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Book review: Moving the Goalposts, by Rob Jovanovic

A couple of weeks ago I had a fun package arrive at my door. It was a box bearing Rob Jovanovic's new book, Moving the Goalposts, which promises many things. "You'll never look at football in the same way again!" is a good one, as is the blurb "Why Maradona Was Really Useless". Skepticism at those statements aside, I dug in. Far be it from me to pass up an opportunity to read a book about football statistics.

Said book looks fairly imposing at first glance, but Jovanovic's breezy style makes for very quick reading and the episodic format makes the book go by even quicker. Goalposts actually reminded me of reading the archives of a blog that pointed out statistical quirks, occasionally revealing nuggets of deeper insight as well.

Those of you hoping for the footballing equivalent of Moneyball will be disappointed -- there's no overarching narrative here to tie things together, nor are there characters implementing the grand thoughts and ideas central to Michael Lewis' book. Instead, Goalposts should be considered as a fascinating compendium of statistics rather than a revolutionary call to action.

I'm not entirely sure about some of the analysis -- Diego Maradona is declared 'useless', for example, on the back of a comparison between Argentina's performance with and without him, a pseudo-parametric analysis which implicitly assumes that all other variables were held steady while Maradona was cycled in and out of the team.

Some of the segments were also curiously under-developed. Page 148 contains the kernel ("Extra Time and Penalties -- Any Advantage to the Visiting Team?") of what could have been a much longer study on momentum in football. For my money, that would have been the single most important insight provided here.

But the above qualms aren't really particularly important. In Goalposts, Jovanovic casts a rational, critical eye upon the world of football and its cliches, and the information presented is both fascinating and wide ranging. Even if there are occasional questions about methodology and conclusions, that doesn't take much away from the book itself.

If you're a football fan with even the slightest inclination towards maths, I'd tell you to pick it up, Jovanovic has an eye for history which I lack, and I found many of his statistical segments utterly fascinating. It's very easy to get lost in the numbers, and the accompanying text is a fun ride as well. Good stuff.

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