Inverting the Pyramid, Kick the Balls, The Beckham Experiment, Why Everything you think you know about soccer is wrong

Inverting the Pyramid:  A classic history of soccer.

The title subtitle says it is a history of soccer tactics, but a better title would be ‘a history of the great teams of soccer’.

I’ve heard this called a ‘must read’ for anyone who studies soccer, but after reading it, I cannot agree.  It’s a history book.  This means a lot of names, dates, and places.  The first few chapters were interesting as it talks about pre-1900 soccer, how there were no set rules, how everyone played forward, how the Scottish dominated.  But after that the format of the book is as follows:

  • Pick a good team from each decade.
  • Go back thirty years in that teams history.
  • Catalog all their coaches, managers, wins, losses, major trades, tournaments.  Describe their style in vague words like ‘flowing’ or ‘physical’.  Put in lots of quotes from others about how great the team was.
  • Repeat.

    It is informative, and as far as history books go rather easy to read, but its still a history book.  It attempts to make a story out of each team and their changes, but the fact is coaches change, are hired and fired, all the time.  I’m not sure why the author talks so much about coaches and players that, by all accounts, failed to win.
    There was the occasional paragraph about why the tactics that team used worked, and maybe even a diagram, but I could have used far less names and dates far more whys and hows.

The Beckham Experiment.

This is a book chronicling David Beckham’s move to the LA Galaxy from 2005 to 2008.  Sadly, the book isn’t about David Beckham.  It’s about the engineers of David Beckham’s move, and relegates Beckham to a sort of dunce, or stooge, ignorant and naive to the damage he and his friends are inflicting upon his team.

There is a lot of Alexi Lalas.  Which I like, because I like Alexi as a player and a commentator.  The book could easily be called ‘What Alexi thinks about everything’ but I doubt that would sell many copies.  There is also a lot of talk about finances, and how expensive players are, and how the MLS is struggling to stay afloat.  I liked those bits.  But the rest of the book reads like a magazine article that someone tried to turn into a book.  5% punchlines and 95% tedious background facts.

Kick the balls

This is an autobiography of an alcoholic Scottish bartender coaching a bunch of 10-year-olds in America.  It accurately depicts little kid’s dialogue.  It also thoroughly depicts how much of a loser this Scottish guy is.  It’s more about him ripping on how awful he is and how awful he treats the kids, and less about soccer.  Every other chapter is an irrelevant, if humorous, letter to a TV evangelist he watches when he cannot sleep (He cannot sleep a lot).  He also talks to his Ben & Jerry ice cream.  The only interesting parts were about his Scottish childhood, and how barbaric kids are.

What I want to know is:  How did he get this published??  What was his selling pitch?  “Its about a Scottish loser abusing kids”?  It is well written, but who would publish a perverted, kid-centered, foul mouthed horror story interspersed with making fun of religion?  In a way I am inspired.  If a book this bad can get published, than anything I can write should have a chance too.

Why everything you think you know about soccer is wrong

The eye-catching title hints at the chicanery inside.  This is a book about statistics, written by some guy with a PhD who has never played soccer.  Each chapter he takes a ‘well-known’ soccer adage, like ‘you are more likely to be scored upon immediately after you score’, and refutes it with statistics.  There’s charts and graphs and quotes from people you don’t know.  Its specious and banal and I hope no one will be fooled by anything.  Like the old saying goes, “There’s 3 types of lies: white lies, damning lies, and statistics.”  And I think The Author knows it.  In the introduction he even says some of his conclusions are ‘simple parlor tricks’.

Let me elaborate.  Lets take the example I already used, “You are more likely to be scored upon immediately after you score.”  According to all his computer-generated match analysis, this is not true.  ‘All second goals are, statistically, evenly distributed across all minutes of the game’, he claims.  So why do people say this?  His answer is because everyone just attaches a greater emotional weight to equalizing goals.  ‘We are just imagining it’, basically.  But that’s not true.

I have personally seen how immediately after a team scores, the next five minutes of play are different than the previous five minutes.  The celebrating team either visibly relaxes or gets more excited.  The other team seems to give up or produce a surge of effort.  I’m not imagining that.  I don’t know if these surges lead to more goals, but that is the theoretical basis for ‘goals tend to come in pairs’.  I understand that the statistics do not show that, but until you adequately explain the discrepancy, I’m going to believe my own eyes over your statistics.  For all I know, he hand-picked the games to prove his own hypothesis.

Some statistics of his are interesting.  I liked the one about “Leading 1-0” only gives you a 50% chance to win.  It makes no sense.  Leading the game doesn’t help you??  Bullshit.  But the idea is interesting, and worded a different way, kinda makes sense.  Reworded it says ‘After you score, the other team is more likely to score than you are’.  That makes sense.  Teams tend to get more defensive when they lead.  The losing side tries harder to score.  This explains why draws are so common in soccer and 1-1 is the most common score.  I don’t think its 50 percent of the time – I think the author is cherry picking his numbers – but it is interesting food for thought.

Only one conclusion of his did I really have a problem with.  “More corners do not lead to more goals”, and he mocks teams that get excited about corners.  Statistically speaking, he is right.  Teams with more corner kicks do not have more goals.  But then he goes on to say that corner kicks are better played short, and should not be used as an attempt on goal.  I have heard this argument from other coaches and I strongly disagree, and am upset that someone who claims to be an authority on soccer would use perfectly good statistics to support this inaccurate claim to the detriment of teams, the people watching games looking for a little action, and soccer in general.

A corner kick, almost by definition, is because the defending team is doing a good job of preventing goals.  A defender blocked a shot and the ball went out of bounds.  If you put it in those terms, more corner kicks mean the defenders are doing a better job than the attackers.  Corner kicks should then be correlated with less goals.  And this would be true if the team did not take the corner kick.  But they do.  They take the corner kick, it results in more shots on goals, and therefore more goals.  Any loss of goals from being blocked is gained back because they had a corner and went for a shot on goal!

Saying ‘The same amount of corners leads to the same amount of goals’, does not say anything about their relationship.  Correlation is not causation.  Flip it around: More goals lead to more corner kicks!  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it uses the same statistic and the same logic.  This could be a statement about possessing the ball in the opponents half.  It’s all about how you word the question

Lets use another statistic to prove my point.  What are the chances that a possession leads to a shot on goal?  Think about it.  How many shots on goal does a typical professional team have?  Around 10.  Yet how many possessions do they have?  Hundreds.  The ball changes sides at least three hundred times during a game.  This is a game of turnovers.  1 in 9 shots go in, that’s a well established fact.  The odds of any one possession leading to a goal is less than 1%.  99% of all possessions result in losing the ball.

Now lets look at corner kicks.  What are the odds of a corner kick leading to a goal.  Statistics show it is 1 in 40.  2.5%  Already that is better than 1%.  But John, you say, there’s not a lot of difference between 1% and 2%.  You might have rounding error or something.

Ok, fine, lets go into a little more detail.  What are the odds that a corner kick leads to a shot on goal?  1 in 5.  20%.  That is better than the average possession, and it makes sense intuitively.  If you drop the ball in front of the goal, any shot is more likely to be on target.  You’re super close to the goal – there’s no way to miss.  The only way to be stopped is by the other team blocking it.  More evidence that a corner kick is better than possession.

And the last little statistic I want to throw out is that, out of all goals scored, 1 in 10 come from corner kicks.  What other strategy or set play can you say leads to such a high percentage, other than penalty kicks?  Can you say ‘dribble the ball down the sideline, and there’s a 10% chance it will eventually lead to a goal?’  ‘Cross the ball, it will result in one of our 10 goals?’  No.  You cannot make any such firm declaration.  But ‘1 in 10 of our goals will come from corner kicks?’  That’s a pretty strong statement, and a rather exciting one.  I know its not the same as saying ‘1 in 10 corner kicks will lead to goals’, but it nevertheless creates a definitive moment to anticipate, something easy to recognize, something easy to plan for and execute, with defined and above-average results.  Fans should definitely cheer.

What someone really needs to do is compile statistics between corner kicks played long and corner kicks played short (And to define long and short – playing a 1-yard short pass to someone who crosses it long is the same as doing a long corner kick).  From my observations, it is much more profitable to do a long corner kick where the ball is dropped in the goal box, than a short pass outside the penalty box.



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