Analytics in football – a double-edged sword

The sport as we know it today has come a long way. There was a time when watching sports on TV was considered a huge technological advance. 60 years later, 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 screen and an internet connection. Proud of how far we’ve come, right? Hopefully I can change your mind on this by the end of this article.

What is sport about? Sport is a group of people coming together to play a game with predefined rules and a referee who ensures that those rules are followed throughout the game. I am a sports lover and I play sports all the time. My love for tennis and football in particular cannot be defined. My problem in terms of technology and advanced analytics was the soccer game in particular. Soccer is such a beautiful game. The strategies that the coaching staff come up with and the way the players execute them on the field is truly a beauty. I was a soccer player myself (just an average one at that) and was on different teams. I know firsthand how strategies are built, how much thought goes into a single gameplay.

Enter -> Advanced Analytics

Most of you have seen the movie Moneyball. The film is based on the book written by Michael Lewis in 2003. It’s about how an athlete-turned-luminary uses advanced statistics to gain a competitive edge over his better-funded opponents. This book started a revolution in sports. Football club fans and executives were no longer willing to settle for substandard statistics or analysis. Moneyball took an old cliché – “Sport is business” – and brought us to the next logical question – “How do we make things smarter?”

Now let’s talk about advanced analytics. Advanced analytics plays a huge role in every business in today’s world. Advanced analytics has been a blessing for us. We have indeed come a long way from descriptive analytics to prescriptive analytics. In various companies where the requirements are demanding, advanced analytics are of paramount importance.

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

Relying on analysis has severely shattered the Premier League’s long ball game and brought in the urgent, continuous pass tiki-taka. By the way, each league had its own style of play. The Premier League had the brash and brash style of football dubbed ‘The Way Real Men Play Football’. There were nice long balls, tough tackles, but all the players just soaked it up, ran away and it was up to the referee on the pitch to punish the attacker or not. There were arguments and fights, the passion of the fans was crazy, this was football screaming with passion when players faced other players without fear of punishment. The Eric Cantonas, the Ivan Genaro Gattusos, the Jaap Stams of the soccer world disappeared soon enough and the diving and the biting began. Then there was the tiki-taka football played in Spain’s La Liga, the silky style of play that surprised everyone. The legendary Pep Guardiola and his army in Barcelona were the masters of tiki-taka. There was Real Madrid, who were always a star-studded line-up and relied excessive parts of their game on lightning-fast counterattacks that mostly left opponents stunned. There was Manchester United who had their own brand of football managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. This United team was a team full of courage 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, sad technologies like VAR (Video Assistant Referees) emerge.

There are 3 phases how the VAR works:

Step 1

incident happened

The referee informs the VAR or the VAR recommends the referee to review a decision/incident.

step 2

Review and advice from the VAR

The video footage is checked by the VAR, who uses a headset to tell the referee what the video shows.

step 3

A decision or action is taken

The referee decides to review the video footage next to 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, in principle, the referee can consult any doubts he wishes to clarify with the VAR. What does that do?

• Removed the human element from the game.

• Takes up too much time and introduces too many interruptions within the game, a game that was previously free-flowing and continuous.

It is similar to Formula 1 racing. The analyzes that led to the fuel weight management systems and the numerous pit stops eroded the continuity of the race and spectator numbers diminished as technology advanced. A fairly similar trend could occur in soccer if this implementation becomes mandatory.

The positive side of advanced analytics in football:

Analytics isn’t all that bad in football. Take the case when Simon Wilson joined Manchester City in 2006. Simon Wilson was originally a consultant for an analytics startup called Prozone. He came to City to start an analytics division and hired the best data analysts under him. He wanted to change the way football teams use data. He saw that after a loss there was no self-examination as to why they had lost and what to do next time. City were a midfield club at the time. When the club was acquired by Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment, a private equity firm owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family, in September 2008, the team suddenly had the resources to take on a challenge represent the premier league. Today, Wilson is Manager of Strategic Performance Analysis at Manchester City. He oversees five departments, including the performance analysis team, which is now headed by a sports scientist named Ed Sulley.

After each game, the team’s performance data would be checked. The list is extensive. Line breaks (a rugby term), ball possession, pass success rates, ball win/loss time ratio were analyzed earlier. “Rather than looking at a list of 50 variables, for example, let’s find five that are really important to our playing style,” said Pedro Marques, match analyst at Manchester City.

“With the right data feeds, the algorithms will throw out the stats that have a strong relationship to wins and losses.” Wilson recalls a specific period when Manchester City hadn’t scored a corner kick in over 22 games, so his team decided to analyze over 400 goals scored from corner kicks. It was found that about 75 percent resulted from in-swinging corners, the type where the ball curves towards the goal. In the next 12 games of the next season, City scored nine goals from corners.

Teams are investing heavily in analytics today, and it works in their favor. Take a look at where Manchester City are today, sitting at the top of the Premier League table and not being threatened at all. Look at Manchester United this season, their game has been such that their possession percentages are low but their goal conversions are high. In the Manchester Derby on April 7, 2018, United had just 35% possession but defeated City 3-2. Each team has its own analysts who provide input depending on the strength of the team.

Advanced analytics is like the coin Two Face has in Batman: “Heads you die, tails you live!”

It can reap insane rewards from a team’s perspective, but at the same time disrupt the beautiful game by introducing unnecessary disruption and repetition, and taking the human element out of the game. The numerous repetitions and the different angles show the fans whether the referee made a mistake or not. Make mistakes, after all, to err is human. Refereeing in football is not an exact science and everything happens in real time. Let arguments arise over a decision, let passion prevail in arguments. Would you like to watch a football game like El Classico or the Manchester Derby and sit with your friends and say “It was a very clean game, the best team won!” No way! Don’t drive away the passion of football with technology and analytics. Let soccer be soccer and let technology stay away!