Numerology: Enter the brave new world of soccer analytics
When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.
-- William Thomson, 1st Baron of Kelvin
I doubt Lord Kelvin was much of a soccer fan. The beautiful game has always been resistant to numerical representation, at least beyond the almighty scoreboard.
But that's changing. Slowly yet surely, numbers have crept into how we talk and think about soccer. Once, there were goals. Then assists came along. Now there are saves, clearances, blocks, interceptions, punches, punts, the always-controversial stat of "possession" and more.
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All over the world there are analysts, managers, players and entire think-tanks devoted to decoding any given 90 minutes of soccer. Here in MLS, every touch is tracked by Opta. MLSsoccer.com boasts a pair of columns – OPTA Spotlight and Central Winger – devoted to diving into those reams of data and pulling meaningful numeric representation out every week.
Likewise, the teams themselves are in on the game, hiring data analysts to give them a leg up on the competition. Over the next couple of days you'll read interviews with a few of them, covering everything from how they got into soccer analytics to where they think the future lies, from who's doing it right to who's not doing it at all.
With Numerology, we're hoping to pull the cover back a little bit, to give the fans a chance to understand where our understanding is going. And make no mistake: We're maintaining a healthy level of skepticism ourselves; it took baseball 100 years to realize batting average was less important than on-base percentage, after all. In order to take a truly scientific take, we need to be wary of our own biases and blindness.
It may not be enough to satisfy Lord Kelvin – not yet, anyway. There are still years and years of data that need collecting.
But we're getting there. We're learning. That's the point of science, after all.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.