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8 of 16 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Nice concept, but not written for the general fan, 25 Oct 2011
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This review is from: Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era (Paperback)
This is probably one of the most disappointing books I've read. The concept of comparing transfer fees over time, as well, measuring changes in how the Premiership has developed is very interesting and would make for an interesting read. However, this book doesn't deliver upon that opportunity.

Starting with the positives, this book provides a list, for each club to have appeared in the Premiership, of every transfer and provides a mechanism for comparing prices. Commentary is provided by a fan of the club, giving a biased account personalised to the history of the team. This is very interesting and rewarding reading which the casual fan will find fascinating.

However, the problem lies with the poor statistics and the tone of the Premiership-wide discussion. It is quite clearly written by a Liverpool fan who dislikes Chelsea, with the tone throughout over emphasising Liverpool connections and highly critical of Chelsea in particular. There is also an instance that Sir Alex Ferguson is a relatively poor manager as he has spent much money, without the contextualisation that his managerial successes have generated much of those resources. As a fan of a football league club I was looking forward to a neutral analysis, based in statistics, but that is not the agenda of the text.

The debate in the text does not follow the statistical methods being used. Rather than developing an analytical framework and discussing success, a few preconceived managers who identified as successful, regardless of what the stats say. The measure of a good manager, at different times, is finishing in the top two (although some managers to achieve this are missed out), only those who have won the league, or the managers who have won the most points per season (irrespective of the money spent, which is supposedly the whole purpose of the book). These criteria appear to have been selected to include certain managers when wanted, and dismiss others.

The bias can be found throughout the book. A table of the managerial performance, based on spend per point, only includes managers who have had three seasons in the Premiership, aside from a Chelsea manager included to show his title win was purely monetary. Dalgleish is shown as a great manager due to his spend at Blackburn, but his record at Newcastle is rather passed over with the disclaimer many managers have failed there. There is little point in reading a book claiming to have a statistical basis to claims, if they will be overlooked whenever they go against the views the authors wish to make.

The methodology in some tables is very confusing as the authors misreport how they actually make the calculations. In effect, they calculate for each transfer the percentage of the annual transfer spend by all clubs during that season. Rather than maintaining a theoretical value, which would be more readable, they attempt to convert this to 2010 prices. Therefore, essentially, they divide the total transfer spend by all clubs in the season by the 2010 figure, and use that as a multiplier for each transfer. A simple table showing the spend each year would make the facts easier to see. They, confusing, talk of the differences in average prices, which is not how they actually calculate the prices.

The flaw in this methodology is that players in a season with a low total spend are highly inflated. For a bottom half club, spending £5m when their rivals all spend £5m and the top clubs spend nothing is worth more than the following season where just one bottom half club spends £25m, but the top half clubs spend over £250m. This is an extreme example, but the method is too simplistic and doesn't take spending into account.

There is also a strange belief that sell-on values are important. Roy Keane (Man United) is shown as one of the worst signings as he was signed for a huge fee (when corrected to 2010 prices) but sold for peanuts. The fact he won several titles is irrelevant. This suggests the Premiership is about generating money, which other parts of the book argues against.

This is the problem with the book for me. The statistics are overly simplistic to tell us much, but presented in an overly sophisticated manner which attempts to make it seem very academic, but in reality suggests the authors themselves are confused by the calculations. The narrative tone, for the Premiership overview, is written as biased as the club specific chapters, often ignoring the statistics to make claims on what the authors perceive.

There are also some shockingly weak pieces of analysis. The authors try to argue that transfer prices didn't influence results too much until a certain point and now have a strong effect. The data shown actually suggests that aside from clubs who regularly play in Europe, nothing has changed. Additionally, there is absolutely no discussion of players wages, with a belief that a player costing £2m to sign and £2m a year in wages is somehow more expensive than a player with a £5m a year wage. Given the income and expenditure of clubs is available for the whole period, I wonder if this is using the completely wrong data anyway.

I'm happy to read a book which contains statistics and then claims that some things cannot be shown by stats alone. That is where the fans sections come into their own. I have a real problem, however, with a book which presents highly biased ideas about clubs, makes false claims about statistics to justify these arguments and attempts to claim it is neutral, scientific research.

Liverpool fans, and especially those who are fond of Benitez, will no doubt love this book as it provides some pub-standard data to justify how great Liverpool are and how weak Chelsea and Man United really are. Non-partisan followers of football, wanting a neutral read about the changing nature of contemporary football, however, should either stay away or just enjoy the fans-written chapters.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Oct 2011 17:57:25 BDT
Last edited by the author on 26 Oct 2011 18:18:18 BDT
Zorro says:
The review is very odd, as none of our analysis goes to show how "great Liverpool are and how weak Chelsea and Man United really are". It's a quite ludicrous statement.

The book offers a defence of Benítez in (very small) part towards the end, but in terms of how he had to sell in order to buy; whereas Chelsea, for example, didn't. Is it not true that Chelsea spent more money? Much of the book is critical of Liverpool in the 1990s, when the club had the most expensive squad in the PL but failed to live up to that billing on the pitch. The fact that I am a Liverpool fan was put to one side, with fans of all other clubs offering their input. However, any time you enter a small fact or two about Benítez, after all the media myths, people get uppity. He is in no way the greatest beneficiary of our analysis.

Managers like Allardyce and Pulis come out of the study particularly well, and the only point about Dalglish at Newcastle was in relation to how other managers had failed there. Dalglish's spending at Blackburn was high, but not as high as we expected to find. Take Allardyce's Newcastle figures out of the equation and he'd top the book's chart for points won in relation to the cheapest team. This is clearly noted. His work at Bolton is praised time and time again. Alas, many good managers failed at Newcastle. No denial is made of the fact that Dalglish failed too.

The wages issue is discussed early on. There is not reliable wage information on individual players, or even close. This is noted and explained. Ideally, the study would have included that information too, but that was beyond us, and we note that from the start. The project was designed to find a link between transfer spending and success, and we believe we have illustrated such a link. Other links may exist, and may even be stronger.

Ferguson is praised on many, many occasions, as someone who bought and sold very well, and who possesses an excellent record in the period covered. He is only `criticised' in terms of not having won points at as cheap a rate as many other managers, but as is noted several times in the book, it costs a lot more money to win trophies than to merely survive in the PL. There are many different types of analysis, and in some certain managers come out better than others in certain parts, and it can reverse in other sections of the book. No-one is painted as a genius who never makes mistakes, or a duffer who never did anything right.

Signings like Roy Keane are not criticised. The fact that some players give years of brilliant service and leave for next-to-nothing is acknowledged. However, some clubs can afford to let such signings stay until they are well past their sell-by date, because they have the funds to buy a younger replacement, whereas a club like Arsenal, for instance, has to sell players before they pass the tipping point in order to get the maximum transfer fee; perhaps selling Patrick Vieira a bit too soon as a result. It's a question of looking at the different realities facing competing clubs. Some clubs need to make money on players in order to buy cheaper ones who can come good; look at Spurs for an excellent example of this with Bale, Modric and Van der Vaart, who came in after 'stars' were sold for big fees.

It's not our fault that United and Chelsea had more expensive squads than others this past decade, before City came along. That's just fact; they were spending £25m+ on players when Liverpool and Arsenal, for example, were spending £15m at most. As noted, those clubs still needed to be well managed to succeed. Equally, for example, our findings show that Arsenal had their greatest success under Wenger when the cost of their XI was ranked really high; and that as the ranking fell, so did their league position. It's not like we made it up. The correlation is there and as clear as day.

And as we prove, as the gap in finances widens, then so the predictability of league positions increases. You write this off as incorrect, but it's proven in how teams used to finish on average within 5 places of their 'expense rank' (called the £XI), whereas now it's down to around 2 places. The days of QPR and Norwich finishing in the top 3 on shoestring budgets is gone. Or maybe we invented that notion? Are Manchester City now improving rapidly because the once-derided and hitherto underrated Mancini has suddenly become a better manager overnight, or have they spent a lot of money to bring in the best footballers they can afford?

The method itself is based on the Retail Price Index, which measures everyday. It's all explained clearly in the book. Instead of measuring produce, we measure footballers.

The book was checked over by several different professional analysts, including fans of many different clubs, and the methodology given the thumbs up. At no point do we claim it to be perfect or a study to end all others.

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Oct 2011 11:57:54 BDT
Dave says:
I read the book as it was marketed, namely a statistical analysis of the Premiership era providing neutral evidence of the effectiveness of managers. My review discusses how much it fulfils that aim. The product description claims it provides the analytical tools and discusses correlations between success and finances. My review informs people who, like me, are interested in this book in terms of finding high quality data and a strong overview. The book doesn't achieve that.

Your comment claims the methodology is based on the retail price index. It uses a similar method but from a different perspective. RPI measures inflation by comparing the price of the same product at different times. The book applies a standardised price to different products, at different times, based around inflation. This is a valid method and using RPI as an analogy is helpful, but it is doing something different. There seems to be little awareness of what these differences are in the book. Similarly, if it's based on RPI it is measuring inflation based on the total value, not the average. Whilst the text claims average values are used, looking into much of the data suggests it is total price being compared.

The analysis of the graph on page 17 is very weak. It shows that in the early days of the Premiership the points won per pounds spent was consistent across the division. Nowadays, for sides securing less than 60 points that is still true, and to the same degree, but for clubs earning over 60 points points are more expensive than average, and much more expensive for the most successful teams. This informs us that things have only changed for a few sides challenging at the top, not all clubs (as is claimed). We should try to think why clubs are spending extra to get to the very top, and see that the extra rewards for Champions League qualification is the reason. Therefore, the argument would be that the Champions League is making changes at the top of the division, but not influencing the Premiership clubs in the bottom half.

This notion is ignored, with comments instead on minor differences within bands. This means, therefore, the book compares all transfer prices as though they are even, despite an increase in spending for the top clubs. Means are compared with are non-comparable, meaning clubs who spend heavily and are successful are displayed as performing poorly. Ancelloto therefore looks poor as he won the league at a time when the pounds per point ratio was high for all. Dalgleish looks good as he won when the pounds per point ratio for champions was low. Ignoring this relationship does indeed make the text strongly biased against sides who have spent heavily in recent years, such as Chelsea and Man United.

There is a comment above, again, about taking Newcastle out of the equation to make managers look good. Isn't the argument of the book that managers are important. Therefore, we shouldn't overlook certain seasons if this is a statistical analysis and conclude not that Newcastle are a poisoned club but rather they consistently appoint the wrong managers. The arguments in the book don't necessarily follow the logic of what is being argued. It is claimed that Wenger, Benetiz and Dalgleish have gained points at the same level (page 20), only to then contextualise that Wenger has actually performed much stronger when a more sensible measure is used (so why discuss the inaccurate one). Similarly, the top five managers are given a case study, based around points per season irrespective of spend. Isn't the book arguing that this is an incorrect way to measure `top managers'. In other parts managers who finished in the top two of the Premiership is listed as a top manager, again irrespective of spending. The terminology of the best managers seems to be altered to include who it wants to include, rather than the managers with the most points per pound spent, as the product description suggests.

There is a major problem in the book being marketed as talking of the Premiership, but the text being overly focussed on the top end. As someone who has little interest in who wins the league, but much interest in the relegation battles each season I would like an overview of the Premiership to focus on those clubs in the narrative, not just shoved off into their own sections. I'm much more interested in the sides like Swindon, Burnley and Barnsley who unexpectedly got to the top flight, as I dream my club will one day, and felt quite short changed by the lack of an overview of these types of clubs.

The flaw in this book is it adopts a similar approach to Dr Who. In Dr Who we are asked to buy into a world where time and space travel does not pose problems of viruses, air quality, climate or speech differences. Dr Who is not about the practicalities of time/space travel but creates a world different to what would happen. This book is similar. It mentions early on we should assume that salaries, youth transitions, free transfers and retirements are not important and goes on to discuss football as if they are not. This means it cannot be transferred back into serious discussions of how money influences football. If the narrative was aware of this in its discussions, and limited some claims, the book would be more readable. As it stands, it provides little substantive analysis of the impact of the complex world of football spending, just inside a small one-dimensional bubble. This is a great shame.

I'm judging this book on whether it would be passable as an undergraduate dissertation, since it claims to provide strong analytical tools for measuring impartially the differences between managers. It would not. The statistics are shady and not well explained (confusing the authors on page 20). The tables aren't simple to read, producing much information which is irrelevant since we don't have all the data. And the data is presented to support the claims the authors wish to make, rather than the data determining which arguments should be made.

This is not to say that, if presented as a first draft of an undergraduate dissertation, it couldn't be raised to that standard. It just needs to be rewritten with many issues revised and more appreciation that this is not a neutral book - without knowing anything about the authors prior to reading it was obvious this was written by Liverpool fans. It is baffling why Liverpool get two expert views whereas other clubs get just one. I have to wonder whether the professional analysts who checked over the book were people who have detailed experience of statistical analysis and reflection - the claim it has the correct analytical skills appears to come from a sports journalist rather than someone qualified to know. I found a few mistakes in the text and the data could have been presented and explained much more easily than it appears.

I do hope a second edition comes out in a few years time as this is a good idea and could make for a fascinating read. I have no doubt many people will really enjoy the book and am not surprised to see so many positive reviews on here. I do feel, however, it is essential to get a review from someone who wanted detailed, neutral analysis from the perspective of a football fan, rather than an affiliation to any club, as I felt for our purposes this text doesn't really fulfil the gap in the market. Therefore, it would be good next time to gather some more academic minded perspectives and incorporate a more thoughtful stance to produce something which mets the high expectations the product description produces.

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Oct 2011 12:44:51 BDT
Last edited by the author on 28 Oct 2011 12:54:08 BDT
Zorro says:
Hi "Dave" (assuming that's your real name, given that it's not verified by Amazon.)

The book deals with different issues in different sections. That's quite clear. Earlier on it looks at the best points scorers per £m spent; later on it looks at the best overall points scorers, and their spending patterns. In between, all manner of ideas are discussed.

"And the data is presented to support the claims the authors wish to make, rather than the data determining which arguments should be made."

Wrong, the data led the analysis, and not the other way around. It's not our fault that it didn't tally with your preconceived notions.

"It is baffling why Liverpool get two expert views whereas other clubs get just one"

Liverpool get two. So do Arsenal. So do BOLTON (given how well Allardyce performs; contradicting your criticism that only the biggest points scorers are covered). Manchester United have just one, but he provides THREE different essays. Often it was down to what the people who were asked were able to contribute to the project; we were honoured to have Gabriele Marcotti provide Chelsea's analysis, even though it isn't as long as some of the other pieces. For some clubs we asked numerous people and struggled to get responses; for others people were asking to get involved.

"I have to wonder whether the professional analysts who checked over the book were people who have detailed experience of statistical analysis and reflection"

They do. They are qualified data analysts at major corporations, and one is a sixth sigma black belt.

"This is not to say that, if presented as a first draft of an undergraduate dissertation, it couldn't be raised to that standard"

Ha! Oh, you really are too kind, Sir...

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Nov 2011 13:53:05 GMT
Dave says:
The main point of my critique of the book is that it contains sufficient detail for the sort of people who enjoy reading internet forums with biased posts and provocative statistics, but it offers little for people who prefer to avoid such discussions and focus on a more reflective and analytical depiction of football. It is a shame the critique, therefore, is being derailed into a discussion reminiscent of an internet forum. This supports, rather than condemns, the belief this is a book written for a certain market yet oversells itself to try to attract readers wishing for a more sophisticated form of analysis.

The `Underachievers' section, on pages 23 to 26, is a good example of the problem with the book. It attempts to find a method for seeing what managers have underachieved and provided an analysis linked to the data.

The methodology compares the average pounds spent per point by a manager to the average for teams within a similar points band. There are two fundamental problems with this. Firstly, the manager being rated has their performance as part of the average, therefore the different numbers of teams in each bands means some performances are more diluted than others. Secondly, this can mean a team can be more successful by achieving less. Let's assume two sides are worth exactly the same amount of money. One of them gets 50 points but ends up in a band with the four most overachieving sides in the league. The other gets 49 points but ends up in a band with the four most underachieving sides. That would mean the manager with 49 points is hailed as a success, whilst the one with 50 points is shown as a failure. The authors do not appear to realise this issue.

Additionally, some of the bands at the top end will include very few sides. If, for instance, only Man United and Chelsea were within the band, the methodology would be to given them a ranking in comparison to each other only. If, for instance, Chelsea's side was purchased for 20% more (plausible if we assume on average Chelsea have one home-grown player in their side, Utd have three and all other players had similar purchase value), Chelsea would need 20% more points to achieve the same level. If Utd get 88 points in that situation, Chelsea need 106 points to avoid underachieving. If Utd get 88 points with an average of four `free' players, even if Chelsea win every game they will underachieve. Therefore, in sparse bands there can be issues related to youth development amongst other factors, which the authors do not contextualise.

Therefore, the methodology selected is not the best. In a book which claims to have an innovative method for comparison this would not be a problem. In one promoting itself as having created the correct analytical tools, it is. Anyone can do statistics, but you need training to do them well. This is where you can notice the difference between a book in which people experienced in these sorts of statistics were given input and one where anyone with any remote knowledge has been consulted. Sophisticated statistic requires specialist training and anyone with that in-depth knowledge would see the limitations above. Bad statistics are easy to find and not limited to this book. The annoyance is this book claims a level of sophistication which is clearly not presented.

Let's move away from the methods and look at the analysis.

The section `underachivers' is supposed to discuss the most underachieving managers in Premiership history. A chart with some of the information is provided. The discussion should then follow the data shown. My analysis of this is firstly that Newcastle and Chelsea underperformed, but also there are some interesting trends amongst groupings of other managers.

All but one (Hoddle) England managers appear here. Given national team managers have limited resources, this data is showing we are selecting managers who have had their success due to money, not tactical or man management. McClaren is commonly regarded as overachieving at Middlesbrough, so discussion of this would be good. Similarly, all but one (Ferguson) title winning manager (including pre-1992) appears. What does this tell us about how we perceive success. All managers to take an English club to a European final (aside from the two Champions League winners) are included - does this mean reaching a European final is a sign of money, but winning the big one is a sign of shrewdness?

The text does not group managers in this way. Instead, it focuses on a small number of examples. Newcastle, the failing club, is only discussed in the last sentence, before a chapter on their performances. This should be at the start as it's weird to ignore completely commenting on the worst performing managers in a section about them.

Chelsea are discussed, as they should be, but without contextualising they have an expensive squad, due in part to the shortage of `free' players (Terry aside) and comparison to a club with many. Ancelleti is included, despite only having managed for one season (due to winning the title, a justification for special treatment somewhat outside the spirit of the book). For overachievers, a special table is made of the managers who would be near the top if they had managed for long enough. For underachievers, this special table isn't made but the Chelsea manager is included in the table (which lacks consistency).

The only other underachieving manager discussed is the one who is placed 34th (not 35th, as the text claims) overall. Given the underachievers range from 29th to 61st, it is strange this is the sole manager selected. Rather than having a dichotomy of success and failure, I would show the have regarded those around the average to be average achievers, which this person would fall into. The manager selected is David Moyles of Everton. This selection of one of the least underperforming managers to focus on is odd and suggests some sort of bias. Raising the point he hasn't overachieved as is commonly thought is interesting, but its bizarre he is the only person discussed rather have bigger under-achievers (or, more highly regarded managers like O'Neill who perform at a similar standard).

There are five paragraphs reflecting on Moyles (if you group the last two together). Three of these raise interesting points about his time at Everton, the last of which mentions his first year performance was atypical and he is remembered purely for one achievement. This is interesting, and would be stronger so if the contextualisation was made that McClaren and O'Neill only over-performed in their specific cup achievements, not in the league. The fourth paragraph, bizarrely, focuses on Benetiz claiming if take out his first year performance his record is much stronger. An interesting point, but one which should appear in a section analysing managers after they've bedded in, not thrown into this section. The final paragraph discusses Dalgleish, claiming if you ignore his time at Newcastle completely and his first season at Blackburn he performs a lot stronger. Again, an interesting point in the correct place, but this is not it. Indeed, this is assessing Dalgleish's performance over a time period shorter than the 3 year qualification this section is supposedly interested in.

The `underachievers' section clearly shows the book is completely unstructured, makes points at random times and selects examples which are not the most obvious ones from the data presented. Contextualisation of the data is not given in some circumstances, but shown strongly to others. Exceptions to the methodology are used for some managers, but not others. It is evidently not true to claim the book is using the data to explore and analyse which arguments should be used. It is clear there is an agenda within this publication and data is selected which supports these views.

The `Underachivers' section is not just a couple of pages which fell below the standard of the rest of the text, but indicative of the style of analysis throughout and a microcosm of its limitations. Many different measures are used, with no discussion of the inherent biases which can be produced. This makes the book reads as if many methods were used with the selection criteria being based on those closest to the researchers' position rather than the most robust.

There is somewhat of an irony that my critique of the book suggests fans wanting a read which presents a new way of measuring performance will like this text but people wanting the thoughtful considered analysis and statistical tools would be disappointed. The responder tries to degrade the comment into the critique being a biased review, with an interest in specific sides from a reviewer annoyed their preconceived views on managers are not confirmed. Those comments show exactly which types of reader the book is aimed at. It is a pity this information does not appear in the product description, so readers wanting to use a book without preconceived views and based on some sort of evidence aren't disappointed by what they receive.
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