Beauty In Numbers

By John Sloop, columnist.

It’s not so much that soccer is beautiful in its own way, as people are wont to say. It’s more that soccer seems to be beautiful in all the ways, and that people see its beauty in their own way.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently teaching a class entitled Soccer: Media, Art, Culture. One of the great gifts of teaching the course is that I have had a number of guests attend to talk to the students, including Mike Jacobs (General Manager of Nashville Soccer Club) and, just this week, Oliver Miller-Farrell, the Director of Strategy and Analytics for the club. We’re covering a week on analytics (Soccernomics types of issues), so Miller-Farrell was the perfect guest.

While I don’t want to rehearse his entire visit (and he was a very generous guest), there is a moment toward the end of class that is worth sharing. One of the students asked a question something along these lines: “We all call soccer the ‘beautiful game,’ and in this class, we spent one week talking about aesthetics as a philosophical concept and how it related to soccer. Do you still find beauty in the game when you’re looking at all that data?”

Oliver Miller-Ferrell, photo courtesy of Nashville Soccer Club

It’s an interesting question. While Miller-Farrell was a soccer player at Oberlin back in his day, he has his bona fides as a numbers nerd as well. He not only majored in Neuroscience, but he went on to work as a Data Analyst and Business Development Director for Opta Sports and Perform Group. Not only did Miller-Farrell barely hesitate before answering in the affirmative, but he gave such a big smile that you just knew that not only does he see the beautiful game in the numbers, but he absolutely adores looking for it in there.

That smile, and his talk in general, made me realize yet again how transcendent the game is. I’ve never played soccer; I’m certainly no statistician, and, yet, I’m in love with the game. I’ve learned to love the beauty of the run up to a goal, the sublimity of a well placed free kick; the anxiety of watching a goal keeper just barely tipping the ball with his or her finger tips. Even before I could understand how a play was developing, I loved the crowds, the supporter culture, and the wonderful physical energy at every score.

That said, unlike Miller-Farrell or my editor, Ben Wright, while I appreciate the subtlety it takes to develop a concept like expected goals, and while I understand the purpose of such concepts (e.g., it allows NSC to know that our first two games, both losses, were actually closer than one would think), I don’t find any beauty in them. Indeed, even getting close to a discussion of xG makes the game feel more technical to me, less aesthetic, less beautiful. And yet, it’s one of the major ways some folks find the beautiful game: in the buzz of the numbers, the ways stats help explain counterintuitive ideas, the way tendencies and patterns can emerge that hadn’t been noticed prior. In a way, I’m jealous: it seems clear to me that those who find beauty in numbers also find beauty in the flow of play, and I don’t get to have both.

While I’m sure fans of other sports might complain that what I’m saying here about soccer is true of all sports, to be frank, I just don’t believe it. The smile of a Miller-Farrell in the face of a question about the beauty of stats, matches the smile I wear when I watch a no look back heel pass end up with a goal scored in the upper right corner.

It is beautiful.

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