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Why England Lose by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski

Release date: 06th August, 2011
Publisher: Harper Sport

List Price: £15.99
Our Price: £6.99
You Save: £9 (56%)
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"At last," says this book's pre-publication blurb, "football has its answer to [questions] such as 'why do Newcastle United buy the wrong players' [and] how could Nottingham Forest go from winning the European Cup to the depths of League One?"

Both are worthy of detailed, multi-volume encyclopaedias and are far too involved to explore here, but if you're searching for a thought-provoking analysis of the beautiful game, then Why England Lose & Other Curious Phenomena Explained will have you looking at the new football season through a completely different pair of eyes.

And that's the whole point: to make readers examine readily available football-related data and statistics in a fresh way or, to quote the blurb, "it's about revealing counterintuitive truths about football."

Unlike the national football team, Why England Lose is especially good on penalties as the consideration of penalty shoot-outs shows.

The authors suggest that the team winning the toss and choosing which side goes first in a shoot out are faced with 'a no-brainer'. "They should always go first," say Kuper and Szymanski. "Teams going first win 60% of the time, presumably because there's too much pressure on the team going second."

The pair revisit the 2008 Champions League Cup final and John Terry's inopportune slip during the penalty shoot-out which cost Chelsea the game. Prior to this, everything had gone Chelsea's way and to prove their point, the authors go back to 1995, a Chicago University graduate student named Ignacio Palacios-Huerta and his burgeoning study of penalty kicks, eventually published in 2003.

Palacios-Huerta had a friend who knew of his research who happened to be a professor of economics and mathematics at an Israeli university. When Chelsea reached the final, the professor put him in touch with the Blues' manager, Avram Grant. Palacios-Huerta sent Grant a report that made four important points about Manchester United and penalties, one of which was, if you win the toss, take the opening kick. Each of his three other points were, if you'll excuse the pun, spot-on and while Palacios-Huerta doesn't know for sure if his report was implemented as Chelsea's 'penalty policy', the information he sent Avram Grant was applied to the letter - until JT slipped.

Why England Lose is packed with similar examples of fascinating investigative work. Having analysed penalty kicks, the authors have an opportunity to wander off at a tangent and consider 'game theory', developed in the 1940s by mathematicians then working on the architecture of the modern computer. Here they find time to include details of a paper written by Steven Levitt, author of the best-selling Freakonomics who, believe it or not, pored over videos of more than 450 penalties taken in the French and Italian leagues before writing the marvellously-named Testing Mixed-Strategy Equilibria When Players are Heterogeneous: The Case of Penalty Kicks in Soccer, a catchy title that didn't quite make the best-selling lists.

Prospective readers should not be put off by talk of data, equilibria, mathematicians and university studies: Why England Lose succeeds in making you look at football in a completely different way, though your reviewer remains uncertain about Newcastle United and why they show a propensity to sign indifferent players...


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