Simon Kuper Interview

Paul Grech Friday, November 30, 2012 , ,
Goals scored and conceded. Points won.  Attendance figures. Up till a few years back those were practically the only statistics that made their way on to the football pages and in to the fans' consciousness.  Now it is a completely different story.  Clubs employ teams of statistical analyst, journalists regularly quote passes made, fans look at heat maps of individual players and apps churn out an apparently endless stream of statistics.  The shift in culture has been massive.

One who was at the forefront of this change was Simon Kuper who in 2009 teamed up with Stefan Szymanski to write " Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained" which was the first serious literary attempt at trying to determine the role and importance of statistics in football.


The Efficiency of Youth Systems

Paul Grech Monday, November 26, 2012 , ,

Every year, clubs release tens of youth players in whom they've invested years of coaching.  Some go years without seeing one of the players developed by their system make it to the first team despite the money the pour into their academy.

All this might seem a pretty inefficient use of resources, but it isn't.  That is what Simon Kuper, co-author of the brilliant book Soccernomics, thinks.

The rest of this article can be read at Blueprint for Football.

Hamilton Aiming To Be The Best

Craig Levein. Judging by how the post-game talk was dominated by whether the Scottish FA should replace him or not when Scotland lost to Belgium in the World Cup qualifying stage, a defeat that left them bottom of their group with just two points, you would think that pointing at the manager was all that was needed to identify the reasons behind this dire situation.

Yet, for all Levein's defects and mistakes, the fault lines of Scottish football lie much deeper than the manager's role. For a nation that once produced world class players like Kenny Dalglish and Dennis Law, Scotland now struggles to produce players who are even remotely close to that level.

There are many reasons for that, yet one of them has to be the lack of vision shown by clubs. Few have dared to be innovative; fewer still have been brave enough to build their teams around the players coming out of their system.

Hamilton Academical, however, are among those few. Their youth system attracted attention for producing James McCarthy, who made his debut for them before he had turned sixteen, and James McArthur whose debut came as a seventeen year old. Both players helped Hamilton reach the Premier League before being sold for significant amounts to Wigan.

The rest of this article can be read on Blueprint for Football where it was originally published or at In Bed With Maradona who requested to re-publish the piece.

Unexpected. But Nice.

When I set up Blueprint for Football, the over-riding desire was to get to talk about people, ideas and methodologies that I found interesting.  Of course, there was the hope that there would be an audience but that was more down to a desire to find others who shared this enthusiasm.

Praise and recognition certainly weren't expected.

Which is probably why I was so pleased when Blueprint for Football was named by as one of the "50 Football Blogs/Sites You Must Look At!".  It is nice to see the work I've put in being recognised especially given that we're being placed in a list that contains some of our own favourites like In Bed With Maradona, The Swiss Ramble and Two Hundred Percent.

Anyway, thanks to Scott over at The Footy Blog and check out the full list that he's compiled.


The Weight of Expectations

Paul Grech Thursday, November 1, 2012 , ,
Every time Raheem Sterling gets near the ball there’s instantly a shift in mood.  It might be barely perceptible, but even so the rising expectation is unmistakeable and un-missable.  When his speed and trickery then takes him past a defender, you can see the fans shifting to the edge of their seats, eagerly expecting further magic by the talented teen.

Sometimes what he tries comes off; sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally he is overly ambitious, keeping hold of the ball when he should release it. Often he’ll create an opportunity that wasn’t there before, offering glimpses of pure talent that keep the excitement alive.

At least for now.  Eventually, however, there will come a period when those lost balls won’t  be written off as easily.  The good moves will be forgotten whilst the bad ones remembered.  For that is how it has always been and that is how it will always be.

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Sterling has been luckier than most in that he has come into a side struggling for creativity and been the one to provide sparks of brilliance.  He already has a bit of goodwill in store.

Yet the danger remains.  Within the space of a few weeks Sterling has gone from someone who is considered promising to a regular in the first team.  His performances have more than justified that transition but it bears remembering that he is still seventeen years old; sooner or later there will be a dip in his form.

When that happens, it will be interesting to see how he reacts.  It will be just as ineresting to see how Liverpool react.  Hopefully it will come at a stage where there is the luxury to allow him to move away from the spotlight and rediscover his form at his own pace.

That kind of luxury wasn’t afforded to Emiliano Insua.  By the time he left Liverpool, Insua was put forward as a prime example of the decline in quality within the squad; a player who wasn’t good enough but who was playing regularly.

Such a verdict was at odds with the one drawn just a few months earlier when he had first made it into the Liverpool team.  Then, his confidence when moving with the ball had been lauded as Insua was praised for being a thoroughly modern left back who was at ease when it came to supporting the attack.

What this initial analysis missed was his shortcomings as a defender. This was an area that he needed to work on but which in the beginning wasn’t really noticed.  Yet the more he played, the more he suffered. And, as a result, the more people picked up on it.

At that stage he needed to make a step backwards so as to rediscover his confidence whilst working to improve his positioning.  Yet Liverpool’s shortcomings in his role meant that he couldn’t really get this.  So Insua kept on playing and kept on struggling.  As the weight of expectations grew heavier on Insua’s shoulder, he sank ever deeper, so much that by the end Liverpool couldn’t give him away for free.

Eventually Insua would re-emerge as a fairly effective left-back at Sporting Lisbon, proving that although not as good as some had initially labelled him, he was far from the useless player many had written him off to be.

Perhaps more importantly to the narrative of this piece, Insua should be seen as a very important lesson on the danger of expecting young players to perform to the level, and with the consistency, of experienced ones.  His story, and that of many others, shows that whilst players need to play to develop, it is possible that they get to play too much for their own good.

This danger is further heightened by the amount of exposure Liverpool’s young players are getting.  With most Under 18, Next Gen and Under 21 games being televised, players are getting judged at an age when they are still developing. This point was touched upon by Steven Gerrard in Episode 2 of Being: Liverpool:

“The difference between when I was at the academy from now is that the fans already know about the kids at the academy. They watch them on the TV whereas when I was coming through no one knew anything about me, it was a surprise. Which helped as there was no pressure, there’s more pressure on the kids now as people are already aware of them before they get close to the first team. It is even more difficult now to get close to the first team.”

Difficult is, possibly, too mild a term.  Players are judged – often harshly and against unrealistic standards – far too early and are labelled well before they get anywhere near the first team.  Sadly such labels can be extremely difficult to shake off.

They don’t even have to be negative ones to hamper a player’s development.  A player who is scoring regularly for the U18s will be expected to keep that rhythm when he moves to a higher level.  If not, he will be tagged as someone who isn’t good enough for that level when in truth it might simply be down to a natural adaptation process.

Players who would otherwise be learning and playing in front of a handful of spectators suddenly are being asked to do so in front of a worldwide audience.  The expectations at each step are becoming increasingly harder to shoulder.

This article originally appeared on the 3rd of October 2012 on the Tomkins Times.


Book Review: Champions League Dreams

The day after it was announced that Rafa Benitez had left Liverpool, I came across an acquaintance – a long time Liverpool fan – who surprised me by saying “don’t tell me you’re sad to see him go! Benitez ruined Liverpool.”

It was a reaction that took me aback. Naturally I was conscious that there were many fans who wanted to see the back of Benitez and thought that he wasn’t the one to take the club forward, but it had never occurred to me that there might be people who felt that he had ‘ruined’ Liverpool FC.

Two years have passed since his dismissal and fans – including a good portion of those who wanted him out – are looking much more positively at his time at the club.  Time, and the failure to get anywhere near a Champions League spot in the meantime, has enhanced his reputation to the extent that when Kenny Dalglish was dismissed there were many who clamoured for his return.

If there is a positive side-effect of that demand not being met, it probably lies in the fact that he got to finish writing Champions League Dreams.

As the title suggests, the bulk of the focus of this book is on the Champions League and how Benitez managed to do so well in this competition.  There are insights, explanations and tactical talks as he explains in detail every game that his team played.  He explains how the much maligned zonal marking system was often, in fact, altered to man-mark individual players.  And he explains in detail why he took certain decisions, the formation for the final against AC Milan in 2007 being the main one.  It is all incredibly fascinating and a true learning experience.

Benitez also talks about the lead-up to certain decisions.  One such instance is the decision to sign Fernando Torres after a list of strikers had been drawn up. Another deals with what led to the failure to sign Simao Sabrosa.  Both put light on previously unknown details and there are plenty more such instances. Yet do not expect any criticism of the people that many feel let him down during his time at Liverpool – the likes of Hicks and Gillett or Christian Purslow – and although they do get mentioned it is often cursory.  Nor does he talk about the split with Pako Ayesteran. The impression is that he feels that such matters have little place in a book about football.

Although unwittingly, he also highlights his own genius when, for instance, he explains that in 2005 he started the game against Juventus with the players instructed to adopt a tactical shape for the first few minutes and then changing it hoping to gain an advantage when his opponents didn’t react to that change.

Indeed, the overwhelming sensation at the end of this book is awe over Benitez’s management.  Not just of games but of everything.  At one stage he mentions his often publicised love of the game Stratego and how he spent a couple of days obsessively drawing up strategies on how to handle each situation so that he never lost another game.  The thing is, that is how he handled every minute detail, looking at getting information or a strategic advantage.

When Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford, he started telling any journalist who would listen a step-by-step guide on how to beat them in the hope that they would report it and some other manager would adopt the system, getting United to drop points.

That is how Benitez works, obsessively looking into each detail to see what can be done to improve it and gain an advantage.  That is what comes out of Champions League Dreams, which is more of a manual of how a great manager works than a mere biography of his successes.

This article originally appeared on the 15th October 2012 on the Tomkins Times.

Places to Go, Things to Do: National Museum of Archaeology

What is It?
As the name suggests the National Museum of Archaeology houses a large number of archaeological artefacts which date back to our island's Neolithic period but not only.

Why Go There?
Unfortunately, for a lot of people history is something learned (or suffered) through books during long hours at school.  Even worse, it is something that is learned purely because it is an academic requirement.

Yet that is not how it should be.  History teaches us about ourselves and unless we know of our past we cannot really say to know ourselves.  Above all, history doesn't have to be boring and with a bit of effort it can be brought to life. Visits to museums, like the National Museum of Archaeology, helps teach the young (and not so young)  the way of life of people from past societies.

What is There To See?
On display at this museum are the earliest tools used by the prehistoric and early historic people to facilitate their daily tasks; representations of animal life and also human figures, both elements showing the great artistic skills of the dwellers of the island at the time also giving an insight on their daily lives.  The real kind of history, if you want, as opposed to the two dimensional one seen on books.

However, the real stars of the show include the ‘Sleeping Lady’ from the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, the ‘Venus of Malta’ from Hagar Qim, the bronze daggers from the Tarxien Cemetery, the sarcophagus from Ghar Barka and the Horus and Anubis pendant from Ghajn Klieb

When to go there...
The museum is open every day from eight in the morning till seven in the evening with the last admission being at quarter past six. It is worth subscribing to Heritage Malta's mailing list to be informed of any special events being held and which might be of interest.  One such instance will be on the first of November when an event called Trash Archaeology is being organised. Here, those taking part will be shown how to distinguish important archaeological facts from what seems to be mere trash.

If there is a budding archaeologist in your family, make a note of the Excavate event being held on the 3rd of January.  Those children who take part will be shown how to excavate on a miniature archaeological site going through the whole process from taking photos to drawing plans to extracting artefacts and remains up to labelinglabelling and packing, all while taking careful and meticulous measures.

Where Is It?
The National Museum of Archaeology is housed in the Auberge de Proven├že, in Republic Street, Valletta.  Meaning that, if you go to Valletta, you cannot really miss it.

How Much...
Adult tickets costs €5 but there are concessions for senior citizens (those aged over sixty) who can enter the museum for €3.50.  Children tickets cost €2.50 but this applies for those who are aged over five years with younger children being able to enter for free.

And another thing...
Heritage Malta organises a number of open days and special events.  Events for the coming months include an exhibition entitled "A journey through Peasant Costumes" to be held at the Inquisitor's Palace along with a number of events scheduled to be held in Gozo such as the "Model Making of a Traditional Maltese Boat – Luzzu".  The best way to keep informed on what is being planned by Heritage Malta is by liking its Facebook Page.

This article appeared on the Autumn 2012 issue of Growing Up in Malta.

Getting to Grips With Technology

Having toyed with the idea for a couple of months, at the start of the summer I bought myself an iPad.  Actually, that statement is incorrect: I bought an iPad.  Because if there's anyone who barely ever gets the opportunity to use this toy, it is myself.
Indeed, if there is anyone who actually 'owns' it then it is the kids.  Of course we try to limit its use as much as possible but if it is being used then it most probably is by them.

A part of me is fascinated with how quickly they got to grips with it.  Even our toddler can recognise his games and 'play' them and for me it is astounding that this gadget can be handled even by an eighteen month year old.

Of course, part of the iPad's (and other tablets) main attractions is that it can offer up a seemingly endless list of games (a good deal of which are for free) so it is easy to understand why the kids wouldn't let it out of their hands if it were up to them.  It is also why there are a few base rules that we've set: there are no electronic gadgets when we're eating, likewise when we go out, they cannot download (or view) anything without  my express permission and time during which they can use it is limited.

It is this latter rule that more often than not is the sticking point.  "Can we play with the iPad?"  "No, you've already played enough."  "Ufff..." (...often accompanied by pouting lips and stamping of feet).  This is a conversation that for the past few weeks has been getting played out over and over again.  Which, if you're tired after a day at work, isn't the type of conversation you can have (especially repeatedly) without ending up either overly frustrated or else angry.

That's not to say that it is all bad.  A lot of games are educational and they actually do help in the children's development. You can actually see them learning and, if you know which games to get them to play, you can see their problem solving techniques getting sharper and sharper.  Sometimes, they can see solutions to problems that leave me stumped.

Yet there remains that nagging doubt that perhaps we're trading their social skills for a few minutes of peace.  Because if there is one universal truth about this gadget it is that it cuts you off from the rest of the world (something which, for all the social media sites that there are, is true for most of modern technology).  Try getting an answer out of a kid (or, for that matter, an adult) who is engrossed watching something on television or the computer if you want to test the validity of that statement.

Naturally, as parents this worries us.  We worry not because they're using the iPad but because they're forgoing other alternatives.  And I'm not referring to important stuff here - study for instance - but also doing things we traditionally associate with kids such as drawing or playing with their toys.

Then again, is it really that different to my own experiences as a child?  I remember eagerly awaiting for 2 o'clock in the afternoon during the summer at which point an Italian station used to transmit a movie.  Most of the time I spent reading, going to up to three libraries during a week.  Tellingly, I remembered being extremely bored as well.  The only difference is that today there is so much more entertainment for kids that is readily available.

The truth, perhaps, is that iPads and such gadgets present parents with a modern twist to an old problem: teaching your kids to find a balance in their life.  There are times when you can play and others where you have to work.  And there are times where you can play with one thing and others when you should be exploring new things to see whether you come across something that gives you greater enjoyment.

Traditionally, I'm not sure that we've (as a society) really fostered that balance.  Study has always been king as evidenced by the huge decline in the number of young adults practicing sports at around the ages of fourteen.  But it is possible to study without sacrificing other hobbies.  If we want to raise well rounded individuals who are capable of managing their time so that they can lead a life that fulfills them, then we need to change that. iPads or not.

This article appeared on the Autumn 2012 issue of Growing Up in Malta.
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer