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In The Era Of Advanced Stats, Soccer Still Lags Behind

Welcome to the latest episode of Hot Takedown, FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast. On this week’s show (Oct. 11, 2016), we bring you another edition of “Stat School.” That usually means that Statman, aka Neil Paine, will walk us through three levels of increasingly advanced statistics. But this time, the Statman hands his cape over to ESPN’s Mike Goodman, who serves as our guide to the complicated world of soccer statistics. Mike talks us through the three eras of soccer stats and explains why, in the world of soccer, analytics are still not a big part of the public discussion.

Also, remember to check the Hot Takedown feed on Thursday for the first installment in our documentary series, Ahead Of Their Time. The series looks at coaches and players who did something radical and weren’t really recognized in their era, but who have since been proven right by analytics. The first episode is about Lou Boudreau, Joe Maddon and the defensive shift.

Here are the three eras of soccer stats discussed in this week’s podcast:

Era one: The land of no stats

Throughout most of soccer’s history, the only things people counted during games were goals. A few people (such as Wing Commander Charles Reep) manually tracked events like passes and shots, but otherwise soccer statistics remained in the Stone Age right up to the new millennium.

Era two: The age of Opta data

Around the early 2000s, the statistics company Opta started counting shots and shots on target. These stats quickly formed the basis for a metric called expected goals, an advanced model of how goals are scored that accounts for previously unquantifiable factors like shot quality and shot position. Right now, expected goals is one of the most advanced public-facing stats in soccer analytics.

Era three: The future

The next big step for soccer statistics will be public player-tracking data based on technology like the SportVU cameras used in basketball arenas. Some companies are already providing this kind of data to teams, but right now it’s not available to the public.


Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Kate Fagan is a writer for espnW and a regular panelist on the FiveThirtyEight sports podcast Hot Takedown.

Joe Sykes produces our weekly sports podcast Hot Takedown.