A RAWK Review of The Red Review

Posted by zigackly on September 5, 2006, 09:32:54 PM

Statistics in football are often vilified by fans without much forethought. Most of us are not trained statisticians, and so it's difficult to tell when the stats are being manipulated to deceive us. Politicians misuse statistics in this way regularly. Scientists on the payroll of various international business conglomerates massage the evidence to earn a quick buck. The latest fad diet or quack cure is pushed on us with so-called evidence that would never stand up to peer-review or thorough analysis. Yet no modern football manager would dare ignore the backing the figures can give him when collated, analysed and presented properly.

Benitez in particular is a proper statto. He doesn't just watch videos of all his opponents, he has them analysed by a computer program which puts all the information at his fingertips. Stories abound of him being able to look at a team photo of his Real Madrid youth squad of years ago and unerringly recite the height of each player, of converting Sissoko to a midfielder after realising he ran half again as far during a match as most midfielders, when trying him in the position whilst forced through injury during a friendly. Of being able to call the numbers for opposition teams and build a strategy around their weaknesses. He is a master of the detail, and this is one of the ways in which he works so hard to achieve success.

Statistics aren't the be all and end all of football analysis. We can watch a game or a number of games, and come to similar conclusions on a lot less evidence. That's one of the marvels of the human brain: it's expert at taking shortcuts to reach effective conclusions. And yet it makes mistakes. If used properly, statistics can be a powerful evidentiary weapon to back up those conclusions, and can also pull some surprising facts out of the bag which we may not otherwise have spotted.

Oliver Anderson, a statistician by profession, but also a trained football coach and an ardent Liverpool fan, has been collecting statistics on our beloved Reds for years. Paul Tomkins, who many of us know well from this website, is a football writer employed by the club after spending long years writing in-depth, insightful articles on the team. His previous two books have been well received by both Liverpudlians and the neutral, also receiving favourable reviews in the national press.

The combination of Paul’s careful, yet incisive style and Oliver's outstanding analysis (often using completely new techniques to bring out the numbers in a way which simplistic Opta and Actim stats and sparse "games played, goals scored" stats cannot) combine to give an irresistible account of the Reds last two seasons under Benitez.

Each area of the team, each individual, all the combinations of partnerships used, are analysed exhaustively to present a clear picture of where we were, where we are, how we've improved, and where we have not, over the last season under Rafa.

This is not a book which simply presents dry, cold numbers in tabular form, although those numbers are there to be pored over for the statto. The evidence is clearly analysed and presented in an accessible way which should allow even the most uninterested mathematicians amongst us to see what the trends reveal and what the future might hold. I have a fair amount of statistical training, and I was delighted to find that the evidence is presented in a clear, unbiased fashion, which allows the reader to follow the conclusions of the authors without feeling they are being led down the garden path.

This book is a godsend for those of us who like to understand the state of the team and the performance of our favourite, or least favourite players. All the evidence is undeniably given to back up our reasoning and not get lost in the hurly burly of emotive argument.

What is Gerrard's best position on the pitch? Did Alonso have a better or worse season last year? Who is our most productive goal-scorer? Can Finnan really be described as a complete fullback? What is our best midfield pairing? Just how many of Garcia's lost passes contributed to opposition goals? How do we compare to our rivals at the top of the table in every area of the pitch, and how do we need to improve to win the title?

These questions are debated regularly on these and other forums, but without the evidence to back our arguments up, the threads often end up going round in circles, or descending into personal insults.

The Red Review is the kind of book you will read once and then dip into throughout the season as you look for the real facts behind your case for the defence. Or the attack. Or the midfield. It's a book which breaks the usual genre of football writing, where we are often subjected to lazy journalism and little better than well-written personal prejudice couched as expert knowledge. It should make a number of journalists and pundits (you know the suspects) sit and think about how expert their writing or TV journalism really is. But I doubt it will, given their entrenched bias.

Still, it’s a breath of fresh air in that nothing is stated as a fact without the evidence to back it up. When the evidence is thin, or could be skewed by unusual circumstances, the writers take pains to point it out and explain why the figures could be misleading. The book produces inescapable conclusions and will be a great resource to all those fanatical fans who aren't content simply to go with the herd of opinion.

© zigackly 2006

Available now exclusively from www.paultomkins.com, priced £11.99. The Red Review will not be released in shops and online stores until 1st November.

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