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20 November 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 10:34am

How I turned myself into a human computer to rate the value of every Spurs player

By James Macintyre

It’s almost 50 years ago now, gawd I can’t believe it, that I was about to start following a top football club, Tottenham Hotspur, for a whole season in preparation for my book The Glory Game. I was getting total access to the dressing room, the training ground, and all the players, at work or home. None of them had an agent.

I was still playing Sunday football at the time for a dads’ team, Dartmouth Park United, and two of the players were LSE lecturers. They said I should not waste this opportunity. I must do social surveys with all the players – about their education, domestic life, newspapers, politics, car, house, holidays. Fifty years later I still get letters about these surveys.

I also decided to record how every goal was scored, making up my own five categories.

1 Error: By which I meant the defending side had made a clear and stupid mistake, giving the ball away, falling over, scoring an own goal.

2 Dead Ball: From a corner
or free kick.

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3 Set Moves: From watching them in training, listening to the coaches, I knew the moves they had practised – which of course rarely worked out.

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4 Individual: When one player had been largely responsible – by a bit of magic, eg dribbling past three defenders – for an amazing goal.

5 Scramble: A goalmouth melee, the ball flying about – as opposed to the work of one player or a defensive error.

I was there for every game that season – apart from Keflavik in Iceland in the first round of the UEFA Cup – and recorded each goal, checking with the players if they agreed.

Guess which type of goal Spurs scored most in that 1971-72 season? The answer was: 39 from “Set Moves”; 32 “Individual”; 27 from “Dead Balls”; 15 “Scrambled” and six from “Errors”.

Not exactly scientific. I had no video evidence. It was mainly my own eyes, my own value judgements and the back of an envelope. Today, blimey, all the Prem clubs have more analysts at work than players.

I recently read an interview with Liverpool’s director of research, Ian Graham, a Cambridge graduate with a PhD in theoretical physics. His team have collected data on 100,000 players across the world using a camera and computer process called optical tracking.

When watching football on TV these days, we are bombarded with stats – how many passes each player has made, how many were successful, what they had for breakfast, who they slept with last night. I made the last two up, but they could be really useful explaining why someone is playing rubbish.

A whole new industry has arisen that processes football data from around the world and sells it to clubs. Most of it is purely factual but these companies are also now trying to evaluate the contribution of each player, analysing the team’s chance of scoring a goal.

That seems to be verging on the hypothetical and not much more scientific than my old categories, but I’m sure with their clever computer systems turning over trillions of stats, clubs will soon be able to rate the value of each player in each game. And whether he is worth buying. Or nobbling when they play against him. Where will it end? With AI footballers?

There will, though, always be three elements in football that the computer whizzes cannot predict.

1 Progress: Will a player develop? He may look brilliant now, top all the stats at 18, but what will he be like at 28? Lots of teenage stars fall by the wayside. Careers can go backwards as well as forward, for many mysterious reasons

2 Injuries: Will always ruin so many promising careers.

3 Luck: Not just luck when a ball bounces off the crossbar or a kick intended as a cross goes into the net, but luck in being the right sort of player at the right time, fitting in with the current manager’s preferred formation. You could well be a good goalkeeper or striker – but if the manager already has equally good players in the same position, you could spend most of your career on the bench; watching and analysing the others. l

Hunter Davies’s “The Glory Game” is republished by Mainstream

This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over