Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Reflections on Soccernomics

 Saturday September 21 – Swindon Town 3 Bristol City 2

“To pass, or to stop the other team from passing, you also need to know exactly where to be.  The average player only has the ball for two minutes every game, so his main job is to occupy the right positions for the other 88 minutes.”
(Kuper, Simon and Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics, p403 if it bothers you)

 Yep – I’ve been a-reading.  I’ve finally got around to picking up Soccernomics and reading the whole damn thing, largely on the journey from London to Swindon, and then back from Bristol the following day after an evening’s pleasant Pro Evo.

And quite simply: if you’re reading this, you should read Soccernomics, too.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve at least a passing interest both in football, and in the Sean O’Driscoll model currently sputtering into life at Bristol City.  This feels like a good time to be writing this, actually – after two away performances, including what’s currently last night’s dignified elimination from the League Cup at the hands of Southampton, which have seen City play well without taking anything, it’s worth looking at what doing the right things long-term actually means for a team.

That’s precisely what Soccernomics does.  Written by a football writer and a statistician, it looks not at isolated incidents but at long-term trends (and therefore I was predisposed to enjoy it, given my little rant about sample sizes last time out).  There’s a section on penalty kicks, for instance, which doesn’t promise to turn the lay reader into an expert taker or scorer of penalties, but crunches the numbers to demonstrate what method gives you the best chance of scoring a penalty – and therefore, over time, what might help the professional score 85% rather than 80% of those penalty kicks.  Small margins, but if the penalty that sways those stats is in the 90th minute of a playoff final, highly relevant ones.

What stood out was that every long-term trend associated with failure reminded me of what City used to do, of the club that we were before Derek McInnes came in (yep, sorry – using that name with positive connotations – if I’ve not lost you now, I’m delighted).  And every long-term success reminded me of what we’re doing now.  The section on how best to get value out of the transfer market is a great example.  From Kuper and Szymanski’s 12 main secrets of the market I found the following interesting:

1 – A new manager wastes money on transfers – don’t let him (compare Steve Coppell’s transfer market splurge, on players he would only work with for two games, on O’Driscoll’s “if this vision outlasts me then so be it” approach to working with Keith Burt’s signings)
2 – Use the wisdom of crowds (Gary Johnson the benign dictator, whose chief scout was his brother, vs the clear Burt/O’Driscoll/Lansdown/Pemberton? committee)
3 – Stars of recent World Cups or European Championships are overvalued; ignore them (or Slovakian players who’ve played well against Aston Villa on ITV recently?)
9 – Sell any player when another club offers more than he is worth (the difference between cashing in on Steven Davies and hanging on to Marvin Elliott after his one great season)
11 – Buy players with personal problems, then help them deal with their problems (worked for McInnes when signing Jody Morris at St Johnstone, didn’t work when he brought him here. These aren’t guarantees – it’s about chance and value, not copper-bottomed sure things.  The principle is nevertheless right.)

But most of all:

5 – Older players are overvalued / 8 The best time to buy a player is when he is in his early twenties

That one does rather put the tin lid on it for me.  How different our transfer policy feels to the days when we put out David Clarkson, Peter Styvar and Patrick Agyemang and considered it an acceptable attack.  Isn’t it great to see us playing a team as young as the one we’ve been playing recently – yes, we’ve got Marv, as well as Nicky Shorey and Marlon Harewood, but they’re players Sean was lumbered with, or free transfers, or loans, to help the likes of Aden Flint, Marlon Pack, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and co perform to their full potential.

And that will take time, of course.  You learn the game by playing it – those 10,000 hours of practice everyone talks about are vital for technical development, but young players will learn how to spend those 88 minutes when they aren’t in possession by finding out for themselves what works and what doesn’t.  By definition, if you have to master a skill, you aren’t consistently able to demonstrate it yet.  We’re seeing errors, we’re seeing them lead to goals and yep, it’s frustrating.  We’re seeing players like Bobby Reid and Emmanuel-Thomas, blessed for skill at this level, spending large amounts of time in the wrong position and only coming to life when they get the ball.  It’s the City paradox at the moment – their individual moments are getting us into games, but the collective lack of experience is probably losing them.  Several times at the County Ground this weekend I saw Emmanuel-Thomas beg for the ball whilst clearly looking along the line in an offside position.  That’s what we need to get right to win games – get him thinking properly, whilst not losing the side of his game that means scoring wonderful goals is second nature to him, and we’ll kick on.

I don’t believe we’re far off that kicking-on moment now, by the way.  Other than the Peterborough game, our league defeats have been by a single goal.  Games that turn on single goals could normally have been drawn, or even gone the other way, quite easily.  Even the 3-0 loss to Peterborough turned on an Emmanuel-Thomas miss at 1-0, followed moments later by Britt Assombalonga’s fantastic strike.  It’s also a reason to stick with O’Driscoll – our good results coming in the Cup feels like a statistical fluke more than anything.  We’ll revert to the mean soon with or without him, I’d say, and we’re far more likely to keep doing those scientifically sensible things with the rational Black Country man in charge.

Please do read Soccernomics – it really helped me rationalise why a lot of things that City are doing which feel right actually are right.  It’ll challenge you, no matter what you think about football – its conclusions about the lack of excitement in an unpredictable league, and the fickleness of large swathes of football crowds, cut against what I believed, and were the sections I read most closely for all that.  It’s also got an excellent section on the Ashton Gate 8 – and how many other Waterstones bestsellers have one of those?

Let’s stay rationa, as much as we can at least, and genuinely give ourselves a chance.

Sunday, 15 September 2013


14 September 2013 - Bristol City 0 Peterborough United 3

Six games into the league season we met Peterborough.  Mid-September had us at different ends of the league, but hey; early days.  At any rate, three goals were scored, two by the in-form big money signing up top.  The away team left happy – nice to win again after two winless matches, it put them back on track – and even the events around Lee Tomlin’s penalty were forgotten.  A meaningless incident in the grand scheme of things.

That was a year ago, by the way, when Sam Baldock scored two at London Road to give us our third league win of the season.  Game six, that was.   A few days later we went to Watford and got a really impressive 2-2 draw.  We were set fair for a very decent season indeed.

Remember last season?  You probably still can; you might try to forget it, but I bet you can.  Like me, last season probably makes you think of defensive errors, dreadful capitulations and a horrible, cold, empty feeling at 4.45 every Saturday.

But six games in it wasn’t feeling like that at all.  A month or so earlier, we’d scored eight goals in four days to win two matches against teams who are now playing Premier League football.  Our new  
striker had hit four in as many games.  OK, we were doing as badly as we always had done in the Cups (knocked out by Gillingham in the League Cup’s first round) but otherwise there was a hell of a lot to be positive about.  Ross stayed with me in London after the Watford game; I distinctly remember him saying, later that evening “we’d have to go on a terrible run now to be in trouble again”.

I assume you know the rest.

The point is – a year ago we had what felt like a strong start, which was all the more encouraging on the back of the escape we’d pulled off the previous spring in order to stay in the division.  It turned out to be deceptive and we got relegated dead last after a season which contrived to throw low point after low point at us.  (For me the lowest point was angrily eating Baklava at a souk-themed wedding the day we lost 2-1 at Wolves – I mixed up port and red wine and things got a bit unpleasant.  No doubt you have your own mildly embarrassing memory.  I hope it demonstrates that you, too, can lose perspective entirely.)

This season’s start hasn’t been very good (in the league anyway – in another odd little reversal of last season, we’re doing well in the Cups, having started with a positive result against Gillingham).  It’s made more difficult because the fanbase is so disaffected due to relegation.  And it’s been crystallised by receiving our first sound beating of the season, our early defeats having been a freak 5-4 and a 2-1 against a side still receiving parachute payments.  3-0 against is always nasty, even if the performance wasn’t so much awful as flat, against a team well equipped to punish us for not being on our game.

I wonder whether anybody is, or should be, surprised by this happening.  We were expecting this young team to get the odd bad result, particularly early on.  We were expecting Peterborough to be a strong side (weren’t we? I certainly was).  Yet here we are, with the fanbase up in arms about a defeat.  It was unpleasant to be at, but come on.  Back to the lack of perspective.  Two months ago we all said that, as a club, we’d need to be patient.  An odd sort of patience, this; “yes, I’ll be patient, as long as I get what I want within no more than six weeks”.  I do sometimes wonder what my fellow fans were like on Christmas Eve.

And of course we’re only six league games in (with our form over the nine games we have in fact played rather more encouraging – you can’t pick and choose whether your better results come in league or Cup).  It’s dangerous to extrapolate anything from six games.  The sample size, in a season where most sides will play 50 at least, is pretty unscientific.  Waiting for 46 league games to be played would be a good start; if that’s genuinely not possible, 15 games is a third of the season and that starts to make sense as a benchmark.  But 6?  That’s what we call patience now?

I suppose it’s better than 1.  There’ve been a lot of debuts this weekend, and a lot of rushes to judgement based upon 90 minutes of playing time.  Christian Eriksen “can have a team built around him”.  Gareth Bale “can play alongside Ronaldo”.  Mesut Özil “has made a difference”.  Perhaps all of these things will be true.  But it’s ludicrously early to claim that they already are.  Football culture appears to be about immediate rushes to judgement based upon a tiny sample size.  That’s why Aaron Ramsey is now, for a reasonable swathe of Arsenal fans, definitely better than Jack Wilshere.  That’s why Roy Hodgson (whose England team have more goals per game than any England side since Walter Winterbottom) is under heavy criticism for being dull after producing a single flawed performance against Ukraine.  Getting a better result there than Capello did seems unimportant; a selective memory is a corollary of this cherry-picking.

It’s at the level of the national team that this sort of thing stands out most, I think.  Performance over time will always be a better indicator of future performance than performance in individual games.  Over time, England have reached a single major final – the same number as Sweden, Denmark, Greece or Hungary, and fewer than Uruguay, the Czechs and Russia.  Yet because we managed to win the single one-off final game we played, it’s a rare fan who will acknowledge that these teams are our international peers, rather than multiple finalists like France, Italy and the Netherlands.

City fans and England fans are both disappointed at the moment.  Failure to meet expectations feels like a common thread.  But you do wonder how often fans test their expectations with any rigour.  I know football is a passionate thing – this is what I wrote about last time.  I know losing is horrible, losing a couple of times worse.  But let’s wait until we’ve got something worth being upset about.  We know from recent experience what that’s like.  A bit of patience, a bit of perspective, and maybe a bit of sangfroid wouldn’t hurt anybody, right now.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Summer leaves fall from summer trees

The start of the 2013/14 season, including 3 August 2013 - Bristol City 2 Bradford City 2

Outside, it’s like the final lines of Pulp’s wonderful “David’s Last Summer”: And as we walked home we could hear the leaves curling and turning brown on the trees / And the birds deciding where to go for winter / And the whole sound / The whole sound of summer packing its bags and preparing to leave town.  Summer’s finished, I think; this year I’d have said that Saturday 7 September was the final day, and Sunday 8 the first of autumn.

It’s a beautiful time of year.  Brown leaves in gutters doubling in number every three days.  Each day shorter than the last, not enough to notice day by day but certainly enough to notice week by week.  The smell of smoke on the air; sap, too, and that tang you get in the nostrils when they search for heat that isn’t there any more – apart from fleetingly on the back of the hand in the right light on one of your final evenings outside a pub, shivering and pretending you aren’t.

It’s also utterly, utterly perfect football weather.  Long shadows at quarter to five, the floodlights starting to come on in the second half, that first time you see your breath in front of you while you’re standing in the away end.  I can’t eat a pie during a summertime football match.  They’re revolting.  But give me a cold autumn day when I’ve underdressed slightly and that whitehot combination of steaming balti and stodgy crust becomes utterly essential.  Particularly at Vicarage Road, I find, not that I’ll be able to partake there for another year at least.

I’ve managed to miss almost all of the summer football this year.  Since the first game of the season I’ve not seen City kick a ball live, not even on Sky – pre-booked tickets for The Book of Mormon meant I even missed the derby, and my various August travels to Norway, Denmark, End of the Road festival and so on had the effect both of leaving me stony broke, and of cutting me off from football behind a kind of strange, semi-permeable membrane.

It’s odd.  Everyone’s got the internet on their phones these days, everyone’s got a device small enough to carry around with them, everywhere’s got Wi-Fi (and everywhere in Scandinavia doubly so).  So I’ve always been able to find out the scores pretty close to full time (12 hours afterwards at End of the Road being the longest gap – waiting half a day only to find out that we’ve drawn 1-1 at Gillingham whilst in a festival Portaloo isn’t a bad definition of pathos), watch the goals, all of that.  But it doesn’t feel real.  Over the last month or so I’ve felt entirely disconnected from football, and that at an interesting, formative stage of the season (because it’ll turn into a hell of a slog from here on in).  And that’s because I’ve been experiencing it in something approaching isolation.  It hasn’t been fulfilling the usual role for me of something which creates a common ground.  People I speak to either know a great deal less about City than I do, or a great deal more about what’s going on.  Watching Match of the Day on returning to England was a strange experience, like watching one of those Simon Pegg movies where the same actors he usually works with all turn up in different outfits.  “Ah, so Stewart Downing’s in this one too, is he, as The Hammer!  They didn’t mention that in the reviews.  Nice touch.”

Missing out on all but one of City’s opening to the season – which thanks to international postponements now has a self-contained feel, a prelude with three blank pages to turn before beginning Chapter One – has been odd as I’ve had so little visceral feel for it.  Every goal since Rory McArdle’s in front of the East End has been experienced post-facto, the confirmation of something I found out second-hand, through statistics, rather than first-hand.  Which has left me nonplussed about the very odd start we’ve had.

So we’ve played eight games so far.  Won three.  Drawn three.  Lost two.  That doesn’t sound so bad, fairly steady start for a newly relegated side.  Unbeaten in four at the moment.  That’s good.  Those four games included a first victory in 19 years against top-flight opposition, and a win in the Bristol derby?  Well then that’s excellent.

Yet we’re 20th in the division, the only positive about which is that I’d thought we’d be lower by now after the weekend’s postponement of glamour Shrewsbury tie.  We haven’t won a league game.  We’ve got Peterborough, having a mini-slump but amongst the strongest teams in the division, this weekend.  I’m there; I may well fail once again to see us win.

But it’s disappointingly hard to get that worked up about it when you don’t watch.  I’m reminded of my University days, cut off not only from the live games but from the Bristolian matchday buzz.  The appetite fades as the body learns to survive on what it’s getting – the occasional Match of the Day Cup appearance, odd game over Christmas and Auto Windscreens Final in Cardiff.  They weren’t immensely exciting days to be a fan, in all honesty, as we followed relegation by bobbing corklike around the top half of the division, but I certainly lost a lot of mojo for the club then and it’s disconcerting to realise how easy it is for that to happen.

I’m unbothered that we’re 20th, and I can’t work out whether that’s a perfectly levelheaded stance to take given that we’ve played five matches in the league, have a young squad, and have had three games against teams who have either just won 4-0 or would immediately go on to win 4-0, or it’s an apathy which has taken hold terrifyingly quickly.

Either way I don’t like it.  I want the buzz back.  I want to go to the game this weekend and really love it.  I barely know what the view from this season’s new, improved mid-Dolman seat is like, I’ve only experienced it for 90 minutes.  I’m already analysing City the way I analyse other football teams I don’t watch live.  See the outbreak of my inner Statto in the paragraph above.  Yes, it’s true, but it’s not really the point, and it’s certainly not how I’d have summed those games up if I’d been to more of them.

Going cold turkey has made me realise that, for all that I like football, I bloody love City.  I’m a geeky, analytical guy as it is, and I’ll never turn that off.  But augmenting it with something that makes me shout, cry, kick things, hug strangers, take absurdly long train journeys and sing along to songs that, on any musicological level, aren’t really very good – that’s the stuff of life.  That’s why we go, isn’t it?  That’s why I go.  Because you can read anything through stats.  But you can prove anything that way, too.  And I want things in my life that can’t be quantified.  That can’t be explained.  That just are.

Nobody’s ever succeeded in quantifying this passion, this thing that draws us back.  I hope they never do.  I want my unprovable, unendurable, unimprovable City.