Football analytics may be considered a recent phenomenon by some, but those at the highest level have used different types of research and data to gain advantages over their opponents for decades.
Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid tells the story of Brazil’s 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 November 8, Wyscout – an Italian company that supports football scouting, match analysis and transfer dynamics – hosted an event at Stamford Bridge to discuss analytics in football and what the future might hold. Data collectors, journalists, agents and club representatives from all corners of the globe were in attendance and able to network alongside some of the key players in the field.
Wyscout offers comprehensive video coverage and detailed statistical analysis of thousands of players in 80 countries worldwide, with a team of 200 analysts who accumulate data from 1300 matches per week, for a rapidly expanding database which is used by some of the most prestigious clubs in the world. The software allows clubs and agents to interact with each other directly to discuss buying and selling players, and in recent years, their annual forums have been described as football’s version of speed dating. They have become a necessary tool in the modern game.
But despite growing acceptance, scepticism over the effectiveness of analytics in football still lingers. Forest Green, praised for becoming the first non-league side to implement ‘Prozone’ performance analysis into the daily running of their club, didn’t take long to change their mind. Just seven months later, 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 also been criticised for making football seem boring and overly complicated. Chris Bascombe of The Daily Telegraph recently complained 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 great footballers.”
However, Wyscout CEO Matteo Campodonico preferred to preach the idea of simplicity and making the game accessible to everyone. But with these views in mind, two phrases mentioned repeatedly over the course of the event 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 analysts from the amateurs.
Football – like most sports – is reluctant to accept new ideas because doing so challenges the values already set in stone. Managers, coaches, scouts and players have been led to believe that the only way to truly understand the game is to have played it, to have experienced it, to know precisely the things that they know.
The most important thing is to get more people hands-on with data, not just football clubs. That can mean fans, casual viewers or anyone who just wants to have a little play around. That’s the big step. Technology will continue to develop which will hopefully make analytics an accessory rather than a necessity, but ultimately, using data correctly is the most important thing. It’s not about what fancy new program can be used. It’s about being efficient, clear and concise with what you are 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.