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Soccer by the numbers Soccermatics'

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Book brings together mathematical modeling and sport

One of the things that first drew me into sports fandom was the prevalence of numbers. Professional sports count a lot of things; as a kid with a proclivity for math and a lot of time on his hands, it's no surprise that I would embrace that side of things.

It was baseball at first and baseball remains my first love but my fascination with these numbers slowly grew to encompass other professional sports. The explosion in advanced metrics in more recent times has only fueled that wonky fire that was built so many years ago.

But what if the numbers involved a sport I didn't much care about? A sport like soccer?

Bringing soccer and math together is the sole goal of David Sumpter's new book 'Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game' (Bloomsbury Sigma, $27). Sumpter combines a depth of mathematical knowledge and a lifelong love of football to offer up a whole new way to look at the world's favorite sport.

In Part I 'On the Pitch' Sumpter spends time exploring the notion of how math can be used to further understand the action on the field. He introduces a number of mathematical models aimed at illustrating the patterns that help make the greatest players great. He also looks in depth at the vast array of measurables scattered throughout the action and devotes time to determining what they mean in terms of on-field value and how individual brilliance can skew predictive methodologies.

In Part II 'In the Dugout' Sumpter turns his analytical eye onto the tactical side of the game, looking at the sorts of influences that can be exerted by a team's manager and how their decisions can both directly and indirectly impact a particular game. He also digs into game plans and schemes, as well as the probabilistic effects of these choices.

And in Part III 'From the Crowd' the author takes yet another step back from the pitch, focusing now on many people surrounding the soccer realm. He explores the nature of fandom and models the social dynamics of crowd behavior. In addition, he takes a look at the huge gambling industry built around the game and the statistical necessities that come with running book on such a massive sporting enterprise.

You wouldn't think that heavy math with charts and graphs galore would necessarily be a strong fit with die-hard soccer passion, but the truth is that 'Soccermatics' brings the seemingly-disparate worlds together neatly. Sumpter has found the sweet spot between the two, using his love of one to elevate the engaging nature of the other and vice versa.

I have only the vaguest familiarity with soccer it has never captured my attention but even a general sports fan with a passing knowledge of the game will see recognizable names. Plus, Sumpter's love of the game is infectious it's impossible not to be drawn in. Add to that the fact that my attraction to the wonkier side of sports never really went away and I'm in. While I may not be onboard with all of the specifics, it's all quite fascinating in the general sense.

Whether he's talking about the outlier brilliance of someone like Lionel Messi or the repercussions of managerial decisions or the depths of knowledge plumbed by the gambling establishment, Sumpter brings methods of mathematical understanding to all aspects of the game.

'Soccermatics' is a fascinating book, an intelligent work that strives to reflect the minute intricacies of the game by way of the numbers while never condescending to or overwhelming the reader. Soccer fans and math lovers will be thrilled, but in truth, a general understanding of both is really all you need to enjoy this one.


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