Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Three Soccer/Football Book Reviews

I was recently made the moderator for a Football Manager-related forum called The FM Reporter, and as part of my duties, I've written a few reviews of some soccer-related books I've read recently, and I thought I would share them here as well.

Inverting the Pyramid: Jonathan Wilson, a writer for The Guardian, The Independent and Sports Illustrated, wrote a rather comprehensive history of the tactics of soccer. I am a man who doesn't have a lot of background with the game, aside from playing FIFA and other games like that, so for one book to give me the confidence and understanding of an entire game

Because the focus is as much the figures and teams that employed these tactics and the reasons why as it is on the tactics themselves, the book becomes a stunningly interesting and informative read once you get into the early 20th century, because it took a while for the game to go from its formative years, where even the forward pass was looked as something foreign to the Englishmen who originally played the game, to a period of increased creativity and tactical thinking. The usual suspects that you would expect to be in a book like this are featured prominently: Jimmy Hogan, Meisl, Hebert Chapman, Rinus Michels, Herrera, Arrigo Sacchi, Alf Ramsey, Bela Guttman, Guszt√°v Sebes, Bilardo and the like. I know I've forgotten to mention quite a few, but I am doing this by memory, so I hope you forgive the lapses.

But the thing that I found very educational about the book wasn't just that it diagrammed the positions of various players for specific historic games or went into the specifics of how a particular formation worked. It was the fact that it discussed why a particular change happened. More often than not, a change in tactics happened when a team had been isolated from international competition and they met up with another international squad which embarrassed them (England vs Hungary 1953 and Argentina at the 1958 World Cup comes to mind). That's the reason you really don't see tactics like the WM or the 2-3-5 any more (though, you never know, it may be such an antiquated formation now that a modern team running a version of it may stun an opponent that had never played against it on the field).

And it is the discussion of why a particular tactic fell out of favor that helped me really grasp soccer formations and tactics... because in thinking about the problem a manager in the past faced, it made me think about the sort of things I was seeing on the field in FM, and variations on the formations I used. It made me start really looking at formations in a critical way, and I think that was helpful for my development as a manager. I didn't try to emulate the formations I read about... I created my own based on the thinking this book inspired. I heartily recommend this book for anyone who is interested in tactics and formations. Even if you don't read it cover to cover, just reading a few chapters/sections might help you get a better grasp on the subject matter.

The Ball Is Round: I first read this book in late 2008, and it made a real impact on me, so when I started playing Football Manager, I decided to buy a copy instead of taking it out from the library again. If I was going to teach a university level course about the history of soccer, this would be the text book I would use as it gives a reader a very good survey of the totality of the game and its development around the world. Although David Goldblatt arguably wrote a popular history of the game, the depth and breadth of his study of the entirety of the subject is astonishing. Of course, given how massive the book is (it is nearly 1000 pages), that is to be expected.

Now, even though the book discusses soccer as a worldwide phenomenon, most of the emphasis is on England, Europe and Latin/South America, though Africa and to a much lesser extent Asia and North America have time devoted to them, but for those latter areas, it is a good start for someone who is interested in the history of soccer in those regions. And in many ways, The Ball is Round is as much a history of the societies that soccer was played in and the changing economics around the game as it is a history of the personalities within the game (but they certainly don't get short shrift either).

I was particularly taken by the sections detailing the dark days of the 1980's, where fan culture, corruption and crowd disasters almost destroyed the sport and the rebirth of soccer as a new entity in the 1990's. And any time someone talks about FIFA, I usually bring this book up as Goldblatt talks about the corruption that has plagued the organization, especially during the Havelange and Blatter years.

Tactics and formations get mentioned every so often, but they really aren't the focus of the book, so be aware of that (and if you are looking for a book that covers the history of tactics, Inverting the Pyramid is the way you want to go).

So if you are looking for a rather comprehensive history of the game, then this is the book for you, and a good jumping off point for more specialized study for a particular region.

Soccernomics: Written by Simon Kuper (Football Against The Enemy) and economist Stefan Szymanski has much in common with the book that may have given rise to it, Freakonomics.

The book discusses and largely debunks a number of the commonly assumed truths about soccer through statistical analysis of large reams of data.

It covers subjects like the seeming underperformance of the English National team, the oddities of the transfer market, the financial insolvency of the sport as a whole (because unless you are one of the big teams, you are likely losing money), penalty kicks, the movement of the major domestic and international silverware from provincial town clubs towards those in increasingly urban/capital areas.

The transfer market myth is that the more you spend on transfers, the more successful your team is going to be long-term when it seems that teams with higher salaries tend to be the winners again and again.

The book also examined soccer (and sport in general) and its correlation to suicide (turns out sports save more fans than it might lead to suicide), and in a related subject, the real reason cities and countries want to build big new stadiums and hold major competitions. It was a surprising revelation that has colored my thinking on the subject.

While it's revelations aren't as delightful as the ones from Freakonomics, it is still a fascinating book, and one worth reading by those interested in soccer.

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I think after 15 years, football/soccer has finally taken root with me.

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