Soccer has long been one of the team sports with the least amount of statistics, especially statistics on individual players. Unlike (American) football or baseball, say, there are no regular stops in play that break the game into easily digestible chunks; and unlike basketball, say, the ‘important events’ in soccer—like goals, saves, or shots on goal—are relatively rare, and don’t necessarily reveal which team or players are doing well.
Now Luis Amaral and Josh Waitzman from Northwestern University are bridging that gap using, of all things, the mathematics behind social networks. By treating each pass between players as a “link” it is possible to then measure which players are most “central” to the network created and thus, whose presence most helps the team go. Their new metric appears to correlate fairly well with the soccer establishment’s subjective opinions. Is fantasy soccer around the corner? The story was picked up by a number of news outlets, including the Washington Post, Scientific American, and UPI, as well as the online arms of the Discovery Channel and Sports Illustrated. Amaral and Waitzman’s original paper can be found here.
Addendum: A network approach using passing data was also employed by Javier López Peña and Hugo Touchette from Queen Mary University during the 2010 World Cup to analyze teams’ strategies and predict match winners. According to the article “Mathematical Formula Predicts Clear Favorite for the FIFA World Cup” at ScienceDaily, the network predictions’ accuracy rivaled that of the psychic octopus that caught the eye of the news. Dr. Peña was interviewed on CNN Espanol about the mathematical (non-cephalopod) prediction method.