The scatter-plot matrix: a great tool
Head-shaking at the deep hole

Off-topic: World cup thoughts

I'm going back to normal programming but am placing the World Cup post here since it has attracted a lot of comments. You can continue to post comments here.

What I saw in the 2010 World Cup thus far:

  • Hope for the U.S. in football (soccer): at least in New York City, a lot more bars and restaurants have  TV screens up showing the matches this year than 4 years ago
  • Hope unfulfilled yet: many of said bars are not open for the 7:30 am matches despite advertising that they "show every match". Sleep deprivation is part of the experience that has not transferred over yet.
  • Reason for hope: the disallowed goal against Slovenia was a clear refereeing mistake, and a whooper of a mistake -- but.. such things are part of the game, and part of the history of the game. Penalties wrongly given, or not given; offside flags pointing up when it should be down, or vice versa; handballs missed; etc. The current outrage is great for football in the States; we'll be talking about this disallowed goal for generations.
  • Speaking of missed handballs: did anyone else see a Dutch handball prior to the ball passing to Sneijder before he shot the winning goal? All the subsequent TV feeds only show Sneijder's shot but there was one replay I saw that seemed to show handball but they never showed it again. If so, the Japanese also have a reason to gripe. (PS. Around 0:34 into the video, you can see Van Persie using his hand to control the ball.)
  • Pointless statistics: football is not a game that can be easily summarized by statistics - all the numbers they throw out are quite meaningless to understanding the outcome of a game: time of possession, number of touches, number of passes, number of shots, etc.
  • They are all Italians now: so many teams are playing conservative counter-attack football (which I happen to think is the right strategy for most teams); I was shocked that the Dutch team against Japan played like a classic Italian team: they went ahead 1-0, and then just protected the lead. Interesting no one complained when other teams adopt this strategy but when the Italians do it, everyone is crying foul... the ESPN announcers didn't realize that the Dutch stopped pressing forward until the latter half of the second half.
  • Most disappointing teams: England (Wayne Rooney is the problem, not Robert Green), Australia (just a mess), Germany (should've at least tied Serbia)
  • (Unfancied) teams that can be proud of their work so far: Mexico, the Asians, Switzerland, USA, New Zealand
  • Forza Azzurri!


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Hmmm, getting into soccer discussion can get tough!

It was kind of "fun" to see the smallest nation in the WC leading 2:0 over the largest nation US. Nonetheless, I always hope that the US will pick up soccer more and more - there should be an enormous potential, which will only develop if the US team will get into the play-offs of the WC.

Needless to mention that I am upset about the "card throwing" Spanish referee. Ok, the German team did not manage to turn around the game despite the many chances they had, but the referee did turn the match into an unfortunate direction early on.

The WC has its own special nature during the group-phase, and quite often the teams that did not really shine during the group phase get into the finals. This "logic" does not apply for France and England so far I guess.

Btw, here is what I have to say about the match Ghana vs. Germany on Wednesday!


Regarding that outrage: yes, the Italian diving in the last world cup does still come up here in Australia. Guess it's better than talking about this year's effort.


I have been tracking dives for this tournament. I hastily graphed the results so far:


Australia played much better against Ghana than they did against Germany, but Kewell was sent off early. It seems they opted for a very defensive approach against Germany, one that they hadn't used before and it just didn't work.


Martin: I still think Germany is a strong contender, that's why I put them in the "disappointing" category; I also agree the referee was way too harsh in the first half.

Ed: Another thing I've seen that I forgot to say is that diving is not an Italian specialty either; everyone including the Asians is flopping to the ground at the slightest touch, sometimes from touching themselves. The trouble is it's very hard to tell what's a dive and what's not, even on replay. For me, a dive is not just the theatrics, and the writhing on the ground; if the player drops on the ground at the flimsiest of touches, that's a dive regardless of whether he then shrieks, rolls around, grabs the (wrong) part of the body, calls for a stretcher, etc.

Ken and Joel: unfortunately in both games, the socceroos had to play a man down most of the game; that surely meant they weren't able to play to their potential.


Kaiser: you're correct about the subjectiveness of figuring out exactly what a dive is. I have a definition that is something like "A player falling to the ground in a manner that does not follow from the action that caused the fall", which doesn't get rid of the subjective nature. But at least it's one person scoring all the dives, so at least there's a measure of internal consistency in the numbers. I have a google spreadhseet with these numbers if anyone is interested

Melih O.

I actually disagree with your view on stats. Things like passes completed tell you a lot about how well a team is executing a strategy. It's very difficult to complete passes which are 30-40 yards away, but lots of small ball shows up with a high passes completed percentage.

Touches, shots, offsides are all similar in that they help decipher the quality of the style of play attempted by a team. The problem may be that they aren't comparable against other teams, but it's definitely interesting to watch deltas as new players for a given team come on the field, or compare against various opponents.

Time of possession is less important due to the style of play, I agree. This one I generally find useless, but in general, I think statistics have a very undervalued placed in soccer


Melih: Look for a post on the book blog expanding on my views on football statistics in the next few days. It is definitely undervalued but what can/cannot be done about that state of affairs?

dan l

I'm really struggling with it. At work, we've got flat panels showing us world cup stuff. ABC/ESPN is forcefeeding bad soccer kids movies during prime time. I actually tried to watch the England v. USA thing but it was just....not for me.

I really don't think anybody is going to remember the offsides goal from the other day. At the end of the hype, all we're going to remember is the buzzing sound.

Oooh yeah:

There's a really cool dashboardy thing for world cup tracking.

paresh shah

I know it is all part of the game - the bad umpiring decisions, hand balls missed and all - but there should be some rule that if there is a blatant error on the players part which is missed - Dutch hand ball - it should be disqualified after the game - and the result restated. No hand of God and stuff like that. Referee's mistakes - we will live with that - we have also observed different refereeing styles - some of them are very quick to flash the card, even the red, others are calmer.

dan l

How do soccer types view the 'referees as a part of the game'?

Baseball has a rather notorious recent case in which a pitcher was on the verge of a perfect game but it got blown by one of the worst umping calls in history. Thankfully, the ump apologized and the pitcher handled it shockingly well.

Alex Cook

Kaiser: I too saw the blatant handball before the Dutch goal.


Forza Azzurri indeed. I think you should add NZ to your list of teams that can be proud.


Paresh (and Dan): It's a difference in point of view. The other side says "the ball is round"; it's a game in which luck plays a big role, the better team doesn't always win, referees are human and they make mistakes just like the players or coaches. They do have an internal grading system to "bench" referees with egregious mistakes. Interestingly, I read the Vialli (Italian striker) book and he said players admire how Maradona was able to hide the hand of God. I don't like the two yellows and you miss the next match rule.

Doug: Will add NZ. I see great progress on the part of commentators - no one complained about the negative, stay-in-your-own-side tactics NZ so effectively employed; perhaps they will finally realize that such tactics work!

dan l

So it's sort of similar to the baseball attitude?

Any chance of them instituting an instant replay review after the US mess?

Tom West

US sports fans are used to baseball, American football and basketball, where the stats are pretty everything you need to know. Players are labelled good/bad purely on their performance in one statistical measure.

In (association) football ("soccer"), the correlation between pretty much any statistical measure and the outcome is weak at best. As a fan, the only two numbers I have any vague interst in are percentage possesion and shots on goal... and even then, it's more for comparison between the two teams than for predictive power. If you ask an unbiased fan which team is doing better, then they will easily be able to tell you. However it's all based on 'feel', and impossibel to back up with any objective numbers.

Possibly this is because the big three US sports are all one-play-at-a-time games (basketball slightly less so), whereas football is pretty much continuous play, so things are much more fluid.

jerome cukier

i think football is a statistician's dream. I agree we don't get much in terms on input variables from fifa, we mostly get output variables like goals, time of possession, etc.

prior to WC, i had built a crude model using as input vars the number of players from one country playing in major championships. then, i broke down countries in several categories and try to estimate odds of winning between all possible category combinations.

Then, use that to estimate the chances of a country being qualified, or winning the cup.
and yes: it turns out that Brazil can take a goal from North Korea, Italy can draw with New Zealand, Spain can lose to Switzerland, etc, etc.
to make a long story short, all countries had between 1 and 90% chances of qualifying, and no country had more than 20% chances of winning. (it's probably up to 25% at this stage)
anyway, from a numbers guy point of view - what is a "miracle"? what is a "disaster"?
if your country has 75% chances of qualifying, is failing to do so a utter fiasco (France?) if you had 30% chances, is it a miracle (South Korea?)


One draw, one convincing win and a loss against one of the best looking teams in the competition and one that also beat Argentina and England by similiar margins is hardly "just a mess".

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