02 September 2009

Book Review: Why England Lose

Meta: I’ll be away until Monday, which is really quite handy given the transfer window’s just closed and it’s an international break. I will miss the three-year anniversary of this blog tomorrow, but that’s no great shakes. Here’s a book review to hold you over. Don’t break anything.

Why England Lose and Other Curious Phenomena Explained
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

The title’s right in my wheelhouse, it got a rare five-star review in FourFourTwo, and the blurbs have compared it to Moneyball. So I couldn’t wait until October 27 for the American version, renamed Soccernomics (yes, American fans, that’s how much respect the publisher has for you!).

And since I went out of my way to get a copy, I thought I’d write a review. Mainly to save you the cost and effort of buying this book.

If you want a book with “stories,” and football’s impact around the world, get Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy (Aside: Do not get the American version. Every “football” is changed to “soccer,” including the title, which leads to lovely constructions like “American soccer quarterback” when referring to the NFL.) or Frank Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World. If you want an overarching, worldwide history of the game, get David Goldblatt’s incredibly thorough The Ball is Round. If you want a book about the evolution of football, get Jonathan Wilson’s incomparable Inverting the Pyramid. If you just want a good book about the sport, get David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, on Dutch soccer. Why England Lose wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t what it could have been, and all of the above books are more rewarding.

Basically, Kuper – a decent journalist with the Financial Times – partners with Szymanski – a sports economist who’s never met a regression he didn’t like – to use stats to “explain” some football clichés. This is why I thought I’d like the book; regular readers are familiar with how I use and abuse stats. But even I have my limits. I have no quibble with their math – it’s thorough and precise, as you’d expect from two well-respected writers. The pity is it’s ultimately uninteresting.

Even though the American title is appalling, it’s actually more apt. “Why England Lose” is but one of a number of topics, each covered in a chapter. Naturally, the title question is the first, and it, like the rest of the book, leaves us expecting more.

Kuper and Szymanski’s “answer?” England doesn’t actually lose that much, or anymore than a nation of its size should. And the team’s record is fairly consistent. Which completely ignores the John Bull “we invented the game” rhetoric behind the assumption that England ought to win more major tournaments. If you want to know why England lose, read Inverting the Pyramid. England loses because England is perpetually behind the times tactically. Now that England has a foreign coach who actually knows what he’s doing, they’re not too shabby.

The rest of the work is similarly unfulfilling. Don’t get me wrong; there are good parts. Unsurprisingly, given Kuper’s employer and Szymanski’s profession, they deftly explain how mismanaged some clubs are from a business perspective as well as the game’s reliance on money.

But it’s no surprise that total wage spending basically predicts the table. Better players make more money, and over time, the richer teams will have the better record because they can afford better players. Of course certain players (more attractive and/or after a major tournament) are overvalued in the transfer market, and poorly-run clubs are more susceptible to them, as they’re looking for the quick fix. Well duh.

Too much of the book is “well duh.” And times it isn’t “well duh” – such as the argument that having an “unbalanced” league is good for the game (big clubs get big crowds and we wouldn’t want endless 0-0s and/or home wins) – still tend to leave the reader indifferent, more often than not because the point they just took four equations to prove is obvious enough on face value.

In the end, the book is as scattershot as “…and Other Curious Phenomena Explained” implies. Unlike Moneyball, there is no dominant personality like Billy Beane. Kuper and Szymanski often refer to Lyon owner Jean-Michel Aulus’s transfer dealings and Arsene Wenger’s team-building philosophy, but rarely delve any deeper in order to explain any thesis. Which is exactly what made Moneyball so groundbreaking. Of course, Moneyball had access. Not to mention the fact that Lyon’s finally been knocked off the summit of Ligue 1 and Wenger hasn’t won a trophy since 2005 (then again, what did the Oakland A’s win?).

Kuper and Szymanski present a variety of facts and stats – some interesting, some insightful, and some irrelevant and obvious. That’s pretty much it. They definitely cite their work, and back up their points with numbers galore, but they could and should have done much more. And as a reader, you can do much better.


Anonymous said...

My goodness, Nate -- I did not know you had a sabermetric inclination. I take it you're a baseball fan? If so, may I ask of whom?

Getting this on topic, I'm glad a book like this is coming out. I have to imagine that -- like most American sports -- the traditional stats don't do a very good job of showing a player's true value. And while statistics will never be able to completely capture the value of a player, I'm always curious in a bit more 'sophisticated' analysis. IIRC, hasn't Billy Beane actually given a couple of speeches on the very subject?


nate said...

To be honest, baseball's probably my least favorite of any of the major sports, and I don't watch very much although, as with pretty much all sports, I follow the standings and current events. I went to undergrad in DC (and miss the city from time to time), and the Nationals' AAA team is based in my hometown, so I'd love to see them do well, but that's not happening in the near future.

However, I have an enormous amount of respect for Bill James and those who've followed him. I immensely enjoy Nate Silver, because he's an incredibly smart stat geek in both politics and sports, and he's almost always right. They and many more, and more importantly the GMs et al who've listened, have changed the sport for the better.

Not only do I enjoy stats, being the geek I am, I think numbers help back up opinion/analysis/whatever. You can only see so much by just watching the game, no matter how experienced or clever you are.

But they have to be the right numbers. Baseball is the easiest team sport to quantify in this regard. It really is made up of individual moments. Football, being such a team sport, is harder (but Aaron Schatz and Football Outsiders do an admirable job). As is basketball, but Daryl Morey with the Rockets (see what Bill Simmons has written about him in the past) is supposedly making strides, and I bet we get more in that line in the near future. Soccer, the ultimate team sport, is a lot harder to quantify.

I was hoping this book would attempt to do it in regard to matters on the pitch. But more often than not, the writers use numbers (intelligently, nonetheless) to show things like the aforementioned 'wage spending = better teams' and 'england don't really lose than often and have a consistent international record.'

That's far less interesting to me, and not what I hoped for when I got the book. Which is why this review probably comes off as unduly harsh. This is a decent read, Kuper and Szymanski are erudite and intelligent, and a few of the chapters are fun. But I really did hope for more.

And yes, Beane is supposedly a soccer fanatic. I keep meaning to look into what he's previously said.