top of page

The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Here are my notes from the soccer book The Numbers Game. It was a terrific read and illuminates many misconceptions that we may have about the game. Overall, the thesis is that through analyzing certain data in the game, we create a way of thinking about the game that ignores the obvious in favor of how things actually are.

The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally

(why everything you know about soccer is wrong)

Coaching Discoveries:

  • Analytics is not about trying to use the numbers to prove a theory, but to see what the numbers actually tell us, to discover if our beliefs are correct, and if they aren’t, to inform us what we should believe instead p.22

  • Fact: It is immediately after they have scored that teams are least likely to concede p.23

  • Fact: A team that shoots more will have more corners. However, the total number of goals a team scores does not increase with the number of corners it wins p.24

  • Fact: Only One in five corners lead to a shot on goal p.26

  • Fact: The average Premier League team scores a goal from a corner every ten games p.26

  • We have come to the conclusion that soccer is basically a 50/50 game. Half of it is skill, half of it is luck. p.37

  • Soccer is not figure skating. There are no points for style. p.38

  • Goals really are rare and precious events: more than 30 percent of matches end with one goal or none p.46

  • In soccer, the favorite team wins only 50 percent of the time… this idea clashes with everything we think we know about the game p.54

  • The team that shoots more actually wins less than half the time p.63

  • As a coach all you can do is deny fortune as much of its role as you possibly can. That means taking your budget, your players, your club, and getting the most out of them that you possibly can p.65

  • Defenders averaged 63 touches of the ball per ninety minutes in the 2010/11 Premier League Season, with midfielders on 73 and forwards down to 51. p. 79

  • The most essential elements of the sport differ very little across countries and leagues p. 87 (the nature of the sport is incredibly uniform at the top level)

  • As soon as you score your fifth goal you can reasonably expect to have guaranteed victory p.99

  • The most valuable goal in a game is the second (increasing the team’s predicted point value by 0.99) p. 100--- important to realize that all goals are not worth the same value

  • “We play leftist soccer. Everyone does everything.” Pep Guardiola p.113

  • When it comes to avoiding defeat, the goals that clubs didn’t concede were each 33 percent more valuable than the goals they scored. P.119

  • Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to win a title or avoid relegation if you have a better back line, regardless of how many goals your strikers can produce. P.120

  • There is no such thing as having a ‘hot hand’ p.124

  • To Xabi Alonso, tackling happens when something goes wrong, not right p.127

  • It turns out that clean sheets on average produce almost 2.5 points per match. Compared to scoring a goal, which on average earns a team about one point per match, not conceding is more than twice as valuable. P.130

-Goals that don’t happen are more valuable than those that do! P.130

  • “If we have the ball, they can’t score” Johan Cruyff p.135

  • On average, players have the ball for a total of 53.4 seconds and ran 191 meters (about 209 yards) with it during the course of a match p.142

  • In the past three years Premier League sides have turned the ball over about 190 times per match p.145

  • 6 in 100 possessions yield a shot on goal and 0.74 in 100 of these actually yield a goal. Soccer is not a possession sport. It’s a game of managing constant turnovers p.145

  • Passes account for well over 80 percent of events on the pitch p.146

  • Possession is turnover free passing p.146

  • “Many players put themselves in difficult passing situations because they dwell on the ball too long and upon receiving the ball are not able to reposition their bodies in a way that opens up the field” p.147

  • “Good teams are not better at passing than bad ones. They simply engineer more easy passes in better locations, and therefore limit their turnovers” p.148

  • “The real difference between victory and defeat was that successful teams retained possession significantly longer than unsuccessful ones, whatever the score was at the time” p.154

  • Having the ball is both an offensive and defensive measure p.154

  • Pass completion percentages are nice, but avoiding turnovers is the most potent weapon of all p.157

  • The longer the passing sequence, the better the odds of being capped off with a goal p.169

  • Long-ball clubs have fewer chances to score and therefore score fewer goals p.171

  • Subjective information: scouting, coaching evaluations, reading news, etc but objective information: data, allows managers to make the best possible decision. P.183

  • Soccer data collecting companies: OptaSports, Amisco/Prozone, StatDNA, Match Analysis p.183

  • Strategy is for course of season. Tactics are for course of a game. P.186

  • When underdogs choose not to play by Golliath’s rules, they win p.187

  • If you want to build a team for success, you need to look less at your strongest links and more at your weakest ones p.200

  • “We knew that Zidane, Raul, and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that’s reactionary soccer. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplying effect on the players’ abilities” p.213

  • The weak links are the crucial determinant in a team or a company’s success, not the strong ones p.217

  • Like the space shuttle, one small malfunctioning part can cause a multimillion dollar disaster p.222

  • It’s the manager’s job to minimize the potential impact of his worst player, both on the pitch and over the course of a season p.225

  • Options for dealing with weakest link: 1.) hide him 2.) Reinforce with a strategy 3.) Substitute him 4.) try to improve him 5.) sell him

  • If losing, use the <58<73<79 minute rule for substituting… the manager should therefore substitute before his eyes and brain tell him to p.239

  • Individuals perform better when working with a more capable partner p.242

  • Xavi Hernandez has detailed how Barcelona’s practice sessions revolve around short passing exercises, so that even the worst technical player grows used to passing and moving, passing and moving p.245

  • 10,000-hour rule needed to master any skill p.275

  • Sackings do not improve club performances. Clubs simply regress to the mean p.286

  • Managers must be confrontational, angry, and passionate at times. But the better managers know when to deploy such tactics and when to use a different approach p.291

  • Soccer is largely about triangle p.297


I am a youth and college soccer coach who is passionate about making coaching my career and helping assist players in their development. I am always trying to learn from the game and always willing to share with others the insights I have made from the game. If you have coaching tips or materials you would like to share, just contact me.

See social media links on the 'Contact' page.

bottom of page