‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’ by Michael Lewis (2003)

‘Moneyball’ might be the most influential sports books of the last 20 years.  15 years since it was first published, Moneyball is still synonymous with the ever-growing movement to use big data to improve the performance of professional sports teams.

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Lewis set out to answer the question of why the Oakland A’s consistently outperformed teams with much higher budgets.  He found a much bigger and more fascinating story about a sub-culture of baseball nerds both inside, but mostly outside, the sport who were determined to see the game as it really was.

At the heart of the book is Billy Beane, a former player who never fulfilled what others believed was his potential.  Lewis was given incredible access behind the scenes of the A’s management team as they prepared for a draft and throughout the 2002 season as Beane wheeled and dealed his way to improving his team at every turn.

Beane is a fascinating character  – charismatic but ruthless, a baseball insider who thinks like an outsider, a man obsessed with his team who refuses to watch the team he runs actually play a game.

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The book is utterly engrossing.  Lewis is the master of explaining complex and insider ideas to a layperson.  Despite having a limited interest in baseball, I found the book easy to follow as Lewis leads the reader through the thought process of Beane and the various ‘sabermetricians’ who think more about baseball than anything else.

At the heart of the story is Bill James, a statisician who self published baseball statistics slowly building a fanbase and eventually influencing the next generation of General Managers.  Not being a baseball fan, its hard to grasp just how obsessive James and his followers are.  Being a fan of fantasy football does help me realise how obsessed a fan can become with watching certain players and being desperate to figure out what players are likely to outperfomr others.

Moneyball is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the future of sport or anyone interested in a good story.  It’s the story of an underdog who out-thinks and therefore out-plays the bigger richer teams.   It’s a great book not just for sports fans, but for anyone who likes stories about disrption and people trying to shake up an established way of doing things.

As well as being a great read, Moneyball has had a significant impact on professional sports since its publication.  Many an article has been written on this over the last 15 years.

Reading Moneyball is a different experience than when I read it over 10 years ago.  Knowing broadly how the draft picks and other players mentioned in the book panned out changes how you experience the story.

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‘Soccernomics – 2018 World Cup edition’ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (2018)

I read the first version of this book, then called Why England Lose, when it was first published and really enjoyed it.  The latest edition is even better. The authors avoided simply re-publishing the same old book, instead re-examining their conclusions and ensuring this edition is fresh and up to date.

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The book is essentially Freakonomics applied to football, with some Moneyball thrown in.  The authors use statistics to disprove the prevailing wisdom on how football functions and how to be successful in the game. It covers a wide gambit of football related issues – ranging from how to play the transfer market well, what national teams overperform and how loyal fans really are.

The authors attempt to look globally in scope but the book focuses on European football largely because that is where the best data sources are found.  It is a long read and covers a huge amount of detail.  It is best enjoyed in chapter sized chunks to leave time to think about it rather than flying through and finding yourself overwhelmed in the detail.   Some chapters are better than others – discussions on which national team over performs got tiring, and felt like a repeat of the discussion on why England lose.  By contrast, the chapter on penalty shootouts and game theory was brilliant and insightful.

In particular, the book left me wanting to find a good book on the rise of Olympique Lyonnais and how they used clever transfers to dominate French football before the oil baron PSG took over.   The “wisdom of crowds” theory put forward in the book doesn’t really seem convincing to me as transfer committees at other clubs have been anything but successful. Any recommendations would be greatly welcome.

I enjoyed the book but in some ways I would hesitate to recommend it for everyone.  I’m not sure how much a non-nerdy fan would enjoy it.  It’s probably safe to say that if you think a “statistical look at football” sounds like fun, you’ll enjoy this book a lot.  Given its huge sales numbers there must be more of us football nerds out their than I thought!