Review: The Numbers Game, by Chris Anderson and David Sally

"'The book that could change football for ever' -- The Times," screams the garish orange front cover. Noted football experts Malcolm Gladwell and Billy Beane shower it with praise. Apparently everything I know about football is wrong.

Despite all of the dubious hype, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football is Wrong makes for interesting reading. The premise is that data mining has become an indispensable part of football over the last few years, and will continue to grow in importance as the amount of data becomes likewise.

It charts the reasons behind the tactical development of the game, looks at some of the myths and assumptions and cliches (it's always a dangerous time after you've scored! It's harder to play against 10 men! Sacking the manager was what turned the season around!) and challenges even some of the most obvious ones (more possession always leads to better results, more tackles makes a better defender).

The maths behind football can be surprisingly subtle - and Anderson and Sally do a good job of making it accessible. For all that, I found it a little hard to follow in places (perhaps for the opposite reason the average reader would: I'm much more up-to-date on the names of statistical distributions than I am on the names of top footballers) and thought there were a few places where questions were left begging.

I'd certainly recommend it for anyone whose interests in maths and football overlap. It's probably of little interest to people who don't lie in that intersection, though.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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