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An entertaining romp that lacks groundbreaking revelation
on 17 October 2009
`Why England Lose' or `Soccernomics' - to give it its non-UK title - is an attempt by Simon Kuper, a leading football writer, and sports economist, Stefan Szymanski, to give football the `freakonomics' treatment. The result is sometimes entertaining and often interesting, but overall the effect is somewhat uneven and frequently bogged down by the authors' attempts to provide a theoretical framework for their musings.
Comparisons with Moneyball, Michael Lewis's 2003 account of how Billy Beane revolutionized the Oakland Athletics baseball team through statistical analysis, are inevitable. At times `Why England Lose' seems a self conscious attempt to give football the Moneyball treatment . But the very nature of the game is less controlled than baseball, which essentially boils down to one-on-one encounters between pitcher and batter. Football's inherent randomness, despite the authors attempts to argue otherwise, make it more difficult to be influenced by statistical theory.
Arsene Wenger is the golden boy of this book. He has used statistics and psychology to brilliant effect, particularly in the first half of his career as Arsenal manager. The authors unravel some of his strategies, but don't really add much new. There's a sense that even an in-the-know fan could suss them out (buy young, sell after a player has peaked, make a player feel wanted, and so on) over a few post-match pints.
But instead of on-the-field business the authors explain other footballing phenomena. Some, such as why new stadiums and football tournaments don't bring desired economic benefit, is fascinating. Others, such as which country is the best `pound for-pound' footballing nation, less so.
This is an entertaining book, but I'd stop short of describing it as a must read. There's a knowingness - which borders on smugness - in its tenor that belies the actual content -- which is interesting but not exactly earth shattering. In his earlier works and his weekly FT column Kuper has proven himself a far more entertaining and perceptive author; it's a shame he doesn't quite carry it off here, but maybe that's a problem that comes with co-authorship.