Football analytics may be considered a recent phenomenon by some, but managers and directors have used some form of data or experience to gain advantages over each other for decades.
Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid tells the story of the Brazilian World Cup squad of 1970 who went to Mexico, “with pairs of individually fitted handmade boots, while a fortnight before departure they began living on Mexican time with a strictly controlled programme of diet and sleep. Even their kit was redesigned so as not to become weighed down with sweat.”
On June 25, the Dominion Theatre in London hosted an event to discuss analytics in football and to ask what the future might hold. Analysts, journalists, data collectors and even amateur bloggers were able to hear the views and opinions of some of the key players in the field.
An expert panel comprised of Dan Barnett, Director of Analytics at Analysis Marketing Ltd, Brian Prestidge, Alteryx and Tableau consultant at The Information Lab, Sam Lloyd, Founder of Replay Analysis Ltd and John Burn-Murdoch, a data journalist for the Financial Times took to the floor with Duncan Alexander of Opta hosting a Q&A session towards the end.
That scepticism over the effectiveness of analytics in football still lingers is without question. Forest Green, praised for becoming the first non-league side to implement Prozone performance analysis into the day to day running of their club, didn’t take long to change their mind. Just seven months later, Forest Green manager Ady Pennock binned the system claiming that he could see the bigger picture with his own eyes. “I am a great believer in what I see and my eyes don’t lie,” he said. “I don’t need a bit of paper. The most important stat is the scoreline and I don’t want Prozone for the sake of having it.”
Statistics have been criticised by some for making football seem boring and overly complicated. Chris Bascombe of The Daily Telegraph complained recently that, “football clubs are being overrun with non-entities chronicling the game’s multitude of unpredictable events in an increasingly ludicrous effort to conclude success can be planned by observing trends rather than hiring naturally brilliant footballers.”
However, all four panel members here preferred to preach the idea of simplicity and making the game accessible to everyone. But with these views in mind, two phrases mentioned repeatedly by the panelists over the course of the night were that, “data is not a magic wand to solve all your problems, but it can help to provide an extra level of understanding,” as well as the assertion that, “everyone can collect data and everybody has similar data, so it’s what you do with it that makes the difference.” This, more than anything, seems to be what separates the successful analyst from the amateur.
Prestidge completed a Masters’ degree in Performance Analysis at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff, before being hired by Bolton Wanderers in 2006 as the Head Performance Analyst for the youth academy. Then manager Sam Allardyce had an open mind towards statistics, even when they were something of a rarity.
“I arrived at a stage where there was already an, I don’t want to say a data analysis culture, but an analysis culture,” said Prestidge. “This had really developed largely from Sam’s instigation. He was the key decision maker, he didn’t need to be sold the importance of analysis.”
Prestidge spoke highly of Allardyce. “Sam was a very empowering leader who trusted his staff and brought the best out of them by encouraging and challenging. This meant that the environment I came in to when starting at Bolton Wanderers was one of a team working towards a collective goal.”
Despite the positivity within the club, Bolton’s use of data and statistics made them a target for jibes inside and outside of the game. However, Prestidge is adamant that he and the club always knew that they were on the right track.
“As soon as I went in there, I saw the benefit it had on the club, and that was the key. I didn’t see the benefit it could have, I saw the benefit it already had. I thought to myself, ‘this has a long way to go in the football industry’, but I didn’t realise how far and certainly how much data analytics could come into it. I was at that age where I still didn’t quite understand the wider world of it, and how much of a role data analytics plays in all industries. Football is just like any other industry. It involves people, it involves the collection of data, it involves databases and data visualisation. It’s just the type of data is different and sometimes the game and the industry is a bit more emotional than a lot of the other industries. But the fact that I’d seen what could be done, and I started to picture what could be done in the future, it just ignited more of passion inside of me for analysis.”
Football clubs like Brentford, FC Midtjylland and even the New England Revolution in the MLS are becoming more and more vocal about their embrace of statistics. Prestidge was asked if he thought that this would start to become the norm.
“It will change,” he said. “It’s just the rate at which it changes is the key thing. Some clubs for instance, are doing some great analytical work but ultimately, the manager makes his own choices. You know, the chairman, the owner, they make their own choices. Where they’re going to spend money is not based upon data. So, it doesn’t matter what work is being done. That’ll only change from changing the key decision makers, or educating them. I think it’ll end up being a bit of a mix and match of both. Liverpool for instance, Fulham, they’ve had analytically minded owners come on board. Other clubs have educated upwards, towards their managers and their board. I think the biggest thing is to get more people more hands-on with data. We’re not just talking about people in clubs. We’re talking about fans, we’re talking about Joe Public who just wants to have a little play around. That’s going to be the big thing. I think technology is going to develop, so that people can get more hands-on, as well as being encouraged to visualise data correctly. It’s not about what fancy new program can be used. It’s all about being efficient, clear, concise and and effective with what you’re delivering.”
Efficiency is what the Brazilians were looking for in 1970 with their lightweight shirts. The methods may be more complicated now, but the premise remains the same. Efficiency continues to be the central theme of analytics, Everyone is looking for the edge.
Click here if you want to find out more about the event, with PowerPoint presentations included.