Goodbye Gadiel

I woke up Monday to an email telling me a friend and business partner was dead. Unlike a couple of weeks ago when my grandmother passed away, this was devastating. He was still years away from 30 and I had literally talked to him the day before about work.

I’ve spent the last two days genuinely not knowing what to do with myself. Thankfully work is a bit slow this week, because I haven’t been able to get anything done. I need to talk about him, so today I’m going to tell Gadiel stories about a little shit that grew up into a big shit, but still managed to be pretty loveable along the way.

I first met Gadiel when he was 14 playing at Pro Tour New Orleans in 2003. It was my first Pro Tour for coverage (in this case, for StarCityGames.com), and his first one for competing, having graduated from the Junior Super Series into the big leagues. It’s extremely unusual for someone so young to even make the Pro Tour, but almost everything about Gadiel was unusual, starting with his ridiculous name.

After that Pro Tour, I received a tournament report submission that was consistently laugh out loud funny, but also mean-spirited enough to get me into trouble with Pete Hoefling when I posted it, despite editing it twice to try and tone it down enough for publication. It was from that same 14-year old, and announced his arrival onto the Pro Tour scene in a way no one else ever would.

Even more than a decade later, we genuinely never stopped laughing about Lebarre’s giant forehead, which was originally how his round 5 opponent was listed.

At age 14, he was already a prodigious talent in one of the world’s most difficult intellectual games. He was also a prodigious shit talker, with very little filter or soft skills. He was scathingly honest with everyone, including himself. Needless to say, this lead to complicated social interactions.

Magic as a community communicates differently than the rest of the world. Things are outed as “fucking stupid” constantly, but when someone says it, they are usually correct. The game itself selects for a level of IQ far beyond population norms, and harsh criticism – and learning to accept that – is often the best way to improve your game or someone else’s. Ideas are constantly challenged and destroyed in an environment like almost nowhere else, but it’s not (generally) overtly mean or hurtful, it’s just a process of learning and improvement.

That style of communication isn’t very acceptable in the broader world, and teenage Gadiel was on the extreme end of blunt.

At age 14, Gadiel was already one of the top 500 Magic players in the world. The problem, if you want to call it that, was that he knew it, and was perfectly happy to tell everyone else how bad they were at the game, in detail. Thankfully, he was often quite funny when he was doing it, which meant he ended up with friends and fans as well as haters.

Fast forward a year, and a 15-year old Gadiel was winning Grand Prix: Chicago with teammates Tim Aten and John Pelcak as team :B, a buck-toothed emoji they wanted as a team name. Aten, later a multiple day Jeopardy champion, was one of the better Limited format players of the era and one of the best writers Magic ever produced. Pelcak, or The Cak, was the quiet 3rd member of what had grown into quite a good team of young Magicians. They had a good finish at Pro Tour: Seattle earlier in the year and the win in Chicago kind of cemented the three as “rather good,” but Gadiel would turn out to be the best by quite some distance.

Six months later, and one week after his 16th birthday, Gadiel would win Pro Tour: Philadelphia. From that point forward, he would never stop complaining that his win was one of the least rewarding ever, due to a skins format that Wizards of the Coast would never use again. The poor kid merely cashed $21,000 for his weekend of gaming (the norm was either 35 or 40K), plus ancillary benefits like free airfare for the rest of the Pro Tours that year and a $1,500 check just for showing up.

The game of Magic came easily, as did writing about it. He had a clarity of vision with regard to lines of play few people on Earth could match, and he could cleanly dissect his own play plus that of everyone else and make it easy to understand.

What was difficult was balancing the demands of being a professional gamer, who made tens of thousands a year playing a card game, and hundreds of dollars for every article he wrote, and being a teenager who was still two years away from graduating high school. Unlike some top players who travelled 3 out of 4 weekends in a month, Gadiel mostly just showed up for Pro Tours four times a year and the occasional nearby Grand Prix. His parents kept him grounded with what was actually important, like finishing school, as opposed to spending all his time playing a fantasy card game for money.

That’s not to say he didn’t have fun. He did. Drunken karaoke happened in Japan well under the age of 18, and the tales of what happened in Prague with The Cak and Chris McDaniel are strictly not for public consumption. The words “The World’s Largest Brothel” may or may not have been involved. During that time, I was his editor at Star City, a fan, and a bit of a mentor trying to keep a young genius I liked out of as much trouble as the world had to offer.

I honestly believe if he had continued to give a shit about playing Magic, he would have ended as one of the best players ever. He didn’t though. Life had a lot more to offer him and he was more interested in that than in grinding hours keeping up with the Magic scene.

About the time I was stepping away from Magic to work at Pinnacle in the Caribbean, Gadiel finished high school and headed to Stanford. We’d interact once in a while via Facebook, but he was having fun at one of the world’s best universities with his fraternity brothers and I was neck deep in the world of professional sports betting.

I think because we were both from Chicago and liked sports, we started talking more as he graduated and went into the world of finance. Da Bulls were a regular topic of discussion, especially since he worked overnight shifts and was often bored, but Gadiel was well-read and a voracious learner, so any topic was possible.

That said, contact was only occasional until his dad’s stroke. When that happened, I saw him unravel and we talked every day for a long time. There were few constants about the growth of the boy into a man, but perhaps the overriding one was an adoration of his parents. Igal’s stroke hit him so hard, not least because it made Gadiel feel completely and utterly powerless to help. Smart, highly-motivated people often have difficulty adapting to issues completely out of their control, and here Gadiel – for once – was just like the rest of us.

He sought me out because he knew I’d gone through cancer bullshit previously and he wanted to talk about how I handled it emotionally, as well as how I talked to my family about it. I don’t know why because it’s certainly not my usual role, but I ended up a bit of a counsellor to him about loss, grieving, fighting in whatever way you were allowed, and holding on to hope that things were going to get better. Gadiel’s dad survived, and still does, but I think Gadiel found the change in his father painful to accept.

In spring 2016, he was visiting Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and started asking me who I thought might be good to see. We got to chatting at that point about what I was up to, and I said I was likely leaving Brentford and Midtjylland soon and trying to figure out what was next. He told me his dad’s condition, and having to be back in Chicago to help him recover, sidelined a new hedge fund venture he had started, and maybe it was something we should talk about, since he needed help.

I came on board as an advisor, and we worked together almost literally every day for the last 18 months. He was just as sharp as ever, but along with the brain these days came a bit more tact and insight into the human condition. Our sporting interests now crossed over completely, and we talked about eventually producing NBA radars using advanced stats across positions, much in the same way as I had produced the soccer ones years earlier. His true passion was the NBA, so watching the Bulls completely shit the bed with their free agent moves the last two summers was a shared pain.

He’d also grown into a huge foodie, and we’d compare and contrast experiences at various restaurants around the world. The last time I saw him, we had literally one of the best meals either of us had ever eaten at Azurimendi outside Bilbao.

He was still unfiltered though, both in his communication and his requests for feedback. The brutal honesty was there, but most of the meanness was gone, especially for people inside the circle of friends. He also listened, but sometimes to a fault, reading too much into nothing statements from people around him. Generally though, I found the honesty of our communication refreshing. It was a far cry from guarded corporate communications or English life, and even further from the often passive aggressive positivity of the football world.

The email from his father announcing Gadiel’s death felt initially like a hoax, and part of me wants to believe this is an Andy Kaufmannesque stunt instead of a new reality where my friend is gone. I still have the messages from him this weekend talking about his read for a business deal on the table and what the counter offer should look like. He was also annoyed that he hadn’t gathered all the possible cash he could and bet it on Mayweather against McGregor. Professional gamers gonna game, and he was one of the very very best.

He was also a frustrating, often lazy genius, but someone I watched grow up, and who came to me for advice in a crushing time of need. To be honest, right now I desperately wish he was around so that I could do the same.

Rest in peace, my friend. You are gone far too soon, but I’m glad you got to see the Cubs win before you died. And I’m glad you got those extra years with your dad. I know they were hard, but I hope you managed to enjoy them all the same.

If there’s a next life, I hope your Tinder game brings you as much joy as it did in this one. Maybe you’ll get a chance to take over the Bulls – it’s clear they desperately need someone like you for guidance.

As much as I’ll miss you, I know your parents will even more. Children should never, ever pass before their parents, and especially not when they are loved as much as you.

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Does Your Manager Suck? Let’s Find Out!

brucey_babyOne of the things I’ve been mulling over recently is how team stats are both a reflection of the players and of the man in charge. Even in this era of unprecedented player power, a team’s manager still picks the team sheet, and players generally need to do what the manager wants in order to stay in the lineup.

But when it comes to managerial evaluation, more than anywhere else in football, it is incredibly hard to divorce personality from performance. Managers who are grumpy gits with no sense of humor get away with far less than the slick salesmen whose performance is never more than average wherever they land. Strong tactical, technical managers who aren’t that great with the press often seem less fondly remembered than their less successful, but smoother talking counterparts.

How can analytics help with regard to manager evaluation, and better separate the good managers from the bad?

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Things We Think We Know About Football – July 2013

Some days it’s good to take a step back from the daily deluge of information and try to organize what you think you have learned recently. I’ve been writing regularly on football analytics for about six weeks now (and off and on for seven months), and I’d say half the topics I’ve covered are based on poking around the data, and the other half are riffs on insight from other writers. I certainly feel a lot smarter about the game and about analytics than I did before, but what do I really know? And more generally, what do people in the analytics community think they know about the game that maybe they didn’t a month or two ago?

Crosses Are Bad
There are a couple of references for this that I really like. The first ones are from WillTGM, who looked at crossing generally as well as in the context of Liverpool, last summer. Will’s task was to look at whether Liverpool chose to play a heavy-crossing game tactically the year Kenny Dalglish was fired, and then to investigate whether that type of tactical choice is particularly effective at generating goals. I’m linking to the whole category of pieces he did, because they are really well written, explore a number of different aspects, and should basically be required reading for anyone interested in the topic from an analytics perspective.

Will concludes that open play crossing is extremely difficult (20.5% accuracy vs. nearly 34% from set pieces), and that most teams aren’t very efficient at converting them into goals. Liverpool did indeed choose to cross the ball an awful lot that season, but goals did not pour in as a result. In general, nobody is effective at turning crosses into goals. (I’m shortchanging the work a bit here when I summarize – he covered all sorts of useful stuff. Just go read them.)

theowalcott_crossThe second one is from @footballfactman, looking at Theo Walcott’s crossing, which is deemed a) generally inaccurate and b) surprisingly devastating. Paul digs a little deeper and discovers that most of Walcott’s assists are from short (presumably low) crosses and pullbacks. In fact, from having watched Arsenal constantly, I would guess the majority of Theo’s crosses period have been low and hard, and he had an almost psychic relationship with RVP and that near post run. This is dramatically different from what you would typically get from Golden Balls or Leighton Baines. Because of this style, they are easier for defenders to simply cut out and clear, but they also result in a reasonable amount of goals when completed. It would be interesting to see how many of the cutouts from this type of pass result in possession going right back to the attacking team, since they don’t see very controllable.

The point here is that crossing is really hard. Even Baines, who is one of the best in the Premier League at completing them, only succeeds in finding a teammate 30% of the time.

Headed Shots Are Bad
This one is fascinating because if you do the surface analysis, it looks like this.

heads1_colin

That image is taken directly from Colin Trainor’s seminal examination of the subject , and if you stop at the surface examination you suddenly think “WOW, headers are the way to go. They are just as accurate as ground shots, they are three times less likely to be blocked, 10% less likely to be saved (based on percentage comparison), and 33% more likely to score a goal. Those numbers are massive!”

Not so fast, my friend.

This… this is the area where good, detailed analysis comes into play.

When controlled for location as Colin did, headers are considerably worse at scoring than ground shots in every single spot on the pitch. The only thing that makes headers look so amazing is that they are all taken relatively close to the goal. Meanwhile, ground shots come from everywhere (even though they shouldn’t – that’s a topic for a different day).

Headed Passes Are Bad Too
This one came up as a result of the piece I wrote complaining about how big forwards don’t fit into Arsenal’s general strategy, so why does Wenger keep buying them?!? Anyway, it sparked a bigger discussion that not only deserves its own article, it also indicates a need to change the way we break out and display passing stats. Here’s the quick hit:

Player Ground PS% Ground Pass Head PS% Headed Pass Total PS%
Giroud 77.9% 430 39.3% 234 64
Dzeko 79.5% 517 32.1% 131 69
Ibrahimovic 78.5% 1165 41.4% 111 75
Van Persie 86.4% 831 39.6% 91 80
Lewandowski 78.9% 560 42.3% 123 72
Carroll 81.8% 340 38.6% 321 61

*pause for effect*

Headed passes from forwards are half as likely to be completed as ones on the ground.

There is sense to this. The hits that players take when trying to head the ball would be instant fouls if anyone did the same when they are standing on the ground. Additionally, the quality of the aerial ball itself is so much more important than the quality of a ball played to your feet. A headed pass is a first-time pass, every time. Oh, and unlike a pass along the ground, the trajectory of the ball now exists in three dimensions instead of two. Heading is just really bloody hard.

Andy Carroll has nearly equal amounts of attempted passes with his feet as his head – of course he’s going to look terrible. Maybe the problem isn’t with passing skill with the big forwards, maybe the problem lies with the approach?

Obviously it’s an important part of the game, but heading the ball simply isn’t something you want your offensive players to do a lot of if you can help it.

Passing Bleed Is Bad
I discussed this in brief when I talked about Olivier Giroud at Arsenal, but it deserves application on a broader scale.  Central midfielders pass the ball 50 to 80 times a match. A 5% difference in player completion percentage is 3-4 passes a match. A 10% difference means 6-8 more failed passes in the central midfield, and at that point it really starts to matter. It also has a trickle-down effect into what kind of passes your team has to make to be safe, and what kind they are capable of making to attack (think long, diagonal balls to wide forwards on the counter-attack).

Passing percentages vary widely due to tactical considerations, but if you control for those types of things, you want the best passers possible all over your squad. Choosing a player with a 5% lower success rate that makes up for it in other areas is fine, occasionally. However, 5% worse across an entire team that passes 500 times a match results in 25 more possessions for the opposition, every game.

Lesser passers bleed away possession to the opposition, and eventually that bleeding will lead to goals.

Football is Inherently About Percentages
It’s true, and the game does not give a damn whether people care about this or not, because it is imposed as one of the basic structures of playing football.

I know that’s statty/geeky as hell, but it is a simple, obvious truth. The sooner this is accepted, the sooner people can go about applying the principles to make their teams better.

Conclusion: Strategies that revolve around crossing and heading are hugely inferior strategies.

Look, this isn’t my conclusion, this is what math says.

Crossing is hard.
Heading is hard.
Passing the ball as a header? Also really hard.

So why would any manager choose to do it regularly?

I have two theories on this, from two different angles.

1)      This approach makes sense if it is rare and teams are unprepared for it. If the vast majority of the league plays normally, and your squad employs a physical, aerial approach, teams may be uncomfortable playing that style of football and you have an advantage. However, once a number of teams play this style, counter-strategies (like putting four centerbacks in the lineup across the back line and/or playing all your tall players) come into play that destroy this.

2)      It’s cheaper to play this way than competing with other teams for “normal” players. I might believe this if I didn’t see how much Sam Allardyce and especially Stoke had spent on players in the last five years.

So uh yeah… I don’t think either of my theories make logical sense anymore. Therefore I honestly don’t know why any smart manager, and especially an analytically savvy one, would choose this avenue for their team.

Mixed Strategies Are Not Only Good, They Are Vital
So this is where it gets tricky. Crosses are bad. Balls in the air are bad. Headed shots are inferior to ones on the ground from the same location.

BUT

Image from thetimes.co.uk

Image from thetimes.co.uk

You need to be able to perform all of these at a reasonable level in order to make your opponent respect they are part of the arsenal. You need to threaten from wide to keep the defense from simply packing the box so tightly nothing ever gets through.  You also really need to be able to head the ball well to have a chance at scoring goals from longer free kicks and corners.  So even when they aren’t deployed as a primary avenue of attack, these things need practice, and work, and players who have the skill to turn them into threats.

However, when you bring it back to percentages, they don’t have to be the primary or even the secondary options. You need to enact them just enough that your opponents don’t know what’s coming all the time.

The interesting thing is, when applied in this fashion, the effectiveness of these lower percentage plays often goes up. Teams get so focused on shutting down the central passing and lateral movement, that they overbalance and leave the break to the byline open. Suddenly defenders are scrambling to prevent a free break on your keeper, and the cutback to the penalty spot is completely open.

Central defenders’ legs get tired from chasing speedy guys around for 75 minutes, and they no longer defend aerial crosses to the far post as well. Chicharito/Dzeko have a late-game feeding frenzy.

The short corners you keep taking pull out not just one, but two extra men from the box, and that was the guy that was supposed to mark the player on your team who just got an open header.

So yeah, all those things listed above are bad, but… you can’t just play it on the ground all the time, or your team becomes predictable and easier to stop . Mixed strategies aren’t just recommended, they are vital when it comes to success. This is true whether your team is trying to pass the ball into the back of the net every game, or whether your manager has procured Andy Carroll as the pack horse for their own special brand of hoof ball.

Brain dump, finished.

Class dismissed!

–TK

Holy Shit, Football Is A Game Where Every Team Plays the Percentages

rollingdiceI haven’t written this article yet because my brain has been chewing its cud here for some time. It’s not hyperbole to say this is the single most important concept guiding my analytics research and the way I think about the game. It is addressed with the briefest of kisses in the Giroud article, but it’s a topic you can write a book on and someone, at some point, almost assuredly will.

As the title indicates, everything in football comes down to actions, and how successful you are at completing those actions. In short, percentages. We never think about it this way, but just by playing football, you are inevitably throwing yourself into the hands of the probability gods, and the only way to push them to guarantee your favour is to create better percentages.

Confused? Don’t be… there are examples bloody everywhere.

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What the Hell Are We Doing? Goals and Transfer Shopping

ss_moneyball_gunshipToday’s piece is inspired by the early summer transfer signings. The goals in the title don’t refer to actual goals that are scored on the pitch, though that’s what I normally write about. Today, the word “goals” is referring to team milestones.

Literally, what is your team trying to accomplish this year?

Are they simply hoping to survive in the top tier of football? To snuggle deep into mid-table obscurity? To compete for a spot in Europe? To get into the Champions League? To win the Champions League?

All of those goals have different requirements in terms of what kind of players your team should be buying, how much they should be spending, how many players are needed in the first place, etc. Everything in football has a cost, not just in terms of £££, but also in terms of expenditure.  Money is a resource, but so are effective player minutes. At some point, rotation becomes absolutely vital, even for smaller teams.

Want your team to make a deep cup run or two? You either need a bigger squad, or you can expect it to cost you places in the league. Given how much the English Premier League now pays out in prize money based on league finish, that money adds up quickly.

Want your team to compete for the Europa League as well? That will burn a lot of player minutes. The more minutes your team plays, the more likely they are to get injured. If your first team is absorbing all of those minutes, then your best players will be the ones who get injured, and that has an effect on every other competition you are in. Also, even if nobody really mentions this, fatigue is totally a thing.

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Why Good Teams Should Be Terrified of Players With Bad Passing Stats

giroud_double_denimThose of you that follow me on Twitter may have seen me mention my general confusion at Arsene’s Wenger’s “big man” policy. For years, Wenger has purchased (or in Bendtner’s case, pushed the development of) tall forwards, while being generally happy to buy midgets for placement in the rest of the team.

This is odd for a lot of reasons.

The first reason is that building a speedy, zoomy, variable attack and then plonking a tall, slow guy in the center of it is strange. Granted, they are probably not that slow for tall guys, but compared to Walcott and Gervinho, Chamakh, Bendt, and Giroud are noticeably not fast.  It takes attacking build-up play that can be really difficult to mark, and suddenly simplifies it dramatically for the defense. Why? Van Persie moves like a cat, but he’s only six feet tall. Adebayor was the one tall forward that worked for Arsenal, but he has a fairly unique skill set in that he’s tall, fast, has a good first touch, and is totally unplayable when he cares. Which is about 10% of the time. If Wenger was going for the Adebayor ideal, none of these other guys come close to matching up.

The second thing that bugs me are the percentages.  People always say “you want your forwards involved in build-up play.” This is a general truism, but it makes sense. You want all of your attacking players involved in build-up play because it moves the defense around, and makes your attack less predictable.

But what if your forward isn’t very good at passing the ball?

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