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How likely is Simon Kuper's prediction for a football dystopia ruled by analytics and technology?

Wednesday 28th December 2016
Simon Kuper's place in football journalism was secured when Soccernomics, co-written with Stefan Symanski, was published in 2006. He'd written other books previously, and more since, but Soccernomics forever equated him with the growing analytics movement sweeping across athletics. Because writers are criminally underpaid, the Ugandan-born Dutchman frequently contributes to ESPNFC to keep the lights on. Thursday last, he posted one of those year-ending looks into the game's future that every site likes to peddle. Only, rather than suggesting which up and coming new star with brilliant stats will finally break Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's duopoly over the newly christened "Melon d'Or," or whether this club will win that league, Kuper chose to predict how contemporary scientific method and technological advancements will reshape football. While his thoughts were interesting and provocative, either my faith in football's ability to remain largely unchanged while marching through slightly more than a hundred fifty years' progress or my inner Luddite found certain assertions to be a bit fantastical, and others to merely be touting a preexisting trend.

Overall, Kuper made seven predictions: statisticians will come to dominate club management's every aspect, "penalties will become more scientific", "pundits will become more sophisticated", managerial influence will wain, Western Europe will cease to boss the game, virtual reality will usurp television as the viewing medium of choice for fans and smartphones will reduce match audiences on any medium significantly.

There's no argument statistical analysis is taking on a greater role in athletics. Kuper himself admitted most teams are already studying opponents' tendencies when taking penalties or keepers' when attempting to stop them. Sure, playing the percentages may be smart. Unfortunately, it's also boring. What makes sport truly fascinating is when a living, breathing, therefore imperfect human being imagines, then attempt, and finally pulls off the near-impossible. It's like poker in that respect. Think bicycle kicks, Roberto Carlos set pieces, Lionel Messi mazy runs, cracking aces with seven-deuce.

You can probably blame Bill James for the switch from worshipping players who push the envelope to those who stay within themselves. He took the simple stats from American baseball, such as batting and earned run averages, proved they were flawed, then began inventing new ones. Others soon joined him. Categories like OBP, WHIP, and WAR began to define players' worth and potential. The trend moved to other sports. Hockey, almost as fluid a game as football, now measures its players effectiveness through formulas like Corsi (named in the least analytical way you could imagine) and PDO, both based on possession, shots attempted, and opponent's shots attempted. In fact, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) has been adapted to both hockey and basketball as a way to compare any player's comprehensive value in his respective game against the league average.

After Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball, immortalized the inventive ways the small-market Oakland A's used statistics to remain competitive with the big-spending teams when it was made into a film starring Brad Pitt, every sports franchise in America began hiring statistical analysts, often scouting them by their online blog's popularity, then paying through the nose for their exclusive services. Bill James currently works for the Boston Red Sox, who are Liverpool FC's corporate siblings in John Henry's Fenway Sports Groups' holdings. Football has its number crunchers, too, although I must confess my surprise that Zonal Marking's Michael Cox continues to be available on a Bosman.
Yet, while statistics can reveal a great deal both about players and tactics, it's going too far to suggest the man in the dugout is going to be rendered obsolete by the one with his nose in a spreadsheet. For one, managing players goes beyond recognising and exploiting technical ability. There is also motivation to be considered. While their outrageous salaries and athletic ability have fans believing otherwise, a footballer is simply a young man with the same emotional needs as you and I, only placed in a much more pressurised situation. That is why, like the average Joe, some get pulled over for driving drunk, others cheat on their wives or girlfriends, and the worst abuse them. Football managers must deal with such human problems everyday. They must also deal with squad players who believe they should be in the starting XI, agents who go to the press to further their client's agenda, chairmen and executives who believe they know exactly how the club should be playing, and media eager to expose the gaffer's own human flaws. Yes, yes, I see you there, Big Sam. You, too, Mr Bradley.

A manager who relies exclusively on statistical data is as out of touch as one who rejects it completely. Data can help you maximise your squad's potential and minimize its vulnerability, but, just like knowing pocket aces will beat 7-2 roughly nine times in ten is no consolation with all your money in the pot when the tenth time rolls around, being well-informed isn't sufficient to deal with reality. Bad things happen even when you know the odds. A good manager is not one who avoids adversity, as doing so is impossible. Rather, he is one who can adapt and overcome when carefully laid plans blow up in his face. Think Antonio Conte switching to the 3-4-3 after a rough start at Stamford Bridge. He's found the best players for his preferred formation, including N'golo Kanté, whose Ligue 2 stats first attracted Leicester City. Conte has also had to deal with unhappy stars, such as Cesc Fàbregas, relegated to the bench, and Willian and Pedro, who have been forced to split playing time. Since the change, the Blues are unbeaten. Yet, the competition on offer in the Premier League almost guarantees the streak will end. When it does, the Italian's mettle will be truly tested, much as Pep Guardiola's recent struggles at Man City has seen his.

As for pundits and sophistication, please. I feel Kuper's pain when hearing some commentator uttering tiring cliches such as "the player should have hit the target" or "must do better," after blasting a volley into the stands or heading wide of the far post. Especially when it's Robbie Savage. Not just him, though. A majority of men behind the microphone are former players. They know how difficult the game is, even for the most gifted. Yet, they still happily stick in the knife. A Cassius everywhere you turn, nary a Caesar to be found. The simple truth is most pundits have chosen the booth over the dugout. They would rather criticize others than make the decisions themselves, Gary Neville being a rare outlier. Why? Because life is easier when only a lack of charm, not knowledge, presents any serious consequence. Let someone behind the scenes whisper stats in their ears and conjure up pretty graphics. Sophistication be damned. Otherwise, Howard Webb would be sitting with the other lads in the BT Sport studio, rather than be banished to his dark dungeon, the walls lined with monitors in place of stonemasonry.

Similarly, people who have little interest in technology or numbers without dollar signs attached have long been predicting the world will eventually catch up with Europe's football dominance, if not taking a hand in bringing it about. That's nothing new. Kuper considers Europe's demise inevitable given only six percent of the planet's population is native to it. Certainly, the US and China have the economic power to build competitive leagues, and the demographics to rival the Old World. Yet, reputation and tradition are far more critical factors in selling a brand. With few exceptions, the best players and coaches flock to UEFA's elite leagues to test themselves against the best. Until clubs from other parts of the world begin to regularly win the Club World Cup, that dynamic will not change. At the same time, you'll occasionally find non-European footballing savants happy to stay in their own backyard, or whose clubs block their movement, as John Duerden has noted with Asia's Player of the Year, Omar Abdulrahman and when Seattle Sounders' hometown boy Jordan Morris disappointed Werder Bremen. European leagues have such a head start, though, it will take a massive economic shift rather than their comparatively small domestic market, to knock them from the top of the food chain.
Which isn't to say that television's demise isn't a problem for the game. Being able to watch live matches through 3D virtual reality goggles as though you were standing in the midst of the action is certainly enticing. Live streaming on laptops, tablets, and cell phones is already cutting into television's market share. I haven't owned a television since the '90s and I'm not alone.

On the other hand, I'm skeptical about Kuper's notion that apps which provide highlights translate into fewer viewers taking in entire matches. Yes, a given match can go long stretches without much happening to interest the casual fan. If you are truly into football, however, chances missed are just as engaging as sensational strikes. So are midfield movements and battles in the corners which ultimately amount to nothing. In Manchester United's Boxing Day match with Sunderland, Henrikh Mkhitaryan came on late. In short order, he found himself on the edge of the eighteen, to the goal's left. Turning, he let go a curling volley that stayed just outside the far post. How many United fans do you think cried out while putting their hands to their heads? Probably as many as the Sunderland fans who exhaled in temporary relief, and definitely the same number who roared joyfully when the Armenian's scorpion kick from Zlatan Ibrahimović's cross found the back of the net. What's more, as unsophisticated as many pundits can be, there are many fans who rely on their every word to tell them exactly what they just saw with their own eyes.

No, the viewing medium may change, but it won't diminish a fan's love for the game. More importantly, as they did with the advent of cable broadcasting, club owners and league executives will exploit new technologies to further their revenue. Finding the profit in every opportunity is what they do as surely as scoring goals is in Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's DNA.

Football has thrived in a changing world for a century and a half. Analytics, social media, and internet technology are no more daunting to it than air travel, color television, total football, catenaccio, and the back pages of the Sun and Mirror. They will find their place in the game, to be sure, but the human element will always be at the fore.

Gord Downie, the Canadian lyricist/lead singer for The Tragically Hip but no relation to Ian, said it best all the way back in 1989.

Well, sometimes the faster it gets

The less you need to know

But you got to remember the smarter it gets

The further it's going to go

When you 
">Blow at High Dough.

 

The author would like to thank Liem Nguyen at PixelReborn.com for kindly allowing his awesome work to be displayed in this article, and to wish all who read this a holiday season which turns out to be more than just "some sort of Elvis thing." 
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.


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