Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On YouTube, Gennaro Gattuso, and Malcolm Gladwell

YouTube is filled with soccer player highlight packages, usually homemade, and almost always bottomed by spirited debates in the comments section about whether or not the featured athlete is “the greatest in the world.” The majority of these highlight packages feature speedy stikers, like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Alessandro Del Piero, or crafty playmakers like Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, and Ronaldinho.

Watching these kinds of players, with their stupefying dribbles and rocket shots, it’s hard to imagine how a player like Gennaro Gattuso, who scores few goals and even fewer impressive goals, could fit into any discussion about “the greatest player in the world.”

He certainly isn’t the most spectacular. Gattuso’s role for Italian club A.C. Milan is to command the midfield, making important tackles, creating turnovers, chasing loose balls, and carrying the ball downfield – pretty unglamorous stuff. Yet Gattuso is very good in this role. He is quick, strong, and a fine tackler. He routinely covers over 10,000 metres of ground every game he plays. He also argues with referees, encourages him teammates, brings fans into the game, and annoys and frustrates opponents, usually by delivering hard fouls or drawing them through dives. If Gennaro Gattuso played hockey, he would be Don Cherry’s favourite competitor.

In a New Yorker book review published last May, Malcolm Gladwell argues that sports fans, analysts and commentators, too often use their eyes to measure a player’s worth. “All we learn is to appreciate twisting and turning and writhing,” he writes. “We become dance critics.” In a game like soccer, the dancers are the players who put the ball in the net, and the finest dancers are the ones who do it with flash and flare. So we elevate the Messis, the Ronaldos, and the Zidanes and underrate the Gattusos, the Emersons, and the Claude Makélélés, who are often equally, if not more essential to a team’s success.

Gladwell’s solution to this problem is statistical analysis. He writes about a book called The Wages of Wins by economists David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt, and Stacey L. Brook, which uses stats to calculate the merit of professional basketball players. “Weighing the relative value of fouls, rebounds, shots taken, turnovers, and the like, they’ve created an algorithm that, they argue, comes closer than any previous statistical measure to capturing the true value of a basketball player. The algorithm yields what they call a Win Score, because it expresses a player’s worth as the number of wins that his contributions bring to his team.”

Soccer, like basketball, is a team game. An individual’s contributions are only valuable in relation to how much they help his team win. Unlike basketball, soccer is not a game where many statistics are gathered. It is therefore impossible to do for soccer what Berri, Schmidt, and Brook did for basketball. But we should at least understand that awe-inspiring runs and fancy footwork aren’t the only, or even most important assets a player can have. We should give Gennaro Gattuso and players like him their due respect.

Maybe someone has already figured this out. Last year, Fabio Cannavaro was the first defender named FIFA World Player of the Year in the award’s fifteen-year history.

Tomorrow: The dope on cycling.


Blogger M-C said...

He's a good player and one of the few Italian stars I cheer for. But let's be honest. You like him because he looks like you.

1:50 PM  
Blogger M-C said...

He's a good player and one of the few Italian stars I cheer for. But let's be honest. You like him because he looks like you.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Marco Ursi said...

I admit the look (particularly the beard) is a major selling point. And I should point out here that I don't necessarily think Gattuso is the best player in the world. But compare Milan with him to Milan without him and you'll notice a real difference in quality.

2:38 PM  

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