Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: September 2007

Killer instincts (but not for stats)

The Guardian is starting to get it’s head around a few sport stats these days – aside from the spoof ones they run on the back page. To go with the Rugby World Cup opening weekend they ran a small piece that compared teams so-called Killer Instinct i.e the time spent in the opposition’s 22 compared to the number of tries scored in the match. The results were:

20.6sec Australia (269s in Japan’s 22, 13 tries scored)
23.6 New Zealand (260s in Italy’s 22, 11 tries)
49 South Africa (392s in Samoa’s 22, 8 tries)
68.8 Scotland (550s in Canada’s 22, 8 tries)
135.3 England (406s in USA’s 22, 3 tries)

While I admit that this shows that England played poorly, as a measure it is nonsense. A few quick observations:
1 – Scoring tries isn’t everything. If your opponents persistently foul by being offside, a penalty may be all you can get from being in the 22. At least the team is scoring.
2- Teams can strike from anywhere on the pitch these days. Possession between the halfway line and 22 can become tries, penalties or drop goals. Being inside the 22 does not make it that much more likely that you will score – especially if you don’t have the ball.
3- Camping out in your opponents 22 can be demoralising for them, and make it less likely they will score against you. So that’s not such a bad thing.
4- This is ONE game. Run it across a whole tournament and you might get something meaningfull.

Brooking weighs in

The foreign football player in Britain debate continues – Sir Trevor Brooking has joined in, suggesting that it’s a major concern for England’s chances at the big tournaments.

Then the BBC used some stats to back it up.

  • 76% of the starting XIs that played on the first weekend of the first Premier League season in 1992 were English, only 37% were English on the first weekend of this season
  • Only 10% (23 players) of the starting XIs in 1992 were from outside the UK, this season that number had increased to 56% (123)
  • Non-English players have scored 69% of Premier League goals so far this season – they have even scored two of the three own goals
  • Of the 118 goals scored so far, only nine have been scored by seven English strikers
  • According to the latest Deloitte figures for disclosed transfer fees, spending by Premier League clubs rose from £333m in 2006 to £531m in 2007
  • Half of that went to non-English clubs

  • Where do we start? Well, the first point is horrendously misleading. Starting XIs are not representative of clubs, given the squad system and rotation that most clubs use. If English players are in the squad, they will pick up ideas and techniques from their foreign teammates. Also, just the first weekend of the season? That’s not a data set you can really justify. Why not look at the whole season? In fact all of the data used is cherry-picked and misleading.

    “Half” (where’s the percentage) of transfer fees going abroad? Well, if you are going to buy foreign players, that’s where the money will go. Interestingly, that would suggest foreign players are being traded between English clubs, so once they are proven Premiership performers, they get sold on.

    But the link is just not proved. Here’s a scenario. In a league, domestic players count for less than 10%. In fact, it’s just the International team plus a few others. The rest of the league is superstars – the rest of the world’s best. What would this do for the domestic players? Make them worse? They are confronting the best that Brazil, Italy etc can throw at them every Saturday. Wouldn’t that make them better players?

    It just doesn’t follow that English players are suffering. In effect, it should make the next league down more competitive, and improve the game across the country. Talent is now borderless in sport, business and art. You don’t want to turn it away. These arguments are like the politician scoring cheap points by being anti-globalisation and trying to protect dead industry jobs. It’s time that a bit of proper scientific (dare I say it – economic) vigour was applied to the situation.

    The voice of “home-bred” sport

    Hugh McIlvanney writes in today’s Sunday Times:

    Year by year, almost day by day, it becomes more difficult to talk of Premier League clubs’ involvement in the Champions League as an English challenge. The term will be even less likely to trip off the tongue if David Dein’s association with a Russian steel magnate, Alisher Usmanov, ultimately puts Arsenal at the mercy of another foreign takeover. Of our big European contenders this season, Liverpool and Manchester United are owned by Americans and Chelsea are, of course, already Russian-ruled.

    Now it seems that Arsenal may establish an east-west balance of power. None of the four has an English manager and only a small percentage of their players are home-bred. All this may not mean much to most people but it happens to sadden me.

    It might sadden Hugh, but it’s hardly realistic. Once the major clubs listed on the stock exchange, they were always liable to any investor from any country taking them over. To suggest that they should remain in British hands with British managers is to misunderstand the point of the market. That’s the deal – you raise capital through selling shares, you can’t decide who buys them. Does Hugh mind that the Sunday Times is owned by an Australian? Why should having British players be so important?

    The only argument I can see is that is depletes the pool of players for the England team, as there are fewer opportunities at the top domestic level. But this is not an argument that bears scrutiny. All is suggests is that English players don’t “travel well” and play for clubs abroad. Which is true, but not universal – two recent examples of Beckham and Heargreaves have played for foreign clubs while maintaining a England place.

    Also, you want English players to play with the best from other countries, to familiarise themselves with techniques, to de-mistify, and to challenge. The influx of foreign players has coincided with a so-called golden generation – a crop of English players that are superb. They just don’t perform well for England.

    To compare with other structures, lots of companies are staffed by people not “home-bred” (isn’t everyone bred at home?). Banks are full of people from all over the world. My department at work has employees from France, Australia, China and Switzerland. To suggest a football club should operate on a different basis is narrow-minded at best, jingoistic at worst. Many journalists and commentators try to remind us that football is all about the fans. If the fans are happy to consume the product, whether the players were raised in Africa, Europe or elsewhere, why should we care? Plus it extends the marketing of the Premiership abroad, generating more revenue for the game. Unless we don’t want fans from abroad – wouldn’t that be saddening…?

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