes playing their game, they felt it was better to leave winning up to the chance of penalty kicks rather than a system for taking them. While other teams were analyzing goalie behavior before matches and devising systems for taking penalty kicks, the Dutch weren't even practicing penalty kicks let alone doing any preparation like the other teams. They were convinced of the Soccernomics conclusion that penalty kicks didn't change the likely outcome of the match based upon certain predictors before Soccernomics was ever published. The problem is that they came to the wrong conclusion.

We know that the conclusion in Chapter 6 of Soccernomics is that penalty kicks don't have a statistically significant impact on the outcome of a soccer match vs. the predicted outcome from the Soccernomics model that looks at home pitch advantage, GDP, and population size of the two countries playing each other. The simplification behind that statement is that the statistical test says penalty kicks have no impact on the average outcome - it doesn't say much about specific outcomes. In the case of the Dutch team, we already know they punch way above their belt when it comes to international competitions. In their case, each game won on penalty kicks would have been another notch in their belt of over-achievement. The fact that they have likely conceded a number of matches due to lack of practice or respect for winning via penalty kicks means their over-achievement is likely higher than measured in Soccernomics. I'd be interested to see if the Dutch team itself would have shown a statistically significant shift in wins or losses based upon matches that went to penalty kicks. Luckily, David Winner outlines the ongoing battle by many in the Dutch soccer program to emphasize penalty kick practice and strategies.

In summary, I'd highly recommend this book to anyone. It's well written, very conversational, and strikes an outstanding balance between soccer and cultural material. To read this book is to begin to understand both Holland and its soccer team.

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