Almanac Review: Time and Space, and Footballistics

 

 

Review by KEN HALEY

 

If football is emblematic of life, let’s open with a conundrum. Every life has four quarters but, unlike what happens on the football field, in life no one knows when to take the half-time break. (Dante opened with the half-time break, I grant you, but the great game was a different mix of prose and poetry in his time and anyway he was in another league.)

 

So many people are time-poor now that it may well be you won’t know which of the two books in this review you should settle for – Time and Space, James Coventry’s 2015 study of how Rules has evolved over the sixteen decades of its polymorphous life; or his new volume, Footballistics.

 

The answer essentially depends on what type of person you are: if you’re attracted by graphs and graphics – better still if you’re mathematically inclined – it will be the newbie for you. Footballistics will end up sitting next to its predecessor in the Sports section of my shelf space but it could equally be regarded as a work of applied mathematics.

 

Coventry, that eponym for historical high scoring, uses the newish science of data analytics, powered by the gigantic increase in computing power, to explore key trends in the game that are sure to pique the interest of barrackers everywhere.

 

Last week, while on a tram being punted due north from the CBD to Moreland Rd, a cheery matron in the seat opposite asked me ‘What are you reading?’ (as people never used to when reading prints in public was more common).

 

She turned out to be a mad-keen Tigers fan (sorry, the tautology just slipped through while I wasn’t thinking) and, on being told, said, ‘Oh, that wouldn’t interest me. I prefer a murder.’ (At least one fellow passenger gave a shudder at this; another got off at the next stop who may not have been planning to.)

 

While Ian Rankin’s Rebus wouldn’t ignore a data-analytic pattern of where a serial killer had carried out homicides, I simply smiled indulgently: ‘Well, this is not for you then.’

 

She can live without knowing that the winners in five-eighths of the Grand Finals since the VFL turned AFL in 1990 have been the team with more ‘shared experience’ – where the players had accrued more playing time with the teammates who lined up for that ultimate test.

 

And she really wouldn’t have wanted to know that in 2017 Richmond won against those odds.

 

For much of the book, Coventry mines his material from the rich lode of ore struck by Champion Data, an analytic outfit whose day job is making sense of sporting statistics. Supporting artillery often comes from the excellent AFL Tables website, which I recently cited in another Almanac article.

 

Even if, like me, you’re a person who can find graphs in a book off-putting and occasionally indigestible, you will find those in Footballistics much tastier morsels. For starters, they’re pithily titled. One charting a steady decline all the way since 1900 in teams’ reliance on their top four goalkickers’ contribution to their scores is headed ‘Sharing the Load’.

 

Another, which demonstrates a gathering trend in the modern game for Brownlow votes to go to the leading ‘getters’ of various playing stats – disposals, contested possessions, hit-outs, one percenters etc. – is summed up, ‘Ball magnets are vote magnets’.

 

One fascinating snippet from aggregating thousands of VFL/AFL contests is that if a team’s one goal up at quarter-time it has a 55 per cent chance of winning (conversely, 45 per cent chance if it’s a goal down). A friend of mine – a Hawthorn fan who as an accountant doesn’t find statistics forbidding – lapped up such nuggets but they only whetted his appetite for more.

 

Says he – and I pass this on rather than examine it myself, because the implications are stupendous if there’s anything in it – every club that’s recruited a Rioli has won a flag within two years (so, if your club wants to be premiers in 2020, its talent scouts should be beating about the bush with no time to waste, it’s that simple!). He also wonders how often a team wins if its opponents kick the first goal of the game.

 

Footballistics won’t tell you that – but it’s precisely the sort of quest it will get you thinking about (and, if you see this, James, perhaps this topic can be addressed in any future editions?).

 

The author takes a serious, and overdue, look at the mantra dignified as the Leigh Matthews Theory and familiar to the most casual viewer of Channel 7 footycasts over recent seasons: that late in a match a team that’s more goals in front than there are minutes to go will probably win. How the theory holds up, and how often it’s disproved, would be a spoiler here – suffice to say the limited number of exceptions make the “theory” itself something of a truism for any lead greater than four goals. (And yet the exploration of this shibboleth makes for some of the most riveting pages of the book.)

 

Topics are chosen for their intrinsic interest, and their statistical examination is a matter of spotting patterns from mountains of raw data. Among these topics are the benefit/drawback of playing home or away; being the first to 100 points as a harbinger of winning; how the club you play for, and how many kilometres you spend flying with them in the era of the national competition, can affect career longevity.

 

One metric – a compound-factored thing known as the Player Activity Value – is wittily reduced to the PAV, in honour of the most travelled player of all time. This, as if you need reminding by now, is statistics for those with a sense of fun.

 

Errors are so rare it would take a poultry dentist to discern them. In one irksome item, a sentence beginning “Four of the Crows’ other top-five best picks …” goes on to name only three; in another, West Coast’s second most recent premiership year is given as 2007 instead of ’06.

 

 

A book bearing on such a serious matter as why your team has a record of winning (or losing, or its unique imprint of both) is the last place you might expect to find an LOL joke. Yet Coventry’s citation of an Italian soccer-club manager who was appointed despite his lacklustre past as a player did have that effect on me. Criticised as unqualified for the job, he retorted: “I never realised that to become a jockey you had first to be a horse.”

 

From one point of view – there are those who would think it trivial, but again if there’s something in it … – the passage examining whether blond players catch the Brownlow-dispensing umpires’ eye more than those with different-hued hair or none at all – is an extended, but not uninstructive, exercise in frivolity.

 

Speaking of humour, on the odd occasion a graph can even be funny. One of them may well amuse those of you who’ve developed a cynical callus around the AFL’s penchant for making rule changes – sometimes apparently for change’s sake; sometimes, you might suspect, so that the current generation of administrators will be able to tell their grandchildren they left their mark on the game (even if it was a smudge).

 

The graph on p. 153, pungently titled ‘The age of tinkering’, consists of two straight lines – a long one at basement level (0.82 rules changes per year for the first 136 years) and a short mezzanine thereafter (2.44 c.p.y. in the past 24).

 

Which brings us neatly to the companion volume, Coventry’s book on how tactics – so largely influenced by rule changes – have transformed the spectacle we still call Australian football from its previous incarnations, almost unintelligible to the present-day spectator (as our game would be to the fans of yore).

 

One thing both works share is that Coventry, a South Australian ABC journalist, looks at the game through a historical lens. Readers who thinks the AFL is the measure of all wisdom receive a salutary jolt every few pages: not only was the game not born in a vacuum – there was Rugby football to deviate from in certain regards and imitate in others – but the way Victorians played it was never (except in its infancy) the only playing style: Tasmanians, South and West Australians soon established their own, suited to their particular climates and grounds. And Victoria was most emphatically not the only source of innovation.

 

More surprisingly, we learn that other sports to have influenced the evolution of our great game range beyond football codes to embrace water polo and basketball, from which the tactic of ‘pressing’ to panic the player in possession into a turnover was borrowed.

 

Through this lens we also see there’s nothing new under the overcast heavens – or the sun (when it shines). “Flooding” the backline, though Rodney Eade receives his due, was first tried by that tragic colossus of the early game, Tom Wills.

 

As long ago as 1860, when the Wills that left Melbourne (with Burke and a bit of baggage) was capturing all the media attention, the goal square extended 20 yards out from the scoreline. Quick conversion confirms that’s an 18-metre goal square – which until a few days ago was being flagged as a radical departure for 2019.

 

This is a heartwarming book for those who believe that, as the estimable Mr Whimpress recently reminded Almanackers, History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.

 

Peter Hudson, speaking in an era where midfield dominance has tilted the perennial battle between offensive and defensive components decidedly in the latter’s favour, is not one of those who think the glorious era of which he was a part – and which we saw in some measure repeated in the ’80s, and again around the turn of the millennium – has vanished forever.

 

‘Nowadays people say there won’t be any more century goalkickers,’ he told the author, ‘but I say bunkum. The real full-forwards aren’t manufactured, they’re born.’

 

But to be at their best the conditions placed on all players must be right. One reason Hudson, McKenna and Wade were so prolific at that time was that in 1969 – yes, 50 years ago next season – the game’s custodians introduced a free kick for the opposing team if a player kicked the ball out on the full. As Coventry notes, ‘scores in the VFL jumped 18 per cent in its first year’.

 

This book tells you why Hudson’s forecast is as accurate as his trusty right boot. Rules will always change – and the latest crop, including yet another reversion to the earliest years when ‘zoning’ was the in thing – are focused on easing congestion, so it will be fascinating to see whether we soon emerge into a new high-scoring era in which coaches (yes, I’m looking at you, Ross Lyon, but not only you) who have prospered by mastering defensive strategies will either ‘adapt or die’.

 

The conundrum persists: which book to devour, which to disregard. If football engages your intellect as well as your soul, either will do. If you chose a science-based curriculum at high school or uni, Footballistics may be the more appealing; if you immersed yourself in the humanities stream, make room for Time and Space (which I wish he’d called Game Changes, or Game Changers, if only to rescue a cliché).

 

But, as both books prove, when it comes to as something dynamic as football, no pattern is fixed, no verdict can be final. So, left with that opening conundrum, I’m going to close by recommending you take pop sage Molly Meldrum’s timeless advice and do yourself a favour. Read them both.

 

 

Time and Space: The Tactics That Shaped Australian Rules – and the Players and Coaches Who Mastered Them

James Coventry, ABC Books, 2015 (ISBN 978 0 7333 3369 9)

RRP $32.99

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footballistics: How the Data Analytics Revolution Is Uncovering Footy’s Hidden Truths

James Coventry, ABC Books, 2018 (ISBN 978 0 7333 3844 1)

RRP $34.99

 

Time and Space is available here: https://www.qbd.com.au/time-and-space-footy-tactics-from-origins-to-afl/james-coventry/9780733333699/

 

Footballistics is available here: https://www.qbd.com.au/footballistics/james-coventry/9780733338441/

 

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Bravo Ken. And bravo James.

    I found much that enthused and informed me in both books.

    I was particularly taken by that stat you reference about the modern inclination to tinker with rules. Surely there’s an underlying comment here on modern managerial ethos? Am I the only one summoning an image of a cat chasing its own tail?

    Great review(s).

    Cheers

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    As well as echoing these sentiments Ken, I’ll point out this Almanac piece regarding the advantage or otherwise of scoring the first goal.

    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/the-first-goal-how-much-of-an-advantage/

  3. Grand stuff – Ken and James.
    I often wonder whether performance stats measure cause or effect? Does a coach determine a game style or his mix of players based on what they are good at? Or does their capacity determine the game style?
    My ongoing frustration is the poor skills of young recruits who have “got away with stuff” at under age level. For my Eagles the poor kicking technique of Liam Duggan is a frustration. As apparent in his first game as in his 50th.
    In US baseball the use of Sabremetrics has a big effect on who is draft, recruited and traded. Would be interesting to know how much science is being used in the AFL. “Feel” and “eye” are less valued in US professional sport recruiting.
    The 360 degree nature and multi-faceted, diverse skills of AFL make it much more difficult to reduce our player attributes to limited factors.
    Fascinating stuff. Thanks.

  4. Dr Goat Boat says:

    Thanks Ken (and James)
    PB, in an era where much is talked of players coming in and just playing a role (sic) it would suggest a determined game style; perhaps shaped around a few key talents. This may evolve further with recent changes to rules.
    I can vouch for 1969 as a game changer, being a back pocket for Blacks who had to adapt his role dramatically (ie try not to kick out on the full as a preferred option!)

  5. James Coventry says:

    Thank you Ken for such a magnificent review – it means a lot to me.

  6. Great review Ken and fantastic writing James. Both books are fascinating reading. There’s definitely more to be said on how coaches and players are applying the stats at a practical level.

    US sports seem to have a such a wealth of publicly available data. Just purchased Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot book on ice hockey; a book in a similar vein to Footballistics.

    João Medeiros’ Game Changers also seems to be a good read on how data science is being applied for sports and other endeavors.

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