Soccer and the State of Nature
Slate ran this interesting post last week adapted from a book called The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally. I saw Anderson speak on soccer analytics at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past March and I highly recommend you check out the book.
The overall thrust of the post is that scoring in soccer is down, and somewhat alarmingly: In 1890, games averaged 4.5 goals and now it’s just 2.6 (this is for the Premier League). Anderson and Sally are quick to point out, though, that this is not a downward trend that’s continuing. Instead, scoring—at least in the Premiership—bottomed out in the 1970s (didn’t we all?) and has stayed there ever since.
Their reasoning for this increasing balance between offense and defense is interesting:
Many of the higher scores in the early days of the game had less to do with variations in players’ abilities and playing conditions, and more to do with some select clubs having huge advantages in training, setting up tactically, and organizing and coordinating instantly on the pitch. Slowly but surely, intentionally and through trial and error—and mostly by eliminating errors and weaknesses—teams have become more similar to one another over time.
The relative rate of improvement for the worst clubs has been greater than that of the best, so there are no longer regular games between fully professional teams and those comprised of tinsmiths, gasfitters, and cricketers. Derby, 2007–08 vintage, may have been the worst team in Premier League history, but they were closer in collective ability to champions Manchester United than Birmingham would have been when they propped up the division a century earlier as United secured their first league title.
This makes me think of two things: entropy and craftsmanship. These may sound like two diametrically opposed things, but that’s really because they’re often misunderstood. The movement towards a balance of offense and defense that lowers the overall average goal total for matches resembles entropy because what chaos means in scientific terms is not everything going bananas all the time, but rather everything being undifferentiated, evenly distributed. It’s the state towards which nature tends and so in that sense I find it comforting to think of a sport as tending towards a kind of balance that only gives way occasionally and abruptly for something dramatic like a goal.
On the other hand, I think of craftsmanship because I appreciate things that are so well-made that they appear almost naturally occurring, a kind of simulation of nature’s tendency towards balance. I’ve long liked music and film and television that demands a certain level of dilation when it comes to focus, a certain patience and faith that the work’s creator is building something even if it doesn’t always seem like it.
This is one of the things—even in my casual fandom—that I’ve always appreciated about soccer: the tension, the ebb and flow of matches, the way you can see waves of offense build and then break or else crash all the way to the mouth of the goal. It demands a different kind of attention than we might give to other sports—different even from the lazy syncopation of baseball or the near-ceaseless tempo of basketball—but I’m with Anderson and Sally: this isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s something to be enjoyed.
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