Statto to Brad Pitt

A look at how the football analytics industry is winning the battle but is yet to win the war.

Last Updated: 04/04/13 at 10:27

Brad Pitt played Billy Beane in Moneyball contributing to the popularisation of

Brad Pitt played Billy Beane in Moneyball contributing to the popularisation of

"I don't think football analytics has progressed as far as it could," began Chris Anderson, author of The Numbers Game, as he addressed his audience at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in London last month. "In fact, in many ways, I think football analytics has stalled. Inside football clubs, analytics has sort of ground to a halt. There was a lot of excitement about Moneyball but I don't think we've got super far with that. That's a truth we have to face. Football analytics is in danger of becoming another fad."

It was an opening gambit designed to shock. With highly-paid analysts from the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea in the room, telling them they weren't achieving a hell of a lot could easily have created a tense atmosphere. But the truth is that Anderson was only tapping into a notion widely held among the game's number crunchers - the battle for industry acceptance remains ongoing.

It's more than a decade since Sam Allardyce became the greatest advocate of statistical data in the Premier League. Indeed, the West Ham boss started on the analytics route two years' prior to the 2003 release of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball and his influence remains - Mike Forde, Chelsea's performance director, and Gavin Fleig, head of scouting and recruitment at Manchester City, were both part of Allardyce's analysis team at Bolton Wanderers.

Football analytics is in danger of becoming another fad.
Chris Anderson

Fleig recalls "a manager who had a real open mindset and allowed people's opinions to be put forward and use those in terms of his team development. In my opinion it was the most advanced department at that time, and certainly had the greatest impact on the team in the way in which Sam and his coaches embraced analysis. They built it into their game model, and allowed it to contribute towards his development of scouting and recruitment, working with sports science and medical departments in terms of tracking players' fitness levels and availability."

Here was a manager who involved his analytics staff in the process of winning matches. The seminal book Soccernomics notes that: "Stats led Allardyce to a source of cheap goals: corners, throw-ins and free-kicks. Fleig recalled that Bolton used to score 45 to 50 per cent of their goals from set-pieces, compared to a league average of about a third. Fleig said: We would say, 'If a defender clears the ball from a long throw, where will the ball land? Well, this is the area it most commonly lands. Right, well that's where we'll put our man.'"

Disappointment

But if those in the analytics business were hoping their influence would steadily grow without any setbacks it seems the future could be a disappointment. Take the words of Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas in February, a 35-year-old coach perceived to be the very embodiment of the new wave of thinking. Asked about statistical data, he said: "I don't use it because I don't believe in it. I have never used ProZone."

The Portuguese added: "You always have to be very, very careful with statistics. It doesn't mean that we negate them completely, we just don't use them to the extent that people might think. For me the stats are useless, but it depends from coach to coach and it's different approaches. The mind and how the player feels is much more important for us, rather than statistical data."

At times, the two-day conference seemed an exercise in airing frustrations about such resistance rather than showcasing the latest innovations in the industry. Simon Wilson, now the strategic performance manager at Manchester City, told a tale from his past that found favour with many as an indicator of the uphill battle for acceptance that analysts face. He explained that, after giving a 20-minute computer presentation to the players highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, his team were promptly beaten 4-2 all the same.

"We are sitting on the team bus afterwards," revealed Wilson. "It's completely flat and our manager walks on. I've booted up my laptop and started my post-match analysis of the game when the coach says, 'I tell you what, next week we'll get your computer to play their computer and we'll see who wins.' Of course, the bus goes up in raptures and the other coaches are hammering me. Ever since that point, since I was humiliated, I've wanted that guy to fail."

On the other hand, Wilson also pointed out that the Harvard Business Review had named the role of data scientist as the sexiest profession of the 21st century. Cue much amusement from an audience that included many who have spent the majority of their careers being seen as geeks. As Fleig puts it: "Since I started out in this industry, we've gone from Statto to Brad Pitt. That's the best way to describe it. The perception and stereotyping is very different."

Angus 'Statto' Loughran represents the previous geeky images of sports statisticians

But there is an acute awareness that the difference between being cool and being genuinely relevant to the football club is very different. Collecting data is one thing and analysing it something else, but to really make a difference it requires an opportunity to use that data constructively. This appears to be the current stumbling block. "We're trying to find a way in and trying to find a way to influence people to make it a part of the decision making at a football club," admits Fleig. "You need to have somebody who will back you. You need to have someone who believes in it otherwise you're just doing a lot of work and you're not really going anywhere with it."

Moneyball
Since I started out in this industry, we've gone from Statto to Brad Pitt.
Gavin Fleig

It's a sentiment echoed by Dr Bill Gerrard, an analyst who worked with the Pitt of the industry himself during a three-year stint with Billy Beane and his famous Moneyball experiment with the Oakland As. "I've got a rule now," insisted Gerrard, now a performance researcher with Saracens rugby club. "I will never go into a team where I wasn't invited in through the front door by the head honcho because it won't work. I've had 15 years of that not working. There's got to be buy-in from the very top. You've got to have a culture that can integrate analytics into the coaching function."

And that's right where Anderson ended his presentation. With a cautionary message intended to inspire action. "It's got to matter," he urged. "At some point you're going to look back and say, 'Did it really have an impact? Did it change someone's mind? Did it change the way we played football? Did it help us win?' If the answer is no then you may want to do something different. Go sell insurance. Go travelling. Have fun. Don't do analytics. You're going to go home every night frustrated, saying 'I didn't get to talk to the manager, nobody is listening to me. I've got some interesting stuff I'm working on but nobody gives a damn'."

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