Net Gains by Ryan O’Hanlon of ESPN, releases tomorrow from Abrams Books, you can get your copy here. Villarreal USA were sent an advanced copy but otherwise are not receiving anything for this review.
I’ve always loved data in sports. I grew up playing basketball, and I distinctly remember the first time I discovered the formula for PER as applied to NBA players and started calculating it for players within the collegiate I played in. I discovered the world of soccer (football, if you prefer) analytics around 2017 and although I thought I was ahead of the game, many of the events detailed in O’Hanlon’s book had already taken place. In fact, many of the pioneers he discusses in the early pages of Net Gains actually wrote for our sister SB Nation blogs such as Cartilage Free Captain, Royal Blue Mersey (where I started), and a certain other blog that we have blocked on Twitter because they attacked us for being against sportwashing.
Soccer is not a static game like baseball is in the United States. In baseball, you can isolate variables to an extreme degree and explain every asset of the game. Doing that in a constantly moving sport like soccer where many of the most important events happen away from the ball outside of the direct control of a manager are far, far more difficult to quantify in useful ways, and O’Hanlon lays out this problem early on in his work and then proceeds to artfully describe the nearly century long process of attacking it, and how that led to the analytics movement as it exists today. He takes a book about how people in offices use math and manages to weave it into a beautiful story about the game itself and the cultures that built it, and I believe that is the most charming part of this work.
A story from the book that exemplifies this tells of a meeting between Paul Power, one of the ‘godfathers’ of football analytics and Gordon Strachan, an old school traditionalist who was then manager of the Scottish national team. In it, Power was attempting to convince Strachan of the usefulness of expected goals (xG) a metric that you’ll be familiar with and that you may have argued with me in our comments section about. Power showed the following interview from Roy Hodgson:
Hodgson, on being told that England only had two shots on target, talks about shots that were blocked and a lob that hit the crossbar and insists that how many shots on target England had was not an accurate reflection of the chances England had to score. Upon seeing the response, Strachan heartily agreed with the point Hodgson was making, and Power simply responded ‘that’s expected goals’.
There, in a tirade against the use of stats, Power had found a winsome way of explaining why the signature metric of football analytics was useful, and O’Hanlon repeats the trick in Net Gains. You’re not going to read this book and finally find football solved for all time, in fact, you’ll find quite the opposite. What you’ll see is that the sport is constantly evolving and that along the way, our ability to measure and track and dive into data has evolved as well, and sometimes that allows a team to punch above its financial weight in a sport where there’s a 90% correlation between wages and winning, and sometimes it means that a sleeping giant of a club comes storming back into prominence, and almost always it means that unless you have the unlimited resources of state funding behind you, there must be adaption if thriving is to continue. Ryan O’Hanlon has given us a book that is true to the spirit of the sport while also showing us the cutting edge of where the sport is headed, and I recommend it in the highest of terms to anyone who has any interest in the future of football.