Football moves in mysterious ways

Why England Lose is entertaining, but in attempting to explain football teams’ fortunes through number-crunching it overlooks the key subjective factors of footballing success: self-belief, confidence, flair...

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Books

What if we could settle every pub debate about football through economic modelling? Well, for a start, the world would probably be a much duller place. Pub arguments aren’t meant to be settled. Interminable drunken discussions about football are as much part of the match-day experience as the game itself.

Settling a whole raft of football’s pub debates is precisely what journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski set out to in their Freakanomics-style book Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained. The book is unabashedly inspired by Michael M Lewis’s Moneyball, which charts the achievements of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and their data-crunching coach Billy Beane. The central premise in Moneyball is that the secret formula for baseball success can be found in performance data or ‘sabermetrics’ – a word derived from the acronym SABR (Society of American Baseball Research). Billy Beane deployed the ‘outsider’ knowledge of sabermetrics, rather than the insider knowledge of players, coaches and scouts, to build a team capable of competing with clubs with wage bills twice the size of Oakland.

Can sabermetrics be applied to football? Kuper and Szymanski think so. However, Why England Lose is certainly no Moneyball. In fact, it’s very much a book of two halves. If you want to know why England’s participation in major football tournaments always seems to end the same way – missed penalties, broken metatarsals and quarter-final tears – then you’ll be disappointed. More insightful are some – though not all – of the authors’ attempts to demystify some of the ‘other curious football phenomena’ through number-crunching. However, I didn’t read the book to find out whether suicide rates do not increase during major football tournaments (they don’t) or whether there are economic benefits to nations hosting a major tournament (there aren’t). I read it to discover the magic winning formula that Brazilians manifestly possess but the English don’t. And, having read the book, I’m still waiting for the answer.

The section of the book that deals with England’s perceived underachievement is contradictory. Drawing on a database developed by Russell Gerrard at the Cass Business School, the authors take goal difference as the key performance measure and adjust for population size, income per capita and international experience. Kuper and Szymanski conclude that, contrary to popular wisdom, England don’t underperform at all. If anything, we marginally overperform. It’s our expectations, they argue, which are unrealistic. We expect to win major tournaments whereas, as the data shows, we should be happy with our lot: plucky quarter-final failure.

However, having made the case that England aren’t underachieving, Kuper and Szymanski then proceed to outline two key reasons why England fall short. Firstly, there aren’t any middle-class footballers. Secondly, we’re too insular and therefore cut off from football’s tactical innovations. The insularity argument I can buy. In 1953 Hungary gave England a footballing lesson at Wembley. That was 56 years ago. It should have been a wake-up a call, a stimulus to modernise. Yet it is only in the last two decades that English football has become better connected with the rest of Europe. The foreign invasion of players and coaches has been blamed for the underperformance of the England national team, wrongly so, as the authors themselves demonstrate. In fact, what the foreign imports bring is a plug-in to the European know-how which English football previously lacked.

The argument that the absence of middle-class footballers weakens English football is less compelling. Sure, if football clubs don’t recruit middle-class kids, they are drawing from a smaller talent pool. However, as the authors themselves argue, the diminished pool of talent ‘is only part of the problem’. The fact that football is an almost exclusively working-class profession has meant that it has been ‘suffused, without quite knowing it, by British working-class habits’. These alleged bad habits include the ‘sausage and chips diet’, the ‘idea that binge drinking is a hobby’ and, most damaging, an anti-intellectual aversion to tactics. I don’t go along with this; in fact it veers dangerously close to snobbery. Yes, the antipathy to tactics has long hampered English football. But you don’t need to be an intellectual to be tactically literate. Working-class footballers in Italy, France and Spain or Latin America can think as well as run. You don’t need a philosophy degree; you just need to be properly trained.

There are two fundamental problems with Why England Lose. The first is that football doesn’t lend itself as readily as American sports to sabermetric-style data analysis. Take, for example, the Carling Opta Index. It can tell us quite a lot about what is measurable: goals scored, passes completed, tackles made, shots taken and so on. But it’s what it can’t measure that often decides a football match. The outcome of a low-scoring sport like football match often depends on one or two key moments: a lapse in concentration, a player losing possession, a defender out of position, a well-executed set-piece, or a misplaced pass. These decisive turning points aren’t so easy to measure. It’s not like counting unforced errors or first-serve percentages in a sport like tennis.

The second problem is that, however good the performance metrics, the final stages of international football tournaments follow a knockout format. According to Kuper and Szymanski, England score 0.21 more goals per game than you would expect of a country of similar population, wealth and experience. That’s marginally better than Italy or Argentina, but not as good as Brazil, France or West Germany. Does this provide any consolation for the 43 years of hurt we’ve endured since 1966? Of course not. Look at the crest on the famous Azzurri jerseys and you’ll see four stars; each one representing a World Cup victory. That’s the true measure of success, not how you perform against Azerbaijan or Georgia. Trophies are what really count and that’s where England come up short.

The problem with Kuper and Szymanski’s soccernomics model is that it might predict the probability of a national team reaching the knockout stages of major tournaments (England have a 63 per cent probability of qualification, in case you were wondering). But what it can’t explain is what happens after that. It can’t explain why England always seem to get dumped out in the quarter-finals by the first half-decent team they play. It can’t explain why Germany can lose to England 5-1 in Munich, perform like donkeys throughout the 2002 World Cup finals, and yet still reach the final. There are too few crucial knockout games from which statisticians can draw any reliable conclusions. These high-pressure games are decided largely by subjective factors. German footballers, for example, possess incredible self-belief. They believe they can win, especially when it comes down to a penalty shoot-out. Did England believe they could beat Brazil in Shizuoka in 2002? I don’t think so. Do they ever believe they can win a penalty-shoot out? I doubt it.

As well as a lack of self-belief, England lack tournament craft, the know-how to win the crunch knockout games at major tournaments. Italy, by contrast, are grand-masters when it comes to tournament craft. They always seem to start tournaments slowly. But, as the old cliché goes, it’s not how you start a tournament but how you finish it that counts. The Italians don’t always play the most attractive football but they are always difficult to beat and have the knack of winning the games that matter. Why are the Italians more adept exponents of tournament craft than the English? The best explanation that the authors can come up with is that English players play at a high tempo and tire themselves out whereas the Italians pace themselves better.

If you want to explain why England don’t win the games that count at big tournaments you have to look beyond performance data. You have to look at subjective phenomena like self-confidence, mental strength, team spirit, and leadership – stuff that is inherently difficult to quantify. Interestingly, Kuper and Szymanski downplay the importance of leadership or, more precisely, the value of an inspirational football manager. Why? Because it’s hard for economists to measure managerial performance. ‘When you can’t see what people do, it’s very hard to assign a value to their work’, say the authors. Most managers, they argue ‘appear to add so little value that it is tempting to think they could be replaced by their secretaries, or their chairmen, or by stuffed teddy bears without the club’s league position changing’.

But just because it’s difficult to measure the value of a good coach, it doesn’t mean there is no value. If we look at the fortunes of England in the last few years, it’s abundantly clear that leadership can have a huge impact on performance. Look at the difference between Steve McClaren’s disjointed England team that fluffed its lines so disastrously in Euro 2008 qualification and Fabio Capello’s team which qualified comfortably for next year’s World Cup. It was pretty much the same cast of characters but Capello managed to do what the ‘wally with the brolly’ was unable to: build a team and instil it with self-belief.

What is it that Fabio Capello has done with the England team that Steve McClaren was clearly unable to do? Will we ever overcome the English fear of the penalty shoot-out? And why have England never beaten Brazil in a competitive fixture? You won’t find the answer to those questions in Why England Lose. That’s not to say the book isn’t entertaining. It’s extremely readable; not the arid death by equations one might expect from data nerds. However, because Kuper and Szymanski throw a dummy and sidestep the central question – ‘Why England lose’ – it is ultimately unsatisfying.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Why England Lose: and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, is published by Harper Sport. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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