Skip to main content

Soccermatics - David Sumpter ****

* UPDATED * To include paperback
I need to be honest up front - my first reaction on seeing this book was 'Let someone else review it.' I have zero interest in football, and don't understand why anyone cares about such a dull activity. But then it struck me that what better test could a book have than being tried out by someone without an interest in the theme, and I'm glad I stuck with it, because I really enjoyed it despite myself.

This is because David Sumpter may be using soccer as a hook for mathematical explorations, but the book is far more about the maths than the anything-but-beautiful game. So, for instance, the first chapter begins with the distribution of football results during a season, but quickly expands from that to explore the Poisson distribution and its much wider applications. If it weren't for the deeply irritating introduction, which is sickeningly enthusiastic about football, and a tendency to tell us far too much about players, pundits, teams and managers that mean nothing to me, I would have given the book five stars.

Even the football-oriented parts can be engaging to the non-fan. I don't care if Manchester City is better than Liverpool and I have no idea who Messi is, but when Sumpter abstracts from overpaid individuals and team loyalties, there is some distinctly interesting stuff about, for instance, patterns of flow on the pitch or the way a Mexican wave travels around a stadium. And there was certainly amusement to see that one of the football 'experts' Sumpter criticises predicted that Leicester would be relegated from the premier league in 2015/16, when, just before the book was published, they ended up as champions.

I also found Sumpter's last section really engaging. Here, he spends some time on an experiment to see if the effective use of data and mathematical models can make betting on football games more of a science than an art. Sumpter stresses that gambling is potentially dangerous and that the bookies make sure they come out on top overall - but he demonstrates that with the right mathematical approach you can possible beat the system by a few percentage points. There's almost a feel of the TV series Hustle about this attempt to take on the bookies and beat them at their own statistical game - and Sumpter puts his money where his mouth is, staking the advance for this book (at least, a part of his advance, or he was ripped off by his publisher).

Did reading Soccermatics turn me into a football fan? Absolutely not. I can see the point of enjoying a kick around, but I can't understand why anyone finds football or footballers interesting. However, Sumpter's book has persuaded me that there is a lot more to running a football team than herding musclebound athletes - that, in principle at least (it's not obvious how much teams actually apply these methods) mathematical models can improve team tactics and result in better performance - and that mathematical modelling can be just as interesting when applied to the football pitch as it is when used to analyse the movements of a flock of birds or a shoal of fish.

There may have been a few small sections I had to skip over,  when I felt that Sumpter was getting too carried away with his obvious love of the game, but mostly, as the subtitle hints, I enjoyed my mathematical adventures in the 'beautiful' game.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …