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Liverpool: Winning the Champions League and Mathematics

Champions League
Photo: Tolga Bozoglu / EFE


When Liverpool won the Champions League in Madrid, the fans were not interested in mathematics. Well, maybe a little, the only numbers they needed were the 2-0 victory over Tottenham. They were overcome with such joy that they had forgotten about the funds they needed to have, for flights and hotels, in order to be in Madrid that weekend.

But to win the Champions League the Liverpool management needed to crunch other numbers. The owner of the team is American tycoon and owner of the Boston Red Sox,  John W. Henry. A millionaire broker and fanatic of mathematical predictions, Henry knew the power of studying statistics when he hired one of the men who inspired the film Moneyball. A report by Ian Graham, a Cambridge physicist, and mathematician, persuaded him, in 2015, to sign Jürgen Klopp, a German coach who had been able to get to the Champions League. Klopp had managed to get the Borussia Dortmund team many goal opportunities, even if they did not materialize on their own. Luck is a factor, even for a mathematician. But the probability is what makes the difference: the more times you approach the goal, the closer you are to fortune smiling on you.

We do not want to take away from the fans who sing their hearts out to You’ll Never Walk Alone at Anfield Stadium. But Liverpool is a clear example that mathematics and analysis of statistics have come to stay in soccer. It’s true that it takes away a bit of the romance. There is less focus on scouts going to see players play live, gauge their character and physical resistance, and more focus on mathematicians crunching numbers on their computers.

The laptop gurus analyze passes, goal attempts, injuries and time with the ball to attack. As demonstrated by the surprise team in Spain, Getafe, this is also true for injury prediction. The team employed an Israeli tech company which can predict when players can be on the verge of an injury. As a result of this, the team has had the least injuries in the Spanish La Liga.

But back to Ian Graham, the protagonist of an extensive report done by the New York Times (NYT). As a boy, he was a fan of Liverpool and grew up during a wonderful time for the team. He now has a team of analysts who study the numbers – games, players, and opponents. His conclusions, ”along with doctoral mathematics” according to NYT, are passed to the bench formatted in a way that can be easily understood, like advice from a coach.

One of Graham’s greatest responsibilities is to tell the club who they have to sign and who to let go, depending on the statistics he studies. He is not influenced by videos so that player favoritism does not come into play with the decision. How did a Cambridge student with a Ph.D. in Physics get this responsibility? Graham studied a field in which he saw more past than future and had stopped exciting him. He then learned that a London startup was looking for employees with mathematics and physics backgrounds to do data analysis in the soccer world. After looking at the numbers – and most likely a personal interview – they signed him on and told him to read Moneyball.

Many years later, he’s working for one of the books main characters and Liverpool has won the Champions League. It isn’t just Graham and Liverpool You’ll Never Walk Alone, there is also a mathematician and astrophysicist on the team.

Here you have another story for when children ask, ‘What’s the point of math?’

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Diane Ackerman
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