Sunday, 8 July 2012

Gentlemen's Day

My faith in humanity, or at least in Ian Erskine's gambling philosophy, has been restored. In yesterday's post, I suggested that the comment in Ian's newsletter that:
"Ian has mentioned on more than one occasion that as a rule it should be achievable to make around 2-3% a day increase on your bank size..."
was out of line with Ian's normal approach to betting, and that perhaps something had been lost in translation by the author.

Ever the gentleman, Ian took the time to address the matter, and his comments in full are here:
Thanks for pointing out the flaw in the newsletter on greenallover, you are correct I did not write it, that was Kieran and I have never said such a thing, lost in translation sums it up nicely, I purely stipulated a while back that people should set their targets of winning lower rather then trying to get rich tomorrow, I am totally against weekly, daily targets etc for the reasons you state. I will be correcting next week.
Hope you're well mate and enjoying your quiet time with your son, I am doing much the same for the summer.
Ian's line that people are better served by avoiding the thinking that it is possible to get rich tomorrow fits nicely with another part of yesterday's post which is the Bill Gates quote I mentioned.

As I write this, the Gentlemen's Final is in a rain delay. For some background, I casually mentioned to Mrs Cassini that Andy Murray was a student at Dunblane Primary school at the time of the massacre, and was acquainted with the murderer and alleged pedophile, and she is now rooting against me! I have a habit of trading out of winning tennis positions too soon, so when play resumes, I shall distract myself with something else. Trading tennis in competition with courtsiders doesn't work too well. 

The We Ain't Got No History website has an excellent article on the problems with using statistics in football. The 'Bill James' referred to is the man who coined the term sabermetrics. Baseball is, of course, a much simpler for both recording and using statistics, than almost any other sport and especially football, and the ratings that produce the XX Draw Selections are limited to those statistics (numbers) for which there is evidence that they are related to goals. It seems to me that the author, Graham MacAree, has very neatly summed up the problem with football and numbers. If I see evidence that Gokhan Tore's dribble conversion rate has an impact on a goal expectancy number, I shall start to include these numbers, but I have my doubts that this will be any time soon. 
It happens like clockwork. Whenever a match is 0-0 and one team is dominating possession or shots, the halftime commentary will invariably include a remark about how the only statistic that matters is goals. It's easy to take this as an attack on the number-crunchers, and in many cases, it probably is. But it's also entirely true, and to shrug it off as a cliche misses the point entirely.
There seems to be a perception that football statistics are entering some sort of golden age. With the proliferation of statistics sites such as WhoScored and EPL Index, not to mention the massive popularity of Opta's Twitter feeds and the Guardian's sadly-discontinued Chalkboard service, it's not hard to see why. Information is available where previously there was none.
But anyone claiming that the Moneyball revolution is underway in football is sadly mistaken. The current statistics fail (and fail utterly) at passing Bill James' language test. If a player makes two fewer tackles than average but one more interception with more completed passes, for example, we have no way of figuring out how to put those statistics into context. What we currently have are numbers, not meaning.
The basic unit of football's natural language is, of course, the goal. Goals are, as it were, the point. Teams want wins, and therefore they look to maximise goals scored and minimise goals conceded. Taking more shots, winning more challenges and completing more passes are only relevant statistics for teams if they can be converted into goals.
And, right now, we're missing that bridge. We need meaning. Instead, we have numbers. It doesn't matter how many dribbles Gokhan Tore converts per game; it matters how he contributes to his team's goal differential in each match. If there's no way of telling how those dribbles impact Hamburg, there's no way to put Tore's statistics into their proper context.

In order to progress to the point where football statistics are actually helpful to those looking to really understand the game, we'll need to find the language of football, not just the letters. Finding that bridge should be the main focus of every analytically-inclined football researcher.

That leads us to a couple of interesting questions:
Is it possible?

If so, what is the best method of attack?

For many, the answer to the first question will be 'no'. Some might argue that football is too difficult to analyse, computationally intractable. Some might claim that putting numbers on human endeavour is inherently futile. With respect for those with said views (and with apologies for over-simplifying a long-running argument), I would disagree.
While it's clear that football is significantly more difficult to analyse than, say, chess, or baseball, that's not enough to drive it into 'impossible' territory. Every single time we watch a play develop, we're running some sort of subconscious mental algorithm as to the likelihood of success. As we watch more games, we refine our ability to predict what will happen, with some people carrying around superior mental models to others.
Football is a complicated game, certainly, but unless it's truly chaotic (which it obviously is not), we can and will analyse it, whether that be through numbers or in our collective gut. After all, we know that on any given day, we should expect Barcelona to beat, say, Preston North End, or that Cristiano Ronaldo is more likely to score a goal than Tim Howard. There's obviously some structure in the sport, and that alone is proof that we're not looking at an impossible problem.
But we are looking at what seems to be a very difficult one.
Researchers aren't going to stumble upon some sort of footballing Rosetta Stone - the language metaphor starts to fall apart when you consider that football is a sport designed to entertain rather than to communicate - and it's far from clear how to decode it. Perhaps another sport can help us. What would Bill James do?

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