Financial Times sports columnist, author of Soccernomics and statistics sports guru Simon Kuper gives his thoughts on the ever increasing role that statistics play in the world of professional soccer at a recent seminar hosted by the Science Gallery at the Paccar Theatre Trinity College Dublin. The talk was sponsored by Balls.ie and hosted by Newstalk radio sports presenter Ger Kilroy with Kuper being joined on stage by Dr. Tom Markem  Head of Strategic Business Development at Sports Interactive, the makers of Football Manager/Championship Manager.

Who is Simon Kuper?

Simon Kuper is author of the world renowned bestseller, “Soccernomics” and sports columnist for the Financial Times. He won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 1994 with his book “Football Against the Enemy“. He has written numerous other publications including “Why England loose“. He is much sought after around the world for his contrarian views on sport & he has devised empirically-based predictions on how professional sports teams succeed in their respective fields. He was born in Uganda and grew up in London, the Netherlands, the US, Sweden and Jamaica. He studied at Oxford, Harvard and the University of West Berlin.  His column in the FT tries to place sport and sportsmen within a country, a time, a society, while also being about sport itself. The following is an excerpt of the interview he gave during the Science Gallery lecture on  the 2nd of April 2015.

What Premiership club has most embraced the use of statistics in soccer?

SK: “Without  a shadow of a doubt its Arsenal. Arsene Wenger is the most statistically driven manager  in the Premiership. Wenger has a degree in economics, he likes to solve mathematical puzzles for fun, he knows its a game of small margins. Arsenal bought StatDNA, a football data analytics company back in  2012 for over 2 million quid. That’s how serious Wenger’s approach is to statistics in the game. Wenger is using the statistics from this company to scout and talent spot, in game preparation, in post-match analysis and in gaining tactical insights into the game. Look, statistics have been used for quite along while in American Football & Baseball. Its best known in baseball, & the statistics-driven approach of the Oakland Athletics advocated by Billy Beane (Author of Moneyball). Beane and Wenger are good friends.Beane has been to Wenger’s house a number of times. Beane admirers Wenger, particularly the way he can spend money and extract value. If Wenger wants a goalkeeper he just goes to StatDNA and asks them to get a potential list of the best upcoming goalies in the world. He would have fished out David Ospina from Nice as backup to  Szczesny after Fabianski joined Swansea.”

What about Jose Mourinho or Loius Van Gaal or the other managers in Premiership are they fans of using stats? SK:“Interestingly enough Mourinho doesn’t use stats really, he uses video analysis. If you trawl through hours & hours of video analysis you will see certain patterns emerging. Van Gaal is quite a big fan of statistics. Look all managers are looking for something that gives them that edge and if statistics can make that 1% difference then they’re going to use them. Not all mangers are willing to embrace the use of statistics. For example, I once went to the Fulham chairman a couple of seasons ago and said that Fulham concede on average about 15 penalties a season. I can help you save 2 of those penalties and that should gain you at least 2 Premiership points. Bear in mind  Each point a club gains in the Premiership is worth 1 million Sterling. The chairman was all for it, so, he went to the manager Mark Hughes. He was having none of it. Thought it was a waste of money.”

You’ve been writing about Soccer for many years now has the game fundamentally changed in your view?

SK:” Yes I think the game is much better now than it was in the 80’s.Players are so much more skilfull, physically better conditioned, they’re more tactically  astute, defenders are better and the game is faster. A lot of the skillful players of the 80’s and 90’s would struggle to make the same impact nowadays. I’m thinking of players of the  likes of Matt Le Tissier.

Basically what the statistics have shown is that is that you get the majority of the team to do the hard graft and then you have that one or two players with that special talent that make all the difference. Its there skill and speed that make all the difference. For example if you look at Gareth Bale he consistently runs at 30 kpmh during a game. Thiery henry was the same for Arsenal they calculated that this was his average speed during his long career. Agüero for Man City is a similar type of influential player. Basically you coach the other guys to defend in certain zones, attack in certain zones, move at certain times  but with the likes of Agüero or Bale the manager just has to back these players to make the correct decisions at the right time and you build your team around these players. Like would you tell Messi how to play before a game. That’s why the most successful teams are teams with the most money who can spend the most on the best players. Interestingly, dribblers are becoming that much more important in the game now. The ability to beat defenders is the most important skill in the game now. Its the most important skill to unleash a defence.”

Who would say is the greatest Messi or Maradona?

SK:” Statistically Messi has been consistently the best player in the world over the last ten years. In all barometers of measurement in soccer he is the greatest: dribbles, assists, passing, there is no one who can catch him. He owes a lot of credit to Barcelona. They took him and his family to Barcelona when he was just 13 from Argentina and made sure he had as far as possible a  normally childhood, and created the perfect environment in the Barcelona youth system for him to flourish. He was fortunate to have players like  Iniesta and Xavi in that youth squad but Barcelona’s game has been built around allowing him to express himself. We know Maradona was probably the most gifted player ever, but, unfortunately he hasn’t applied himself to the game as well as Messi has. Okay, Messi hasn’t won a world cup but he was injured in last years tournament. I think is he was fully fit there was no doubt Argentina would have won that World Cup in 2014. For me, Messi is the best.”