Next year is the football World Cup and we all know what is going to happen should England qualify. They will struggle through the group phase before losing (almost certainly on penalties) in the quarter finals. The nation will, as usual, be disappointed — but, according to football writer Simon Kuper, we should not be.
In a new book, Why England Lose and Other Curious Phenomena Explained, Kuper and co-author Stefan Szymanski apply economics, statistics and psychology to football topics and come up some surprising conclusions.
In their view, England are not, as we all tend to believe, the international game’s perennial under-achievers — on the contrary, we actually do better than we should. Kuper explains: “Our main problem is that, compared to the European football powerhouses — Germany, Italy, France — we don’t have a very large population.
“In terms of wealth, we don’t have an advantage over the other major European powers and the edge in experience we used to have has now been cancelled out too. Having said that, England are consistently the 10th best football playing nation in the world, which is slightly better than where we should be.”
He points out that while England over-achieve to an extent, other countries, such as Holland, Portugal, Croatia and even Georgia, do so spectacularly. So why can’t we be more like them? “We can, but England need to change certain things,” he says. “Historically, we have not been plugged into the European football knowledge network.
Teams like England on the periphery of Europe do worse than those on the Western European mainland. But in the past 15 years we’ve seen London change into a fantastically networked city, and the Premiership is now one of the great European leagues, so that could be changing.”
Kuper does not agree with the popular view that we need more English players in the Premier League. He argues that English players account for 37 per cent of playing time in the Premier League, “more than any other nationality in what is now the world’s toughest league”. In fact, our players play too many games and tend to arrive at the major championships exhausted.
He also thinks English football needs to start including the middle classes. Nearly all footballers are still recruited from the traditional working class — one reason, Kuper thinks, why we are still waiting for the first British Jew to debut in the Premier League. “When you get the middle classes involved, you will get Jewish footballers — the racial idea about Jews being unfit is ridiculous. When football was an amateur game in cities like Budapest and Vienna before the Second World War, there were a lot of Jewish footballers.”
Kuper himself could certainly be described as at the centre of the European football network. Born in Uganda to South African Jewish parents, he was brought up in Holland before moving to England to study and work. He now lives in Paris with his wife and three young children. Having met sports economist Szymanski at a football conference in Turkey, the pair set about using statistics to challenge football’s orthodoxy.
“I wanted to start questioning the assumptions. Like the myth that England are terrifically disappointing and that the manager of a football team is all-important,” he says.
Controversially, Kuper believes that Manchester United’s success has little to do with Sir Alex Ferguson. “We did the numbers and it turns out that players salaries explain almost everything in football. Sir Alex’s achievement has been to remain in charge of United.
“But look at Chelsea — they have changed their managers frequently over the last few years, yet whoever is in charge, they finish on average second in the Premiership and always do well in the Champions League.”
So is there a proven method for a club wanting to achieve more? “Yes. Don’t waste your money on transfers. The most successful clubs spend a high proportion of their money on wages and a low proportion on transfer fees.
When spending, pay more for defenders and goalkeepers who tend to be undervalued and try not to buy centre forwards who are overvalued. And don’t buy teenagers or older players. Buy 20-22 year olds. By that stage you know how good they are going to be but they are not yet over-priced.”
Kuper feels that statistical analysis will become progressively more important in football. “There may be things that you can’t totally measure in football but there is a lot that you can. I spoke to the director of the laboratory that the Italian club AC Milan run to analyse their players. He was saying that without analysis, it’s like having great cars with no dashboards. People are now beginning to install instrument panels and we think of this book as part of that.”