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Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Simon Kuper on stats and his new book


Simon Kuper is one of the world's top soccer writers. Two years ago, he co-authored "Soccernomics," which examined the soccer world through the lens of numbers. On Tuesday, Kuper's new book "Soccer Men" was released in the U.S. It's a compilation of new and previously published profiles on the most famous people in the sport. Five Aside spoke with Kuper about his works and the impact of statistics on the beautiful game.

It's been two years since Soccernomics was published. What sort of response did you receive from the soccer community? In hindsight, are there any topics you would like to revisit or update?

Simon Kuper: I think it's the only book of mine that's really penetrated that world, where I've gotten response from people inside clubs. Following "Moneyball," more people in soccer have gotten into that sort of thing. You get more people like club executives and manager types who have read the book and found it echoing their own emerging thinking about hiring coaches or how to value players.

I'm working on a new edition coming out next year. One new chapter is statistical data, about how to use passes and tackles to evaluate players. I speak to clubs about decision-making and using match data to track players.

What are a couple stats that are particularly useful for clubs?

Kuper: There are a couple I've been told by people in the game. If you're looking for an attacking midfielder, a great stat is pass completion in final third of the pitch. The best players are really good at that. For example, you might see Kevin Nolan. He doesn't look like the greatest player, but he's good at this stat, so maybe I should have had another look at him.

One of the best ways to evaluate goalkeepers is how many shots he saves in the penalty area. For example, Manchester United opponents take lots of shots from outside the area, because the United defense is harder to crack. But if you look at shots in the penalty area, that's a much more level playing field. That can make a goalkeeper an interesting candidate.

What was the most surprising statistical trend you unearthed in Soccernomics?

Kuper: The one thing that surprised me was how iron the link is between salaries and where you finish in the league. Everyone knows it's important, but if you average it out over 10 years, the correlation is over 90 percent in England and Italy. The correlation between transfer spending and winning is weaker, but it's surprisingly strong between salaries and winning.

You looked at soccer from a statistical angle in Soccernomics. Soccer Men takes a very different, more personal angle on the game. What were the different writing experiences like for each book?

Kuper: Soccer Men let me look back over 15 to 20 years of thinking about footballers and meeting them and watching them. It's a reflection of my career as a journalist and trying to think about these people as men and what makes them great as players. Soccernomics thinks about it more from the perspective of people who run the club. Soccer Men is from the players angle, inside the fishbowl of a team.

In Soccer Men, your profile of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane touches on the beginning of a statistical revolution in soccer. In what ways have you seen statistical analysis find its way into the soccer business, particularly in Europe? And how do you see statistics affecting the sport of soccer in the next decade?

Kuper: Almost everyone in the Premier League has someone who looks at statistics. Juventus says they have three in their stats department. Like in Moneyball, some clubs have a statistician but no one listens to him. There's a battle between traditionalists and innovators.

I think statistics will become more and more significant, but not as much as in baseball or cricket, where action is more discrete and easier to analyze. Soccer is more a mix of art and science than baseball. Let's say that 30 percent of transfers succeed. If you can use stats to raise the level to 35 percent, then it's worth doing. Statistics will be a tool that clubs use, but not the only tool they'll use.