on 21 October 2006
Like me, you probably yearn for a book about football that acknowledges you are past the age of 13 (thank you, Saturday TV lunchtime shows and any phone-in on the radio). Your looking for a book that appreciates it is an art form (as in "The Beautiful Game") but also deals with the serious analysis behind it. For "serious analysis", I read "science" and assumed this would be the book that does it but for me at least, it didn't work.
The first chapter is an okay history of the development of football - not much you couldn't find in an hour on Google. The second chapter is about tactical systems (2-3-5, W-M, 4-2-4, etc) - while it includes some statistics on the theoretical number of passing options offered by different systems this seemed to hinge entirely on the players standing still on the pitch in their neat formation - frankly I thought this was rubbish. So far I didn't feel I had learned anything more than from the much more readable "Flat Back Four" by Andy Gray & Jim Drewett
The third chapter is about being able to "Bend it Like Beckham" or any number of other players who take free kicks. The author's delight in science comes to the fore here and he is quickly away telling us about obscure Scottish mathematicians observing the flight of golf balls. This is about as entertaining as it sounds and my commitment to the book was starting to seriously wane.
The next chapter is about measurement of play on the pitch where the author quotes scientific studies that, to be frank, "prove" the obvious. Shock findings include: trying to put together lots of passes in one move usually leads to the ball being given away; most injuries occur in and around the penalty area, and midfielders run further during play than anyone else.
The book had one more chance for me so I turned to the chapter on psychology - for example, having watched England's national team play in major finals how do you turn potential world-class players into timid, nervous losers? Here again, the book disappointed by wittering on about comparing performance and arousal and using obscure material on the relative proportions of stable extroverts compared to unstable neurotics in Aussie-rules football. Where was the analysis of Clough turning Forest into European champions, of Greece winning Euro 2004 or even England at any major championships since 1990?
The book was written by a theoretical physicist who has taken a keen interest in football. This makes him well-qualified to write about aerodynamics but how does that give him any insights into psychology? He certainly doesn't seem to know any more about what professional football is really like than you or I. He tries to use recent examples from the Champions League final 2005 and England-Portugal 2004 to make it relevant but I think this will just make it look very dated in a few years' time.
There IS an interesting book to be written in this subject are. An intelligent football journalist would interview Bray and others like him on their specialty areas and then tell us how it actually affects what we watch at the ground or on the TV - Andy Gray with a PhD in sports science, if you like. That is most certainly not what this book is and I urge you to at least browse a copy before you buy it.
In retrospect there were three warning signs. First, Amazon does not offer "Search Inside" on this book so you can't check it out on-line before you buy. Second, it comes from a publishing house, Granta, that I did not recognise as having a track record in football books. Third, the book cover (and inside page) has no favourable quotes from newspaper or magazine reviews. You have been warned.
Not a bad book really! Its not exactly a thrilling read that you'll be looking at regularly, but it does have its interesting sections, from analyzing free kicks, from the likes of Beckham, to the history the 'mob game' that was originally football.
It can get quite technical at times, and I got quite confused during the section that goes into the aerodynamics surrounding a football during a free-kick, but its explained fairly plainly.
Good book, but don't expect it to teache you how to score is plain easy steps...