Analytics in Football – A double-edged sword

Sports as we know it today have come a long way. There were times when watching sports on television was considered a massive step forward in terms of technology. Fast forward 60 years, watching sports on TV has become the most basic thing. Today we watch sports on the go on our mobile phones or any device with a monitor and internet connection. Proud of how far we’ve come, aren’t we? Hopefully I can change your opinion on that at the end of this article.

What is sport about? Sports are a lot of people who meet to play a game with predefined rules and a referee to ensure that those rules are adhered to during the game transition. I am a sports lover and play sports all the time. My love of tennis and football cannot be defined. My question when it came to technology and advanced analysis was football games in particular. Football is such a beautiful game. The strategies that the coaching staff comes up with and how it is executed on the field by the players is actually a thing of beauty. I was a football player myself (just an average at that) and have been part of different teams. I know firsthand how strategies are built, how much thought goes into a single game.

Enter -> Advanced Analytics

Most of you would have seen the movie Moneyball. The film was based on the book Michael Lewis wrote in 2003. It talks about how a jum who became luminary uses advanced statistics to gain a competitive edge over its better-funded opponents. This book brought about a revolution is sports. Fans and boards of football clubs would no longer be content with subpar statistics or analysis. What Moneyball did, it took an old cliche – “sports are businesses” and got us moving on to the next logical question – “how do we make things smarter?”

Now let’s talk about advanced analysis. Advanced analysis in today’s world plays a massive role in any business sector. Advanced analysis has been a blessing for us. In fact, when we switch from descriptive analysis to prescription analysis, we have come a long way. In various companies where the requirement is demanding, advanced analysis is of paramount importance.

When we look at football, it’s a game that doesn’t require too much machine intelligence, it’s a game that needs the human element. When you bring in analytics and technology and try to reduce the human element of the sport, it just crushes the spirit of the game.

Relying on analytics, the Premier League’s long ball game killed heavily and brought in the urgent, continuous passing tiki-taka. Each league for that matter had its own style of play. The Premier League had the quirky and bold style of football, dubbed “The Way Real Men Play Football”. There were beautiful long balls, tough tackles, but all the players just sucked it up, lifted it off and it was up to the referee on the field to punish the offended or not. There were arguments and struggles, the passion of the fans was crazy, it was the football that screamed with passion as the players met with other players who did not fear punishment. Eric Cantonas, Ivan Genaro Gattusos, the football world’s Jaap Stams disappeared quickly enough, and the diving and biting began. Then there was the tiki-taque style of football played in the Spanish La Liga, the silky style of play that caught everyone off guard. The legendary Pep Guardiola and his army in Barcelona were gentlemen in tiki-taka. There was Real Madrid, always a star-studded line-up with exaggerated parts of their game and relying on lightning fast, which often didn’t even leave opponents stunned. There were Manchester United who had their own football brand managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. The United team was a team of pure gravel and character. Each of these leagues had their own beauty and the teams had their own playing style.

When you download excessive technology and analysis, regrettable technologies such as VAR (Video Assistant Referees) arise.

There are three stages to how VAR works:

Step 1

An incident happens

The judge informs the VAR, or the VAR recommends to the judge that a decision / incident be reviewed.

Step 2

Review and advice from VAR

The video images are reviewed by VAR, who, via headset, advises the judge on what the video shows.

Step 3

Decision or action is taken

The judge decides to review the video footage on the side of the court before making the appropriate action / decision, or the judge accepts the information from the VAR and makes the appropriate action / decision.

Now the judge can consult the VAR for basically any doubt he wants clarified. What does this do?

• Removes the human element from the game.

• Takes up excess time and brings too many stops to the game, a game that was previously free-flowing and continuous.

This makes it similar to Formula 1 racing. The analysis that brought the fuel weight management systems and the many pit stops stopped the continuity of the race, and viewers were reduced by the rise of technology. A fairly similar trend can occur in football if this implementation becomes mandatory.

The positive side of advanced analysis in football:

Analytics is not that bad in football. Let’s take the case when Simon Wilson joined Manchester City in 2006. Simon Wilson was a consultant for an analytics startup called Prozone originally. I have teamed up with City to start a department of analytics and hired the best data analysts under him. He would change the way data was used by football teams. He saw that after a defeat, there was no insight into why they had lost and what to do next. Town was a mid board club at the time. In September 2008, when the club was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Development and Investment Group, a private-equity equipment owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, the team suddenly found the resources needed to challenge the Premier League. Today, Wilson is Manchester City’s manager of strategic performance analysis. He has five departments under him, including the team of performance analysis, now led by a sports scientist named Ed Sulley.

After each match, the team’s performance data is examined. The list is comprehensive. Line breaks (rugby term), ball possession, pass-success rate, ball-to-loss ratio were what were analyzed. “Instead of looking at a list of 50 variables, we want to find five, say, that really matter to our style of play,” said Pedro Marques, a Manchester City match analyst.

“With the right data feeds, the algorithms will provide the statistics that have a strong relationship to win and lose.” Wilson remembers a certain period when Manchester City had not scored from corners in over 22 matches, so his team decided to analyze over 400 goals scored from corners. It was noted that around 75 percent was the result of swinging corners, the type where the ball curves toward the target. The next 12 games of next season saw City score nine goals from the corner.

Teams invest heavily in analytics today and it works to their advantage. Look at where Manchester City are today, sitting atop the Premier League table and not being threatened at all. Look at Manchester United this season, their games have been such that their possession percentages are low but their goal conversion is high. The Manchester Derby on April 7, 2018 saw United only have 35% of possession, but they managed to trump City 3-2. Each team has their set of analysts who provide input per. The strength of the team.

Advanced analysis is like the coin Two Face in Batman has, “Heads you die, tails you survive!”

It can reap crazy rewards from a team’s point of view, but can at the same time disrupt the delightful game by bringing unnecessary stops, reprises and by taking the human element out of it. The many replacements and the different angles show the fans if the referee has made a mistake or not. Let the mistake happen after all is a human error. Judging in football is not an exact science and it is all in real time. Let there be arguments about a decision, let the passion in the argument come through. Want to watch a football game like El Classico or Manchester Derby and sit with your bunch of friends and say “it was a very clean game, the best team won!” Hell NO! Don’t drive the passion out of football with technology and analysis. Let football be football, and let technology stay away!