Interview with Tim Sparv, the ‘no-stats all-star’

Tim Sparv is ‘brain damaged’ from football analytics. “I just scream at the TV at some player taking a shot 30 metres from the side of the box. For me it’s just horrendous,” he says. Sparv is referring, of course, to expected goals and the best places to shoot on the pitch. “Every time I watch a game on TV now and I see the shots being taken from far, I always think about the shot location and where the biggest chances are for scoring a goal.”

If Sparv is not at the forefront of the analytics revolution, he is certainly in the middle of it. The Finnish international, who spent four years at Southampton as a youngster, is a symbol of the game-changing acquisitions clubs can find if they are looking at the right variables.

Sparv was signed by FC Midtjylland in 2014 when the Danish club highlighted him as someone who can spot potential dangers on the pitch before they materialise. He is not an abrasive player because he doesn’t need to be. He slipped under the radar because traditional statistics don’t take into account defensive midfielders who have strengths outside tackling and winning the ball in the air.

Rasmus Ankersen, Midtjylland’s 33-year-old chairman, refers to Sparv as the “no-stats all-star” because of his lack of flamboyance. “I will never be the most technically-gifted,” he says. “I’ll never score the Lionel Messi type of goals but just having my presence on the pitch helps the team in some way and maybe gives us more expected points than me being off the pitch. I’m a fan (of the nickname) because I never score and I barely assist.”

But the stats show that Sparv does performs a crucial role. Midtjylland are at the cutting-edge of data analysis, turning the often subjective process of scouting into a method of scientific discovery. One of the answers they have arrived at is Tim Sparv.

The club has been described as a “laboratory for radical experiment” but Sparv says there is more work to be done. You can always do more. “I don’t think you should give footballers too much information or too many details but I’d love to see it being a bigger part of our training program,” he adds. “I’m no expert…but I still feel that we can do more in that area.”

The 30-year-old never set out to become the “no-stats all-star” but he knew, or at least had a good idea, that he added value that was not easily quantifiable. He had been assured of this throughout his career in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. “I have heard a few times during my career that the team gets more points with me being on the pitch than off the pitch,” he says. But Midtjylland were the only club to explore the empirical evidence.

The ease at which Sparv speaks about analytics and its growing importance in football is what has helped him become a poster-boy of the analytics community. If that corner of the internet struggles to convince the naysayers, here is a living embodiment of their research. Sparv not only fits the billing of a statistical superstar, but he welcomes the revolution.

That isn’t to say he has always accepted the process behind data anaylsis, which looks to go beyond emotional spontaneity to make more informed decisions.

On his effortlessly cool, minimalist website, Sparv talks about how he is a “blue personality”. He was handed a 24-page document upon arriving at Midtjylland after undergoing a personality test, and he feels it helped him to better understand the type of person he is. “I got something in writing that I felt ‘Okay, this is how I act in that situation and this is the kind of communication I like and this is what people see in me.’”

“The blue colour is someone who is very systematic, very disciplined, a reflective person,” he explains. It is this aspect of his personality that creates a need, “to see on a piece of paper that this was good. You can see it with your own eyes that your percentage of tackles and your creation of chances that was not at the level that you want it to be.

“The more negative side is that [the blue personality] is a little bit unapproachable. On a bad day he can be a bit stubborn, a bit skeptical. That’s the main traits for a blue person.” On the other side of the spectrum, green personalities can be “a bit careless, a bit of a hippy”.

Sparv sees both his playing career and life outside football as an endless learning opportunity. He is constantly looking for stimulation and writes a regular column for a newspaper in Finland. “I’ve been given free-hand to write anything I want.” And without fear of reprisal Sparv jumped straight into politics. “The populistic winds that are blowing in Europe right now, I felt I had to say something trying to be a role model.”

His column was focused on a recent vote in Finland, with Sparv noting “these extreme opinions are everywhere.”

“It’s not a racist political party but their values and their comments just make me sick to my stomach. I’d like to express my opinion and give my view of how our Finnish society should be. We should be a welcoming country, an open country and not have prejudiced opinions of people.”

If, as a blue personality, Sparv is predisposed to feeling skeptical, he is also hardwired to live outside his comfort zone. That is why he moved to Southampton as a teenager. His mother wanted him to stay at home in Vaasa, on the west coast of Finland, for another two years, but the world was waiting and Sparv was keen to see what it had to offer. “I will never have trouble adjusting to a new country or culture again because of that experience,” he says of his time in England.

While football has been the main focus throughout his life, as he approaches the later years of his career Sparv feels it is time to catch up on other hobbies – from reading Malcolm Gladwell and taking notes from Elon Musk, to forming an interest in “leadership, the mental part of sports, psychology in general and languages”.

The blue side of his personality is what keeps him in check, but “Spontaneous Tim” sometimes makes an appearance, mostly on vacation. According to Sparv, Spontaneous Tim “dances on tables, has breakfast for lunch and has a glass of wine on a Tuesday.” But during the season he likes to follow a strict procedure – both in training and matches. That’s why Sparv won’t try to dribble up-field when he’s bored or shoot for the sake of it from distance. He thinks calmly about every move.

Like most players, injuries are the hardest part of the job. But for a player who needs structure, the lack of certainty and a definite timescale is even harder to tolerate. A bout of ‘jumper’s knee’ this season was followed by several nagging knocks that wouldn’t seem to go away.

Sparv has been through this before and decided on a plan to get him through. It was a method he could follow based on what he learned previously. He suffered a serious injury in his twenties and “did not deal with the problems then that I should have done”, but this time he promised it would be different.

“When you get that negative reaction or a setback in training, give yourself one, two or three days where you can be extremely negative, sad, you can do anything you want, you can go mental, you can go down and really just try to refocus and collect some energy,” he says. “When you come into training on Monday morning, you start to focus again.”

Despite the negatives, Sparv used his time on the sidelines to focus on things he could affect. He even refers to is as a “cool period” where he got the chance to “get my head down and work on some different stuff”.

It is typical of Sparv’s character, always looking to improve and expand his horizons. Both on and off the pitch he is a huge asset to Midtjylland. But that won’t necessarily show up in a traditional scouting report.

Interview with Tim Sparv, the ‘no-stats all-star’
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