Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas and miscellany

Euro 2016: survival of the weak

euro numbersThe Euros start today. And go on for a bit, and a bit longer, and then eventually there will be a final, I promise.

If you feel that there’s something not quite right about this edition of the quadrennial, you’d be spot on. It comes down to the numbers.

In previous editions, the Euros were contested by 16 teams. Four groups of four, top two go to the quarter finals and so on. Great. But this edition is 24 teams.

Let’s take a step back: how did we get to 24 teams?

Well, it started with 53 teams, divided into nine groups of six (and one of 5). In those groups, the top two went through, plus a third place team, and then the other eight third place teams had a playoff.

From 53 to 23 (plus the hosts) isn’t much of a cut off. To compare, the World Cup for 2018 goes from 210 to 31 teams, and the UEFA (ie European) part of that goes from 54 teams to just 13 (plus Russia as hosts).

So rather than eliminate 76 per cent of the European teams in qualifying, as the World Cup does (the overall rate is 85 per cent), the Euros eliminated just 57 per cent of the teams in qualifying.

That basically means you can be a very average team and still get through to the finals. Obviously, not the Netherlands, but that’s another story.

And then there’s the finals themselves. The Guardian have done it brilliantly: a tournament of 24 is a terrible number. To get to the knock out stages of 16 teams (rather than 8 as before), you are eliminating not half, but just a third of teams from the group stage.

In other words – 53 goes to 23 (plus host), 24 goes to 16, then it’s a knockout (with some severely complicated rules along the way).

It’s almost harder to fail than it is to progress.

 

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Sport Geek #45: The Greatest

muhammad aliThe death of Muhammad Ali has, quite rightly, inspired some fantastic obituaries, which I suggest you read in the section below. Frequently Ali is said to have ‘transcended’ his sport. While it’s hard to disagree, what do we mean by that?

Literally, the definition is (via Merriam Webster):

–  to rise above or go beyond the limits of
 to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of
–  to be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)

Ali clearly meets the test: he was a political and religious figure as well as a cultural icon, and a boxer whose fights are legendary. But who since can be said to have transcended his or her sport in a comparable way?

Michael Jordan? Serena Williams? Tiger Woods? All have redefined their sports, and, especially in Williams and Woods cases, have broken racial barriers. Great for the sport – but is that transcending?

Statistical leaders – Jack Nicklaus and Roger Federer, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt – are amazing sportsmen who have pushed their event to a higher level, but it ends there.

What of those who have, it seems, carried the hopes of an emerging nation? Ayrton Senna, Sachin Tendulkar, Diego Maradona? There is something more transcendent here, yet all seem somehow small when compared to Ali.

Lastly, what of one area where Ali could not make much of an impact: gender? Perhaps Billy Jean King, who did so much for women’s tennis and sport in general, could be said to have transcended her sport. Yet this feels like two parallel careers, whereas Ali’s influence, one feels, exists in more of a continuum, equally comfortable in the ring or on chat shows, or giving voice to political concerns.

This, then, is Ali’s legacy: he was not just an icon – for many of those exist – but an icon for whom all others can never quite compare. Read the obits – they are worth your time. Plus there are 7 other articles to make you feel smarter. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #44: freak wins, poor cousins, and surefire failures

God, the sport just keeps on coming, doesn’t it? A friend the other day posted to a WhatsApp group: “England played and won a rugby game today, a fact I have only just discovered”. Amid the French Open, international football, drug stories, Mourinho and GP, there it was: England beating Wales, scoring five tries in the process. Did you miss it? I did.

Is there too much sport? There have always been four golf majors, four tennis slam events, and one FA Cup. But now there are 21 F1 GPs, a move to expand the Champion’s League, more cricket, more golf and tennis events packaged as premium. Rugby summer tours; football summer tours. Cricket all year. Athletics World Championships every two years. It’s exhausting.

Ironically, the Americans seem to be the only nation to keep things in check. The NFL? 16 game season since the 70s. NBA? The 82-game schedule has been around for ages, as has the MLB 162 games. Where’s the fixture inflation there? Although to be fair, that’s quite a lot already.

Sometimes, less is more. Let’s just hope the Euros, Olympics and World Cup stick at the 4-year cycle. Otherwise our heads will explode.

So to the choice items of the week. Accept no other substitutes. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #43: chops, meteors, and brawls

Welcome. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

CRICKET

Why are there no English batsmen with over 10,000 Test runs (Cook’s impending milestone excepted)? Because England we’re shit in the 90s. (Me / FT).

Stuff you learn: chop. As in, why is Chris Gayle such a chop? (Guardian)

FOOTBALL

How it all went wrong for Louis van Gaal. (BBC). How one tackle by a bouffant Arsenal defender changed football forever (Vice). How Newcastle‘s theory of ‘winning’ totally screwed up (theallrounder). And how West Ham’s stadium defence is “bullshit” (Vice again).

Brilliant: measuring the cliche of tough places to go… (S Chicken) and talking of cliches, don’t abuse Michael Owen. (Vice) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #42: cheap sumo, the rain in Spain, and Pop’s pops

No grand thoughts this week – just 10 bits of quality writing to make you feel smarter.

“People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine.” Amazing quote in a NYTimes story of how dozens of Olympians could be barred from Rio after 2008 blood samples have been retested. And there’s more to come.

NFL careers are short. No wonder many are preparing for a life after football at business school. (FT, free)

A wonderful interview with Ben Stokes, England’s most explosive cricketer. (Guardian)

STATS! An interesting look at how run rates change across a T20 innings. (DW)

Controversial cheap moves in sumo and hundreds of years of greatness compared – it can only by FiveThirtyEight.

If you thought Sir Alex Ferguson was tough on the media, check out the NBA’s Gregg Popovich. The problem is, he isn’t just slapping down journalists. He is doing the fans – the ultimate paymasters – a disservice. (The big lead) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #41: What Trump and Leicester City have in common

LC-Bswan-Trump

Perhaps we should all just go and re-read the Black Swan.

Leicester City’s Premier League triumph and Donald Trump’s road to the GOP nomination may seem like strange things to compare, but they are probably the two most unlikely major things that have happened this year.

These were not simply one-off unlikely single events. They are long-run wins, persistently written off by the media until they were a near certainty. Now both events are seen as game-changing: Trump has “already changed US and world politics… Themes and ideas that were on the fringes have now entered the political mainstream, and they will not disappear if and when Mr Trump loses”, according to the FT’s Gideon Rachman. Leicester have shown how “every club in the league now has the financial capacity to compete” according to the Telegraph.

The odds were both ridiculous for a limited field. There are 20 Premier League teams: for one to be 5000-1 to win the title is extreme, as was Trump’s 2 per cent chance given by FiveThirtyEight.

What comes next? Here the contrast is stark. Most neutrals hope that Leicester can have a decent-to-good run next season, while hoping that Trump’s campaign at best stalls, or preferably implodes. The tragic outcome would be the reverse.

And so to the matters of the week. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #40: replays, Rio, and Ranieri

A shorter newsletter this week because, you know.

You might be rather full of how-amazing-greatest-sporting-upset-ever-what-were-the-odds-5000-to-1 Leicester by now, but it still is a brilliant thing.

A few parting thoughts.

The Premier League is set up to keep the rich clubs on top. In the US the big main sports have three levellers: the draft, salary caps, and a knock-out playoff format which makes the winner more of a lottery. In the UK, a 38-game league format plus performance-related cash means the whole system is stacked to maintain the status quo. Previously, only oligarch money has broken the stranglehold at the top.

So do Leicester represent something new? Perhaps: Tottenham look good for another title run, and teams such as Southampton showed in the last few years that it is possible to challenge – for a while. West Ham look promising too.

The counter is that it is a fluke, a one-off, and nothing like it will happen again. Either way, this is a season to savour.

LEICESTER LEICESTER LEICESTER

There have been sooooo many articles, it’s hard to choose. First, there’s the deep dive: the Guardian has the inside story of an extraordinary season. It’s a good read. What convinced Leicester to appoint Claudio Ranieri? Why are injured players pitchside at training on exercise bikes? And what have been the keys to a remarkable Premier League success?

Next, let’s go econ. Gavyn Davies does a great job on the odds and economics of football.

Lastly, the Economist on sporting upsets.

That should do it. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #39: Brexitball, negative splits and the 92 club

Justice – at last.

Let’s get on with the sports stories of the week

YOU CAN’T PROVE A NEGATIVE

Although Rafa Nadal is damn well trying. I’ve heard Nadal drugs rumours for years, but he’s going all out to show his innocence. The problem is that, as ever, you can’t prove you haven’t ever taken something. The doubters will never be convinced. So we end up in game theory – would someone go so far releasing documents etc if they were guilty of drug taking? Or is that the double-bluff they want you to believe? (FWIW, I’m a believer in Nadal.) Continue reading

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Sport Geek #38: bye bye Kobe, curses, and Messi’s 500

Here’s a quick quiz, which will tell you everything you need to know about stats and context. And the long ball.

Q1: Which English football club is top of the Premier League right now?
Q2: Which club is 18th in the League and facing possible relegation?
Q3: Which two clubs play the long ball most often in the League?

If you answered ‘Leicester’ and ‘Sunderland’ to Q1 and Q2 respectively, you would be right. If you answered ‘Leicester and Sunderland’ to Q3, you would also be right.

According to the CIES Football Observatory, Leicester play 6.9 per cent of passes long, and Sunderland 6.7 per cent, the two highest-ranked Premier League teams, and 3rd and 4th in Europe’s big five leagues. For comparison, Tottenham in second place play 3.1 per cent long ball, and Newcastle, just behind Sunderland in the League, play 5.4 per cent.

Clearly long balls can be effective, or useless. Or maybe nothing comes from them whether you hit them 7 per cent of the time or 3 per cent. In other words: statistics can be revealing, or they can confuse, or they can be simply the starting point for more digging. Something to bear in mind.

And so to the week’s matters arising. Go on, treat yourself. Continue reading

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Sport Geek #37: party pooping, Hellas Leicester, and the back 9

What to make of sport this week? There’s been no major scandal, no offices raided, no drug busts of note. Instead, it’s back to the drama. Spieth’s collapse and Willett’s win; Leicester dreaming of the most unlikely title since [insert witty historical reference here].

But I don’t want you to be simply entertained. I want you to feel smarter. So here are 12 stories that you should know about, or think about reading when you have the time that clearly you won’t have unless you stop reading this long paragraph and get on with properly procrastinating with some top quality sports writing and I’ll stop there thank you very much.

GOLF

I actually fell asleep as Jordan Spieth went five shots clear at the Masters with the last 9 holes to go. But given that I had written a rather good analysis of the cliche that the back 9 at Augusta is where it is won or lost, I should have known better.  As the Cauldron points out, it’s the greatest theatre in sports.

The question now is: what happens to Spieth? Continue reading

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