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Analytics in Football – A Double Edged Sword
Games as we know them today have come a long way. There was a time when watching sports on television was considered a technological leap forward. After 60 years, watching sports on television has become a staple. Today we watch sports on the go on our mobile phones or any device with a screen and internet connectivity. Proud of how far we’ve come, don’t we? Hopefully by the end of this article I can change your mind about that.
What is sport? A game is a group of people to play a game with pre-determined rules and an umpire to ensure that these rules are followed during the game. I am a sports lover and always play sports. My love for tennis and soccer in particular cannot be defined. My issue was specifically with the game of soccer when it came to technology and advanced analytics. Soccer is a very beautiful game. The strategy that the coaching staff comes up with and the way the players execute it on the field is actually a thing of beauty. I was a soccer player myself (only an average one at that) and was part of various teams. I know firsthand how strategies are made, how much thought goes into a game.
Enter -> Advanced Analysis
Most of you have seen the movie Moneyball. The film was based on the book written by Michael Lewis in 2003. He talks about how the jock-turned-luminary uses advanced statistics to gain a competitive edge over his well-funded rivals. This book revolutionized sports. Soccer club fans and boards no longer want to settle for subpar statistics or analysis. What Moneyball did was, it took an old cliché – “Sports are businesses” and pushed us to the next logical question – “How do we do things smarter?”
Now let’s talk about advanced analytics. In today’s world, advanced analytics play a major role in every business sector. Advanced analytics has been a boon for us. In moving from descriptive analytics to prescriptive analytics, we have actually come a long way. In various businesses, where the requirements are demanding, advanced analytics are very important.
When we look at soccer, it’s a game that doesn’t require much machine intelligence, it’s a game that requires human elements. When you bring in analytics and technology and try to reduce the human element of the game, it just crushes the spirit of the game.
The Premier League’s long ball game has largely died due to its reliance on analysis and constant tiki-taka passing. For that matter each league had its own style of play. The Premier League had a rough and brazen style of football that was described as “the way real men play football”. There were lovely long balls, hard tackles but all the players just soaked it up, ran it and it was up to the on-pitch referee to award a penalty or not. There were arguments and fights, the passion of the fans was insane, the same football that got in the faces of other players without fear of punishment. Eric Cantona, Ivan Gennaro Gattuso, the Jaap Stams of the football world soon disappeared and the diving and biting began. Then there was the tiki-taka style of football played in the Spanish La Liga, a silky style of play that captivated everyone. Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola and his army were masters of tiki-taka. Real Madrid were always a star-studded line-up and much of their game relied on lightning quick counters that often failed to dazzle opponents. There was Manchester United who had their own brand of football managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. That United team was a team of sheer grit and character. Each of these leagues had its own aesthetic and the teams had their own style of play.
When you bring in too much technology and analytics, unfortunate technologies like VAR (Video Assistant Referee) emerge.
There are 3 steps to how VAR works:
The referee notifies the VAR or the VAR recommends to the referee that the decision/incident should be reviewed.
Review and advice by VAR
The video footage is reviewed by VARs, who advise the referee through a headset what the video shows.
A decision or action is taken
The referee decides to review the video footage from the side of the field of play before taking the appropriate action/decision or the referee accepts the information from the VAR and takes the appropriate action/decision.
Now the referee can consult the VAR basically for any doubts he needs clarification. What does it do?
• Removes the human element from the game.
• Takes longer and brings a lot of stoppages to the game, a game that was previously free flowing and continuous.
It makes it like Formula 1 racing. Fuel weight management systems and numerous pit stops brought in analytics that maintained consistency from the race and reduced viewership as technology grew. A similar trend may occur in football if this enforcement becomes mandatory.
Positives of Advanced Analytics in Soccer:
Analysts aren’t all bad in football. Let’s see when Simon Wilson joined Manchester City in 2006. Simon Wilson was initially a consultant for an analytics startup called ProZone. He joined Citi to start an analytics division and recruited the best data analysts under him. He wanted to change how data was used by football teams. They saw that after defeat there was no introspection of why they lost and what to do next time. City were a mid-table club at the time. In September 2008, when the club was acquired by Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment, a private-equity outfit owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, the team suddenly found the resources it needed to mount a challenge. Premier League. Today, Wilson is Manchester City’s manager of strategic performance analysis. He has five departments under him, including a performance analysis team, which is now headed by a sports scientist named Ed Sully.
Team performance data will be checked after each match. The list is extensive. Line breaks (rugby term), ball possession, pass success rate, ball win/loss time ratio were analysed. “Instead of looking at a list of 50 variables we want to find five, say, that are really important for our style of play,” says Manchester City match analyst Pedro Marx.
“With the right data-feeds, algorithms will output statistics that have a strong correlation to winning and losing.” Wilson recalled a certain period when Manchester City had not scored from corners in more than 22 games, so his team decided to analyze over 400 goals scored from corners. It found that about 75 percent of the results were due to in-swinging corners, the way the ball turns towards the goal. In the next 12 games of the following season, City scored nine goals from corners.
Teams today are investing heavily in analytics and it is working in their favor. Look at where Manchester City are today, sitting atop the Premier League table and in no danger at all. Look at Manchester United this season, their game is one where their possession percentage is low but their goal conversions are high. In the Manchester derby on 7 April 2018, United had just 35% possession but beat City 3–2. Each team has a set of analysts who provide input based on the team’s strengths.
Advanced Analytics is like the two face coin from Batman, “Heads you die, Tells you survive!”
This can reap fantastic rewards from a team’s point of view but at the same time can disrupt the beautiful game by unnecessary stoppages, replays and taking the human element out of it. Countless replays and different angles show the fans whether the referee made a mistake or not. To err is human. Refereeing in soccer is not an exact science and it is all real time. Let there be debate about the decision, let there be passion in the debate. You want to watch a football match like El Clasico or Manchester derby and sit with a bunch of your friends and say “that was a very clean game, the best team won!” Absolutely not! Don’t take the passion out of soccer with technology and analytics. Let soccer be soccer and let technology stay away!
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