There is something self-contradictory about The New York Times journalist Rory Smith’s recently released book, Expected Goals. He charts the data revolution in football, the way statistical analysis has become central to how clubs operate. Yet, this narrative on numbers is completely bereft of graphs and formulae of any sort. It’s what initially drew me to the book.
Smith’s work as a soccer correspondent for NYT has always been infused by a perspective that goes beyond the field, situating the sport in a wider cultural context. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that he adopts a similar approach in Expected Goals.
The tone is set in the first chapter, where Smith delves into the daily routine of Ashley Flores from Manila, Philippines, who watches football matches for a living. As an employee of the German data analysis company Impect, Flores “tags” games—putting in every action by a player and tabulating this on pre-specified metrics. These tagged games are packaged and sent to Impect’s clients, which include some of the world’s biggest clubs, like Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. Flores is the first block of the modern football data industry but also the final stage of the data revolution. The rest of Expected Goals charts the journey until this point. So Flores inadvertently played a key role in how the book was written too. “I guess I’d always assumed that the raw data itself is generated now by algorithms,” recalls Smith in an interview to Lounge. “(But) I spoke to Ashley in Manila and it struck me that all of it begins with a person tapping a button. That the whole data revolution in football is based on that. That just struck me as powerful.”
Smith says this “ is always a more compelling idea” than trying to break down what an algorithm does. “Ideas are about people and stories are all about people. So it made sense to focus on that.”
Expected Goals is replete with such stories, spanning decades, of people spread across the football pyramid. There’s the story of the opportunistic chair salesman in the 1990s who went to a Premier League club to set up chairs in their training ground, came across an assistant manager struggling to cut match footage, realised he could help clubs collect videos and data from games, and set up ProZone, what is today one of the world’s leading performance analysis firms.
There’s the incredible story of the Ivy League academic Chris Anderson, who moved to England to put his ideas about a data-driven approach into practice and briefly became the managing director for Coventry City. There’s the story of the Microsoft developer Sarah Rudd, who quit her job and landed one as a performance analyst at Arsenal. There’s also the story of 17-year-old Ashwin Raman from Bengaluru, who was hired by a Scottish Premier League team as an analyst, on the basis of blog posts he shared on Twitter.
Smith expertly puts together these seemingly disparate vignettes to paint a vivid picture of football’s innate resistance to change, the role “outsiders” played in this revolution, and explain how data has increased the sport’s accessibility. “The glory of football, but also the flaw in it, is that there are so many ways to enjoy it,” Smith says. “We are all quite protective of the way that we enjoy the sport and secretly, deep down, we think the way we enjoy it is the ‘right’ way to enjoy it. Its/meaning resistance is explained by the fact that data comes along and it’s a different way of interpreting football.” He adds that “it has this exclusionary language and this vaguely excluding, intimidating academic air.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates with me. Over the last couple of years, I have developed a disdain for the suffusion of data ino the sport, primarily born out of my inability to understand or appreciate the changing lexicon of footballing discourse.
But Expected Goals led to a drastic change in views. For Smith, succinctly yet specifically, how data has transformed the way football is played. He details how managers made the shift from being weary eyed about data to using it to track how much their players were running, to creating their entire transfer strategy and tactics off it.
So, for instance, Smith writes about how Sam Allardyce, who managed Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League in the early noughties, used data to understand that his team had a 70% chance of winning if they scored first. He also saw that a third of his team’s goals came from set pieces and that keeping 15 clean sheets in the season helps avoid relegation. These became the key principles on which he built his team.
Allardyce’s rudimentary approach to data evolved exponentially. Brighton, an unglamorous mid-table Premier League side, has punched above its weight and become mainstays in the league in large part because of how the way they used data in the transfer market. In 2017, they signed German forward Pascal Gross from unfashionable Ingolstadt who had just been relegated into the German second division. Hardly any club was keeping tabs on Gross but Brighton saw that the quality of chances he was creating was among the best in the league. It’s just that his teammates weren’t able to convert them.
He scored seven goals in Brighton’s first season in the Premier League, helped keep them up and has become an integral member of a Brighton side that currently lie sixth in the league.
Smith, in fact, shows that data doesn’t just drive decisions at lower-level clubs. Take, for example, when Liverpool were in the process of hiring Jürgen Klopp. There were concerns in the wider public about the German’s last season at Borussia Dortmund, where the team had finished a lowly seventh. The Liverpool owners weren’t bothered. The club’s director of research had dug up the statistics and these showed that their numbers weren’t too different from the previous season, when Dortmund had finished second. They had just been plagued by poor luck that year. Klopp arrived at Anfield, and, soon, so did success.
Smith believes Liverpool’s triumphs under Klopp were crucial to data being more widely accepted in football. “I think you had to have a big club win something and say ‘yep data was important. It wasn’t everything but it was important’. That’s what gets the buy-in at all levels,” he says.
“It doesn’t help that when the book came out, Liverpool promptly decided to be terrible,” he adds wryly.
Expected Goals is the type of book that will appeal to football fans across the board. Smith tells an engaging, untold story about the people who transformed a sport that is often perceived to be resistant to change.
Shubi Arun is a football culture journalist currently based in London.