Steven Mandis, adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, wrote a book titled “The Real Madrid Way” that can be described as “Moneyball” meets “Soccernomics.” People notice when Billy Beane, executive vice president of baseball operations and minority owner of the Oakland Athletics, writes, “This book will be one of the most influential books on sports ever written. It doesn’t matter if you are a soccer or Real Madrid fan, you will look at sports and business in a different way after reading this book.” The reason is, according to David Stern, former commissioner of the NBA, “With unprecedented behind-the-scenes access, this book is the most complete study of any sports team ever done, analyzing both on the field and off the field performance—which leads to fascinating conclusions.” Obviously high praise from respected people in sports. We asked Professor Mandis, based on his research as an outsider, why there are more upsets in football?
First, today’s talent has never been narrower among players. In his book Sports Equation, Michael Mauboussin points out that the difference between first place and 20th place in the Olympic Men’s Marathon in 1932 was around 39 minutes, while in 2012 it was seven minutes. In Rio, it was six minutes. Athletes are reaching a physiological barrier while development and training tactics are being copied and made more available to more people. Athletes today are under even greater pressure to “push / break the physiological barrier” as more competing athletes clump up together. Therefore, we should expect athletes will look for any edge possible, including performance-enhancing drugs to gain even the smallest statistical edge.
Fans and the media are blinded with huge sums being paid for what is actually a very marginal difference between players. Clubs pay this because they are looking for any statistical advantage. But do you ever notice when a star player is not 100 percent, they appear “average?” This is because the difference is actually small. Therefore, a small issue (from personal distractions to mental fatigue to physical fatigue to getting back into shape from injury, etc.) can bring the player’s performance to average. So it is harder for the “more talented” teams that spend multiples more money than another team to differentiate themselves on any given day. To further illustrate the point, a bottle of 2000 Château Margaux with a Robert Parker rating of 100 costs around $1,000. In contrast, a bottle of 2000 Château Lynch Bages with a Robert Parker rating of 97 costs around $250. The vast majority of people in the world would not be able to tell the very, very marginal difference between the two, but the price difference multiple is very large – four times. It’s possible that the individual person’s preferences or what food they paired it with or the way it was stored or if it was decanted or not or even the temperature it was served at would maybe even make the 97 rated wine taste better to an expert. The same ideas apply to football/soccer. The style of play, teammates, quality of competition, mental or physical tiredness, temperature, altitude, warm up – all can take a 100 rated player seem like a 97, even if the cost was four times more.
Second, the style of play can lead to statistical disadvantages. For example, Real Madrid follows the passion, values and expectations of the fans — which is to see beautiful, attacking, elegant football. Real Madrid fans want to see “artists” (the best players in the world) take “paint” (the ball) and paint a beautiful painting on the “canvas” (the pitch) for 90 minutes. Like most paintings, Real Madrid’s style is artistically improvised. This improvisation requires players to play together very often to know what each other will do.
What I call the “too tired effect” is becoming one of the biggest issues for teams’ performance. In today’s game there are tremendous physical, mental and emotional demands over long seasons with international play during the season and in the off-season. In the 1970s, an average footballer ran around 2.5 miles per game, while today it is around seven miles. Therefore, rotating players through the season is becoming increasingly important, especially to keep players fresh for the knockout phases of tournaments later in the season. Rotations limit the probability of injury. First, less time on the pitch equals less probability of being injured. Second, injuries more frequently occur when the player is tired, and especially if the intensity of the game increases with less time for the losing team. This is why more injuries statistically occur more frequently in the last 15 minutes of matches (hence taking out players with 15 minutes to play).
Clubs that have a system where players’ roles are defined can more easily rotate players or replace injured players or deal with ineligible players who accumulated too many yellow cards. Teams with defined roles for players also have a decline in performance with less familiarity but not as statistically meaningful as a team relying on improvisation. This places Real Madrid at a statistical disadvantage. Because of the style of play its fans desire, the players need to play together more for effective improvisation. The fans also prefer to see the star “artists” play. However, without rotations, the players are susceptible to collapse at the ends of seasons. I believe this was a factor to Real Madrid’s 2003 and 2015 seasons and Barcelona’s in 2016.
Exasperating the too tired effect is that football/soccer is very interdependent. To score a goal typically requires a series of passes. If a player is half a second slower than usual or jumps a few inches less than usual, then the connection may be just off. This is a particular problem in soccer/football because the scoring opportunities are so few and the best finishing players only have a handful of chances to score. Take Messi and Ronaldo for example — they have around 20 meaningful possessions per game for a total of 60 seconds. During the 20 possessions, they will be fouled three times. So, in the remaining 17 possessions, they will shoot four times, two will be on goal and one will go in (a remarkable statistic). Only four times will they be shooting. If Ronaldo is not 100 percent, it is very likely that he and his teammates will not connect in those four opportunities. Even forgetting about Ronaldo moving more toward an average player if he is not 100 percent, this puts Real Madrid in a difficult position because Ronaldo scores around one-third of the club’s goals.
The “too tired effect” may make a team think about where their top players are from, as well as how often they play for their country. If the club is in Europe and their best players are from South America (Barca’s MSN), their players may be more tired than another club’s players who are from Europe (Real Madrid’s BBC). The “too tired effect” will also cause clubs to clearly define priorities (leagues versus tournaments and allowing players to play for country) in order to prioritize resources (players at 100 percent).
The “too tired effect” is interrelated with what I call “the too old effect.” The older the player, then the more difficult and longer it takes to recover in between games as well as recover from injuries. More importantly, is the cumulative effect. In football, there is a lot of sprinting. The typical player sprints around 45 times per game, or every two minutes. The peak ages for male athletes, according to the Sports Performance Research Institute in New Zealand, is 25 years old. For marathoners, it is 30 and Ironman distance triathletes is 32. In July 2014, The Economist analyzed the average team age and final standing for defending World Cup champions and discovered that for winners in this group, age had a remarkable impact. After four years, the winning team would be expected to finish in 17th place.
The “freshness” required might impact how a team thinks about its signings. It may be better to sign a player with risk younger in their career versus more established players.
The next issue is luck. In the book, The Numbers Game, Sally and Anderson disclosed that the winning percentage of a team favored by bettors won 66 percent of the time in basketball and only 50 percent of the time in football/soccer. In basketball, there is a shot clock to ensure that both teams have plenty of opportunities to score and defend. Therefore, typically the better team will win with more opportunities to show they are better. Football has no shot clock and fewer opportunities. So, a non-favored team can sit back and defend and waste time, reducing the opportunities, and maybe get lucky with a penalty or missed defensive assignment. In addition, most goals are scored by random (can’t be often replicated) events (e.g. a lucky bounce or deflection).
Add all of this up and it is what makes football so compelling to watch, especially if you support a non-favored team playing a favored team at home (where there is another slight statistical advantage). It will also lead to more upsets.
This is probably even more prevalent in international tournaments played in the off-season, especially in several circumstances. First, when country teams have to fly to another continent. (Statistically, teams that compete on their own continent do better according to The Economist). Second, when the best players have played late into a season and are tired going into the tournament, they will not be 100 percent (therefore not as disguised) and are more susceptible to injuries to keep them from participating. Third, most international fans are perfectly happy with their teams doing whatever they need to increase the possibility of winning, including wasting time and playing disciplined defence to limit opportunities and wait for luck and/or penalty kicks (some country exceptions [e.g. Brazil], while some countries actually embrace it [e.g. Italy, Greece]. Lastly, accumulation of yellow cards for elite players and keeping them out of later rounds puts favored teams at a disadvantage.
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