Analytics in Football – A Double Edged Sword

  The Beginnings :

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

What is sport all about? Sport is a bunch of people getting together to play a game with pre defined rules and a referee to ensure that these rules are adhered to during the passage of play. I am a sport lover and play sports all time. My love for tennis and football in particular cannot be defined. My issue when it came to technology and advanced analytics was with the game of football in particular. Football is such a beautiful game.

The strategies that the coaching staff come up with and the way it is executed on field by the players, it actually is a thing of beauty. I was a football player myself (just an average one at that) and have been part of various teams. I know firsthand how strategies are built, how much thought goes into one single run of play.

  Analytics in Football :

Most of you would’ve seen the movie Moneyball. The movie was based on the book Michael Lewis wrote in 2003. It talks about how a jock turned luminary uses advanced statistics to gain a competitive edge over his better funded opponents. This book brought about a revolution in sports. Fans and boards of football clubs didn’t want to settle for subpar statistics or analytics anymore. What Moneyball did is that it took an old cliché – “sports are businesses” and made us move on to the next logical question – “how do we do things smarter?”

Now let’s talk about advanced analytics. Advanced analytics in today’s world plays a massive role in every business sector. Advanced analytics has been a boon for us. Moving from descriptive analytics to prescriptive analytics, we actually have come a long way. In various businesses, where the requirement is demanding, advanced analytics are of utmost importance.

  The Debate :

When we look at football, it’s a game that does not require too much machine intelligence. Instead, it is a game that needs skills and instincts of humans playing in it. When you bring in analytics and technology and try to reduce the human element in the sport, it simply just crushes the spirit of the game.

Relying on analytics heavily killed the Premier Leagues long ball game and brought in the pressing, continual passing tiki-taka. Each league for that matter had its own style of play. The Premier League had the brash and brazen style of football that was termed “The way real men play football”. There were beautiful long balls, harsh tackles but all the players just sucked it up, walked it off and it was all up to the referee on the pitch to penalize the offender or not.

There were arguments and fights, the passion from the fans was crazy, that was the football that screamed of passion, when players got in the face of other players not fearing punishment. The Eric Cantona’s, the Ivan Genaro Gattuso’s, the Jaap Stam’s of the football world went missing soon enough and the diving and the biting began.

Then there was the tiki-taka style of football that was played in the Spanish La Liga, the silky style of play that caught everyone off guard. The legendary Pep Guardiola and his army at Barcelona were the masters of the tiki-taka. There was Real Madrid who were always a star studded line-up with excessive parts of their play relying on lightning quick counters which most often than not left the opponents stunned. There was Manchester United who had their own brand of football being managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. That United team was a team of sheer grit and character. Each of these leagues had their own beauty and the teams had their own style of play.

When you bring in excessive technology and analytics, there emerge sorry technologies like VAR (Video Assistant Referees).

There are 3 stages as to how the VAR works :

  Step 1

Incident occurs

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

  Step 2

Review and advice by the VAR

The video footage is reviewed by the VAR, who advises the referee via headset what the video shows.

  Step 3

Decision or action is taken

The referee decides to review the video footage on 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 with VAR for basically any doubts he wants clarified. What does this do?

  • Removes the human element from the game.
  • Takes up excess time and brings too many stoppages within the game, a game that was previously free flowing and continuous.

This makes it similar to Formula 1 racing. The analytics which brought about the fuel weight management systems and the numerous pit stops took the continuity out of the race and viewership reduced with the increase in technology. A pretty similar trend might occur in football if this implementation becomes mandatory.

  The Positive Side of Advanced Analytics in Football :

Analytics are not all that bad in football. Let’s take the case of when Simon Wilson joined Manchester City in 2006. Simon Wilson was a consultant for an analytics startup called Prozone initially. He joined City to start a department of analytics and hired the best data analysts under him. He wanted to change the way how data was used by football teams. He saw that, after a defeat there was no introspection as to why they had lost and what needed to be done next time. City were a mid table club at that time.  In September 2008, when the club was acquired by the 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 itself with the resources necessary to mount a challenge for 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, which is now led by a sports scientist named Ed Sulley.

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

“With the right data-feeds, the algorithms will output the statistics that have a strong relationship with winning and losing.” Wilson recalls one particular period when Manchester City hadn’t scored from corners in over 22 games, so his team decided to analyze over 400 goals that were scored from corners. It was noticed that about 75 percent resulted from in-swinging corners, the type where the ball curves towards the goal. The next 12 games of the next season saw City score nine goals from corner.

  In Today’s Context :

Teams are investing heavily in analytics today and it is working in their favor. 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 game has been such where their possession percentages are low but their goal conversions are high. The Manchester Derby on 7th April 2018 saw United have only 35% of the possession but they managed to trump City 3-2. Each team has their set of analysts who provide inputs as per the strength of the team.

  Conclusion

Advanced analytics 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 at the same time can disrupt the lovely game by bringing in unnecessary stoppages, replays and by taking the human element out of it. The numerous replays and the different angles, show the fans if the referee has made an error or not. Let the error happen, after all to err is human. Refereeing in football is not an exact science and it’s all real time. Let there be arguments about a decision, let the passion in the argument come through. Do you want to watch a football match like the El Classico or the 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 analytics. Let football be football and let technology stay away!

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Author: Abhimanyu Sundar
Abhimanyu is a sportsman, an avid reader with a massive interest in sports. He is passionate about digital marketing and loves discussions about Big Data.

1 Comment

  • Eashwar

    Well written Abhimanyu! Totally agree about the human element giving the sport the edge, and that definitely can’t be quantified, big data or not!

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