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Kevin Canfield: Soccer Stats

June 22, 2010

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By **Kevin Canfield**

With the World Cup approaching the crucial knockout round—the insurrectionists manning the French squad played yesterday, and the US and England teams go today—we’re hearing a lot about the relationship between soccer and statistics.

Namely, the idea that soccer is all the better for its evasiveness in the face of empirical study. For example, writing recently at TNR.com Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, advanced the argument that statistics and soccer will always have an uneasy upstairs-downstairs relationship. “(F)or all our faith this statistical revolution and all the benefits it has yielded in certain fields,” Foer wrote, invoking the ever more complicated numbers-driven analysis of baseball and other sports, “there’s one realm, or at least one sport, that remains stubbornly, beautifully immune.”

bq. In this new era of sophisticated soccer stats, we no longer have to rely solely on gut feelings.

Foer knows his stuff—he’s the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization—but he’s mistaken on this one. In fact, the old ways of looking at the game are slowly falling away—a fact confirmed by a visit to the website run by FIFA, the group that puts on the World Cup every four years.

Let’s take, for example, the player page devoted to Michael Bradley, the American midfielder (and son of head coach Bob Bradley) who scored the second goal in last week’s game against Slovenia. The basic stuff—fouls committed, shot attempted—is all there, of course. But so is the total amount of ground Bradley has covered in two games (23.81 kilometers, almost fifteen miles); the number of times he’s passed the ball; which of his teammates these passes were meant for; how often his passes connected (68.18 percent of the time); how many long passes (eighteen), medium passes (fifty-four) and short passes (sixteen) he tried; and a chart (the heatmap) charting Bradley’s every move as it related to the path of the ball. (Foer, to be fair, acknowledges the existence of these new statistical tools, but doesn’t seem to think they’ve made much of an impact.)

What does all this mean? For context there’s something called the Castrol Index, which ranks every player who takes the field in the tournament—all 436 of them (so far). According to this measurement, which takes into account all of the above numbers as well as “objective analysis,” Bradley has been a middling player thus far (the World Cup’s 168th most efficient player).

Which is interesting, as a casual fan was surely left with a different feeling after last Thursday’s US-Slovenia draw. After all, Bradley did score a goal—at this World Cup, that’s a relatively rare occurence—leaving viewers with the gut feeling that he was one of the tournament’s top performers. But in this new era of sophisticated soccer stats, we no longer have to rely solely on gut feelings.

Copyright 2010 Kevin Canfield

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Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Bookforum and other publications.

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