Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden (Shane's book 22, 2010)

The thing that I love most about American Football is that it's two games in one. Most obviously there is the physical battle between two teams of highly specialised, skilled athletes. Behind that, however, is the tactical battle between two teams of coaches who constantly adjust their deployment of players in an attempt run a play that the opposition can't stop. Layden's book sheds light on that tactical battle. [amtap book:isbn=1603200614]

He looks at 22 different plays, schemes and formations - 18 offensive and four defensive - and traces their development while also explaining what made, or makes, them so successful. Drawing on interviews with numerous coaching legends, Layden also tells the story of some of the game's great tactical innovators.What's interesting about Layden's findings is that innovation is most often the result of a coach with a limited pool of players trying to find a way to defeat a more talented side. Superior tactics are a good way to even the odds.

The other significant driver of innovation is the need to make use of a particularly talented individual. In the case of the Miami Dolphins, for example, who recently adopted the radical Wildcat formation, it was the need to get two talented individuals - Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown - on the field at the same time.

Layden covers the Wildcat scheme in this book and shows that its development was much more of an evolutionary process than it initially appeared when the Dolphins broke it out against the New England Patriots two years ago. Indeed, one of the themes that runs through the book is that tactical changes in football are fluid and constant. Nobody ever really invents anything, Layden explains, because ideas are constantly being shared, copied and tweaked.

That thesis is slightly contradicted by Layden's focus on particular individuals. The need to create a narrative means that Layden frequently attributes 'eureka moments' to specific coaches - something that is at odds with his overall assertion that nobody ever really invents anything.

Another problem, for me at least, was the constant parade of names, both of coaches and college teams. I know NFL football well enough to follow the teams and coaches mentioned. My knowledge of college football, however, is limited and I often had trouble remembering who was who when Layden was discussing college football. That's a problem with my background knowledge rather than with the book, though.

It probably goes without saying that you have to be an American Football fan to get anything out of this book. In fact, to get the most from it, you'll need a basic understanding of the game's tactics and a little knowledge of its history. Those prerequisites in mind, this is a fascinating read, clearly written, that will enhance most fans' enjoyment of the sport.

Why England Lose by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (Shane's book 16, 2010)

During the last World Cup I read Ken Bray's excellent How To Score, which examines football from a scientific perspective. I decided to warm up for the 2010 World Cup with this book, which offers an economist's view of the game. [amtap book:isbn=0007354088]

It's quite clearly influenced by the success of Freakonomics - indeed, in the US it's called Soccernomics. The publishing industry's infatuation with economic analyses of x, y and, in all likelihood, z might be on the wane but if you've been dying to publish an economist's perspective on flower arranging, say, or spot welding, then there's probably never been a better time.

Kuper and Szymanski's thesis is that success in international football can be largely explained by three factors: population size, GDP and international experience. Thus countries that have played a lot of international matches over many years, richer countries or countries with larger populations will tend to do better.

Of course, that's not the same as saying those countries will always do better but they will tend to. Brazil, for example, vastly out-perform their expected level based on those factors. Even England do a little bit better than a country with its resources would be expected to.

There's an implied contradiction, then, in the fact that the authors proceed to analyse ways that England could perform better. If England are already out-performing expectations, what's the problem? The point is that, like Brazil, England could do even better with the right focus and priorities.

So Kuper and Szymanski look at some of the problems at the root of English football: a failure to seek middle class players, an inability to effectively judge talent and an entrenched discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. One of the most interesting sections of the book deals with racism and demonstrates statistically that black players were discriminated against by football clubs as recently as the 1980s.

There's a fascinating analysis of international football, examining the countries that have the 'most passionate' football supporters and looking at the countries that, accounting for population, GDP and experience, are the biggest over-performers.

Another highlight is the account of the penalty shoot-out between Manchester United and Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final. Chelsea, the authors reveal, had been briefed on the penalty-taking and penalty-saving tendencies of the United players. It almost paid off, they explain, but for John Terry's failure to score.

Terry's miss underlines something that the authors overlook. Examining penalty shoot-outs in terms of game theory and statistical tendencies is all very well but it, as Ken Bray explains in How To Score, a properly struck penalty is unsaveable.

The other flaw, from my point of view, is the book's dismissal of the problem of imbalance in English - and to a lesser extent European - football. The fact that just three clubs - Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal - dominate the Premier League should not concern us, they argue, because people are still going to matches. If people wanted a balanced league, say the authors, then they wouldn't turn up.

The authors argue that English football has always been dominated by a few big clubs. However, they give insufficient weight to the fact that this imbalance has become greater in the Premier League era, something that seems to me to be bad for English football.

Still, they make a strong case and their argument is worth reading, as is the book as a whole. Why England Lose offers an interesting perspective on the sport and is filled with unexpected nuggets of information and intriguing anecdotes.

America's Game by Michael MacCambridge (Shane's book 32, 2009)

I've read several books about American football this year. The others were about specific aspects of the game but this one is an overview of its history. MacCambridge rejects the common view that the modern NFL was born with the 1958 championship game. Instead he goes back to the 1940s and looks at how the owners of the teams back then laid the foundations for what has become the most popular spectator sport in the US and one of the richest sports in the world. [amtap book:isbn=0375725067]

MacCambridge details the backroom deals that made it possible for the league to flourish as well as the action on the field that made the game so compelling to spectators. Often the two are linked - whenever the popularity of their sport waned or the popularity of baseball grew, the NFL owners would tweak the rules to increase the excitement of the game.

The NFL broke new ground in many ways but the most important was the insistence that the game was the product, not individual clubs, and therefore it was important to ensure that no one team dominated. They shared TV money from their lucrative network deals, they developed an innovative merchandising business and shared revenue from that too. They made coffee table books and funded a film division - the aim was never to make immediate profits but instead to grow the popularity of the sport. It was a visionary approach.

The book also examines some of the social effects of the sport, particularly its influence on racial integration. From the days when racially-mixed teams were not allowed to stay in the same hotel while playing in the South, to the later years when rich black players found themselves barred from white communities, MacCambridge shows that the NFL often had an important role to play in breaking down barriers.

The game attracted the attention of politicians too. Edward Kennedy delivered an ultimatum to the Washington Redskins forcing them to begin employing black players (they were the last segregated team by a long way) and Richard Nixon was so taken with the game that he would even suggest plays for the SuperBowl.

It's obvious that a lot of research has gone into this book. MacCambridge offers remarkably well-rounded views of some of the game's key characters - Pete Rozelle, Vince Lombardi and Jim Brown, for example. The story is well balanced between character portraits, action-packed descriptions of classic games and the tense negotiations in boardrooms and the League office.

MacCambridge's writing is simple and clear. He seems to spend longer on the earlier parts of the history, speeding up once he gets to the 70s. By the time the 90s roll around, MacCambridge is just offering an overview. That makes sense because fans will be most familiar with the League's recent history.

Clearly, an interest in the NFL is required if you're going to enjoy this book but I got a lot out of it.

The Wages of Wins by David Berri, Martin Schmidt, Stacey Brook (Shane's book 28, 2009)

This is something of a niche title, I admit. If you're not interested in American sports and economics, you're unlikely to find much to detain you here. I'm not really interested in any US sports other than American football so I was a little disappointed to find that just one chapter is about football and that most of the book is about basketball. [amtap book:isbn=0804758441]

Nevertheless, I am interested in the way teams analyse the success of their players and whether factors such as wage bills and attendance can affect the success of teams. This book has plenty to say about those things.

The authors admit to being inspired by Freakonomics, which was the first book to achieve major success by focusing economic analysis on popular issues. Much of the success of Freakonomics comes from pointing to areas where popular assumptions can be shown to be incorrect. The Wages of Wins follows a similar approach, demonstrating, for example, that the huge amount the New York Yankees spend on wages doesn't explain their success in Major League Baseball.

The most interesting section of the book examines whether coaches in the National Basketball Association are properly able to judge which players are successful. What they discover is that coaches over-value certain actions, such as scoring points and under-value others. By failing to properly measure the effects of all the actions a player can take on the basketball court, coaches are misleading themselves as to the true value of their players.

The authors devise a metric for measuring how many wins a player is worth each season, taking into account every action a player performs on the basketball court. It's fascinating, though I'm in no way qualified to judge their economics skills, and it would be interesting to see similar theories applied to, say, Premier League football.

It's a potentially dry topic for most people, even sports fans. Unfortunately, the authors try too hard to liven things up. The book is written in a forced jaunty style and filled with awful jokes. Worse, the authors constantly remind you how boring their subject is and how dull economists are. I've bought the book so why not assume that I'm interested in what you have to say and get on with it? Instead Berri, Schmidt and Brook sound like teachers trying to keep the attention of a group of hyperactive five-year-olds. It's a little trying, I have to say.

Still, this is worth a read if you're interested in the topic.

The Beautiful Game? by David Conn (Shane's book 15, 2009)

If you believe Sky Sports or the majority of Britain's football writers, the Premier League is the greatest league in the world. Understandably, it's an image the Premier League is happy to perpetuate. It's hard to see how a league so hideously uncompetitive as the English Premier League could be held up as an example to the world, until you realise that it's really about money.

Despite its predictability, the Premier League is the most lucrative football league in the world. However, the money is concentrated at the top, between Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

It is this inequality that David Conn is concerned with in his book, The Beautiful Game?. The subtitle - "Searching for the soul of football" - makes Conn's stance clear. He believes that football belongs to the community and that the pursuit of cash has caused it to lose sight of its purpose. Ordinary fans, especially younger supporters, are being priced out of the game and clubs are being driven to the brink of extinction in an attempt to keep up.

[amtap book:isbn=0224064363]

If the book has a villain it's Arsenal and specifically their former vice-chairman, David Dein. Opening at an Arsenal-Chelsea match in 2003, Conn spins back to the formation of the football league and explains how the Gunners ditched their Woolwich-based fans and moved the club to north London and later, possibly, bribed their way into the first division.

After that, David Dein's business background comes under scrutiny, in a section that has been carefully worded for legal reasons, before Conn turns his attention to the way that Arsenal bulldozed through Islington, literally, in the process of building a new stadium. Arsenal need a bigger stadium to provide the cost base to maintain a position in the top four but Conn notes that the Emirates Stadium is considerably smaller than Manchester United's Old Trafford, leaving them still at a disadvantage.

A chapter on Hillsborough, which will probably shock even those who know the story, establishes both the contempt in which the football authorities and club owners hold supporters and the longstanding ineptitude of the Football Association, the supposed guardians of the game at all levels.

The deaths of 96 people at Hillsborough created an appetite for reforming the game. That and the surge in popularity for football created by England's unexpected semi-final place in the 1990 World Cup are popularly thought to have led to the Premier League - a chance for football to become a respectable family game.

But Conn shows that the Premier League plan was developed from the very beginning as a way to enrich the big clubs. The first step was to stop sharing top-flight TV revenue with the rest of football and instead carve it up among themselves. David Dein fronted the bid for the Premier League and when he took the plan to the FA they simply asked how high he would like them to jump. They saw it as a chance to strike a blow in their petty battles with the Football League but, as Conn shows, there were other plans on the table that would have better met football's needs.

The result, almost 20 years later, is a league in which the same four clubs have filled the top four places for the last four seasons. The vast amount of money they can spend on transfer fees and player wages has an inflationary effect that is felt throughout the rest of football. Many clubs are bankrupting themselves in the mistaken belief that they can keep up. Conn gives numerous examples of clubs that have done just that, most notably Bradford City.

Possibly the most eye-opening and infuriating chapter comes at the end, when Conn explains how the Premier League has slowly taken control of the FA. Always pathetically weak, the FA is now little more than a puppet organisation for the big clubs.

Is there any hope? Conn sees some potential in the growing involvement of fans in running lower league football clubs and he focuses particularly on AFC Wimbledon, the fan-run club set up when Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes. The stories of life at some of these smaller clubs - Glossop is another that Conn explores - are heartening and make the book well worth reading. Despite the money-centred modern game, small groups of dedicated fans refuse to let their clubs die.

David Conn's book was written before the Roman Abramovich effect had become clear. The arrival of the Russian robber baron brought billions to Chelsea and bought them a seat at the top table. Money can't guarantee success, as the consortium in charge of Conn's club, Manchester City, has discovered, but it is a prerequisite. Abramovich timed his acquisition perfectly, buying his way in just a season after the number of Champions League places available to English clubs grew to four.

Since Conn's book was last revised - in 2005 - the situation has grown worse. In the 2006-2007 season, revenues for the Big Four averaged £178m. The rest of the Premier League's clubs averaged £50m. [Link to PDF of data.] The data for 2007-2008, due to be published shortly, is likely to show the gap having widened.

All football supporters should read this book. Those who are not Big Four customers will be horrified by what it contains. Those who are will be forced to adopt uncomfortably contorted arguments to justify their having benefited from a deliberately skewed system - 'the other teams aren't trying hard enough' being a current favourite.

The game has been taken away from the fans, the league is now unwinnable by any team without multi-billion-pound backing and it may already be too late to do anything about it.