First Published on Soccerex
The rise of statistical ‘big data’ analysis in professional football is often described as a relatively slow one. While baseball’s widespread embrace of this field was accelerated by the ‘Moneyball’ phenomenon, professional football has been often categorised as being slow to catch on and criticised for being stubborn and insular when it comes to incorporating more advanced scientific and analytical techniques.
Whereas seemingly every major US sports franchise has a ‘vice president of data analytics’ or equivalent as a key part of their front-office staff, football is often characterised by observations such as this from Andre Villas-Boas: “The mind and how the player feels is much more important for us, rather than statistical data. For me it’s useless, but it varies from coach to coach. We all have different approaches.”
Liverpool and their then director of football Damien Comolli received widespread opprobrium for allegedly trying to replicate the ‘Moneyball’ approach with a number of signings in 2011, including those of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam. Following the relative failure of these players at the club, many assumed statistical analysis had been quietly shelved through lack of progress.
However, it is easy to mistake a desire from the clubs to keep their current work in this field quiet for lack of progress. Doing so would lead you to underestimate exactly how advanced football analysis actually is: without exception, every single club in the top two leagues in England, no matter what stage of the analytical journey they are on, are doing some form of analysis using data from either OptaPro or another provider.
Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre has recently spoken about how the club are now operating their scouting department in the post-‘Moneyball/Comolli’ era:
“I think the fundamental shift particularly around player acquisitions and disposals was that we took the view that it needs to be more of a science… He [Brendan Rodgers] has a team of people that go out and do an inordinate amount of analysis work to establish who are the best players in that position. It’s a combination of…old-school scouting and watching players — and that’s Brendan, his assistants, our scouts — with statistical analysis of players across Europe and the rest of the world. By bringing those two processes together, you get a much more educated view of who you should and shouldn’t be buying.” (Ian Ayre Talks Liverpool FC 'Moneyball').
Naturally, however, there is a level of secrecy attached to this area of analysis. The reasons for this are completely understandable: in the hyper-competitive world of professional football, analysts working at clubs are naturally unwilling to reveal their methodologies in public for fear of losing out on a competitive advantage. In many cases, this is compounded by the fact that at some clubs the structures in place are not necessarily conducive to long-term research of this type, instead understandably focusing on short-term analysis with tangible, immediate uses.
In place of this openness around football analytics, a burgeoning group of amateur bloggers and academics are filling this void. In much the same way that many US franchise-based analytical specialists started out as amateurs outside of the club structure – most obviously in the case of the widely-anointed godfather of this movement, Bill James – top-level clubs are now taking notice of this community.
Within the last 18 months, several clubs across the globe have employed people from a non-traditional football background, including academia, the financial sector or analytical blogs. Others have started going down the route of starting university partnerships to analyse data and assist the clubs in analysing vast data sets in order to aid player recruitment, opposition scouting and squad analysis.
As data sets become larger and ever more complex, it makes sense to look for people who can effectively analyse and distil this information, even if they are from non-traditional football backgrounds. Despite appearances to the contrary, analytics in football is rapidly becoming a key area of progress for clubs, and another important way of generating greater competitive advantage.
Simon Farrant is an award winning Marketing Coordinator at OptaPro