Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: May 2007

Fink big

Move over Opta. The Times yesterday launched Fink Tank, their unique rankings of football players in the Premiership. A heaven of statisics, I’m going to take a closer look later. First, a few observations:

1) Introducing the rankings with the line: “How did Fink Tank do it? We used a multivariate Poisson log-normal model. I hope you find that information helpful.” was pretty off-putting. Only real serious mathmaticians care about running several Poisson distributions as a method of removing anomalies – if that’s what it is…

2) The model works by identifying “the relationship between goals scored and every kick of the ball made by every player for every club”. I presume this takes into account defending as well as attacking. But it mention tackles, pressure that indirectly relates to goals, or other parts of football. A more detailed methodology is needed.

3) It penalises players for lack of time on the pitch – which is strange, as some players are used deliberately as a “super-sub” or impact player, and their lack of pitch-time is a virtue.

Here is the methodology:

The Fink Tank Predictor provides forecasts and ranking systems for English and European club football, based on a statistical model of matches based on more than five years of football scores.

In looking at player rankings for this season, the phrase “time-adjusted points” means the number of points the player would have added to an average team in the full season, compared with an average replacement. The points are then adjusted to reflect the amount of time spent on the pitch – minimum 400 minutes.

I’ll take a closer look in my longer, research blog later. Time to crunch a few numbers…

Big wins, big losses, big deal

Again, much is being made of the England win over the West Indies – England’s 3rd biggest win, the Windies biggest ever loss. I feel alone in thinking – so what? It’s a exceptionally poor Windies team, so it’s hardly earth-shattering news. I prefered the record that it was the coldest temperature ever recorded at a test – 7 degress C. Welcome to England in May.

Many papers prefer to focus on the fact that Michael Vaughan has equalled Peter May’s record for most test wins as England captain – in 7 fewer tests too. It’s a good record to be sure, but paltry compared to other countries – he’s still a long way behind Steve Waugh’s 41 wins or Clive Lloyds 36.

Is England’s batting really that great?

Maybe so…

The current series between England and the West Indies is looking very one-sided. Records are being set – or so the press would have us believe. In the first test, four England players scored centuries, which was the second time ever that had happened – for England (first time was 1938). Other countries have had 4×100 in an innings more recently than that, but never mind.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s good. But let’s look at the bigger picture.

In the second test (still being played) England have racked up another massive total, with Kevin Pietersen hitting 226 – which every paper has reported is the highest England innings since Graham Gooch’s 333 vs India in 1990. (What we should ask is why has it taken so long, given that every other major test nation has had at least one 270+ innings in the last 10 years…)

So are England such a good batting line-up? Or is this a weak set of West Indies bowlers?

The Windies best bowler is Corey Collymore, ranked 10 in the world. Their next bowlers are ranked 31, 38, 41, 43, 45 and 49 – and the 31st and 41st aren’t playing. Collymore is not that great a bowler either, with 86 wickets in 27 tests at an average of 31. Nothing too scary there.

England in contrast have 4 batsmen in the top 15 in the world, with Pietersen at 3.

And the conclusion is… well, I hardly need to spell it out.

So when the papers make such a deal about the biggest score since X or most centuries in a series since Y, remember that a) it’s a mismatch and b) it’s always the biggest something since one date in the past. That’s the way history goes.


Apparently Sven is the most successful England coach ever, according to the Sunday Times. I happily debunk this myth on my research blog, but it’s worth bearing in mind for all those Manchester City fans who might get Mr Eriksson as their manager next season. This one has been as on and off as a relationship with, well, Sven. Apparently, he now will marry Nancy. Good luck to them both.

Sven is actually quite a good domestic manager, with quite a haul of trophies inlcuding the Serie A with Lazio. But is it worth hiring him given the inevitable publicity and saga? That’s something even the best economist might find hard to measure…

Random Sven fact: Eriksson is so far the only manager who was won the Double (League and Cup in the same season), in three different countries: Sweden, Portugal and Italy. (Thanks Wikipedia)

Sven, success and the Sunday Times

Sven just won’t go away. He has not been the manager of the England football team for the best part of a year now, yet the media circus goes on. There was his recent appearance on Inside Sport (May 21), where he claimed (as usual) that he was value for money. There is the astonishing fact that the FA has paid him £25m and he is still on a salary for doing zilch.

And then there was that Sunday Times magazine cover story from April 29. In which they dish little dirt, reveal a few “facts” to make him seem like a philanthropist (He apparently turned down over 40 appearances worth over £2m in fees), and set his record straight.

According to Sunday Times and their England manager’s league table, “Even counting two draws that went to penalty shoot-outs as defeats, Eriksson was England’s most successful coach of the modern era. The table only counts competitive matches, not friendlies”

Well, this is an interesting point of view. (By modern era, I presume they count all the managers in the table.) What exactly is success here? I have amended the table to include points and points per game, which work on the basis of 3 pts for a win and 1 for a draw, and I have moved two of Eriksson’s draws into the lost column as the STimes suggests.

Played Won Won% Drew Drew% Lost Lost% Points Points per game Trophies

Eriksson 38 26 68.4 7 18.4 5 13.2 85 2.2 0

Greenwood 26 17 65.4 5 19.2 4 15.4 56 2.2 0

Robson 44 22 50.0 15 34.1 7 15.9 81 1.8 0

Taylor 19 8 42.1 8 42.1 3 15.8 32 1.7 0

McClaren 6 3 50.0 2 33.3 1 16.7 11 1.8 0

Hoddle 15 9 60.0 3 20.0 3 20.0 30 2.0 0

Revie 10 6 60.0 2 20.0 2 20.0 20 2.0 0

Winterbottom 29 15 51.7 8 27.6 6 20.7 53 1.8 0

Ramsey 33 20 60.6 6 18.2 7 21.2 66 2.0 1

Keegan 11 4 36.4 3 27.3 4 36.4 15 1.4 0

Venables 5 2 40.0 3 60.0 0 0.0 9 1.8 0

Wilkinson 1 0 0.0 1 100.0 0 0.0 1 1.0 0

(C) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2007

Eriksson’s record is very similar to that of a premiership winning team. The exact same number of games – 38 – as in a season, and a similar number of wins and points as required to win the league. To compare, the recent winners of the premiership:

year Team Pld W D L F A GD Pts

2007 Man United 38 28 5 5 83 27 56 89

2006 Chelsea 38 29 4 5 72 22 50 91

2005 Chelsea 38 29 8 1 72 15 57 95

2004 Arsenal 38 26 12 0 73 26 47 90

2003 Man United 38 25 8 5 74 43 40 83

2002 Arsenal 38 26 9 3 79 36 43 87

2001 Man United 38 24 8 6 79 31 48 80

Eriksson’s England fits right in there.

So that’s all good. Except it isn’t. Look at the table again. Eriksson has the same points per game as Greenwood, with Hoddle, Revie and Ramsey not far behind on 2.0, so this points idea is a bit misleading. It was my way of trying to help out the Times with a bit of proper data analysis. But this is all a giant red herring.

International football is not about points, or tables. It’s about competitions and trophies. And in this regard, Eriksson has 3 quarter-finals and that’s it. The key column is Trophies – and only one manager has anything in there: Ramsay and the ’66 World Cup.

If semis “count” towards success, Robson is next with Italia 90, along with the European championship teams of ’96 (Venables) and ’68 (Ramsey again). And then there are a bunch of quarter-finals, of which Eriksson has three.

Success can be measured in many ways. Eriksson had an excellent record in competitive matches, right up until the point that his team lost. And in that sense, they were failures. The players were good enough to win big cups, and he didn’t deliver. Arguing that his win-loss record puts him at the top is an interesting diversion, but that’s all. Reputations and records are measured in cups, and Sven, like everyone except Ramsey, has a zero in that column.

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