That thing you thought? Think the opposite: Football, Data and OptaJoe

This post was contributed by James Fisk from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

In September 2014, England, having been ranked 10th best team in the world four months earlier, suffered an ignominious 1-0 defeat at Wembley Stadium to Norway, a team ranked 67th in the world. This came after an early FIFA World Cup 2014 exit in Brazil, a failure that had already galvanised England manager Roy Hodgson’s critics, who, emboldened by this latest humiliation now confronted the manager with a damning statistic: England had just two shots on target. There was also some more colourful language that I can’t replicate here. Hodgson replied “Don’t hit me with statistics,” and – clearly antagonised – dismissed the use of statistics to describe what had happened that night. Yet, despite this incredulity toward statistics from the national team manager, the analysis of statistics to achieve competitive advantage has become a huge part of the game; not just for viewers and Sky Sports infographic designers, but by clubs themselves who have integrated data analysis into their scouting networks, tactics and coaching systems. Data has become vital not only to how we interpret the beautiful game, but to how it is played too.

optajoeThe official Premier League data partner is Opta, a firm that collects millions of details from leagues across the globe and has built a picture of the game not possible before now. It’s no surprise then that when the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre invited Duncan Alexander, Opta’s Chief Data Editor, to discuss his new book OptaJoe’s Football Yearbook 2016: That thing you thought? Think the opposite the lecture theatre became very crowded, very quickly. As co-creator of the widely cited @OptaJoe Twitter account, a source used by the BBC, Sky Sports and, well, pretty much everyone, Duncan and Opta have worked not only to edify clubs’ understanding of football (working both with the Premier League and every individual club) but to puncture some passionately held opinions. Speaking to an audience of professionals, students and academics, Duncan discussed a few key insights drawn from his book that delve into some of football’s most puzzling events of the past few years; how on earth did Leicester win the league? What’s happened to Manchester United since Fergie? Who really is the all-time top scorer in the Premier League?

The prospect of Leicester City winning the 2015/16 Premier League title would have been dismissed by even the most stoically optimistic Leicester fans in April 2015, as the team sat rock bottom of the table. Just over a year later, Leicester were crowned champions of the Premier League, shocking pundits and forcing Gary Lineker into his pants on Match of The Day. However, as revealed by Duncan, we can at least understand some of this phenomenon by deconstructing it with data. For instance, Leicester made the second fewest changes to their starting line-up, for a League winner, in Premier League history. They earned the joint highest number of penalties in a season, drawing level with Crystal Palace and saw the biggest improvement in their points-per-game ratio of any club in top flight history (stretching back over 100 years).

When it comes to the apparent decline of Manchester United, who for a time had a near monopoly on the Premier League title, Duncan points to instability metrics as the most immediate indicator of the decline. David Moyes’ tenure saw him bring in his own coaches from Everton and then, for his 51 games in charge, played 51 unique starting line-ups. Duncan also discussed how data might inform debate, citing the dispute between Louis Van Gaal and Sam Allardyce over long-balls he explained that, in the five Premier League games with the most crosses, only two goals were scored from crosses. Fielding questions from the audience, Duncan also discussed how Opta have helped identify transfer targets for clubs, using their vast database to map a certain player profile – most notably their data helped Leicester identify N’Golo Kante in the summer of 2015.

On how data can further add to the beautiful game, Duncan discussed the ‘expected goals’ metric – an analysis of almost a million goal angles and positions that can tell you, based on chances, how effectively a team play. This can be used to gauge the effectiveness of certain players to allow managers and coaches greater flexibility in understanding of how to use their squad and in which situations certain players are better suited. The final extract from the OptaJoe 2016 Yearbook brings us back to the England team and their perennial failure at big tournaments. Data reveals that, after the 1966 World Cup, England have won only six games in the knockout stages of tournaments, including reaching the Semi-Final of Euro 96.

Indicated as much by demand from top tier clubs around the world, as the stream of questions posed to Duncan by the audience, it’s clear that data is already influencing football and looks set to play an even bigger role in the future. While the discussion over a few of these points provided fervent discussion among the audience, the book from OptaJoe provides many more statistics to show you that, what you thought you knew, you don’t.

For a full listing of future events and public seminars at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre, see our website. You can get a copy of the OptaJoe 2016 Yearbook here and you can follow them on Twitter using their handle @OptaJoe.

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Understanding Google

upscale-programme-blogFrederic Kalinke is a valued partner of the UpScale programme at Birkbeck College. He is Managing Director of Digital Animal and also runs Convertd, a digital marketing school, in his spare time. His workshop: ‘Understanding Google – A Practical Workshop on Digital Marketing’, equips students with the knowledge to fully exploit Google’s products as well as other digital marketing strategies. It provides students with valuable insights from the former Googler and is popularly attended and reviewed by Birkbeck students. The workshops are generously provided by Frederic for free, so we asked him his motivations for his involvement in UpScale and Birkbeck College.This year, Frederic ran workshops on: 14 Feb, 11 March, 13 October, 8 November. More workshops will be scheduled for next year.

What is your background?

I started out on Google’s graduate program, where I managed multimillion pound advertising budgets across AdWords, Display and Video for a number of clients from different industries. I also got a taste for product innovation by obtaining a patent for a new application that transforms YouTube into an audiovisual What’s On guide. The most enjoyable thing I did, however, was to develop my own methodology to teach Google’s myriad of solutions to businesses of all shapes and sizes.

What are you working on now?

I am MD of an advocacy marketing agency called Digital Animal. We’ve built a platform called Amigo that enables brands to deliver campaigns that transform customers into marketing assets. We believe that the digital revolution is not about the always-on connection brands have with their customers and prospects, but the connection between customers. Marketing’s goal should be to encourage and facilitate the conversations that happen when brands are not in room. Amigo delivers personalised experiences to a brand’s best customers and their friends, mirroring the experience a valued customers gets offline in their local shop. I also run Convertd where I teach digital marketing to advertising agencies, management consultancies and law firms.

How and why did you come up with the Understanding Google workshop?

We are living through a period of unprecedented transformation. The internet has ripped apart and redefined several industries within a short space of time. In order to stay on top, I believe people need to understand the principles driving online business, particularly how one acquires and retains customers in a digital age. Early in my workshop I say that understanding how Google works is as important to a business as having a bank account. It’s elementary to survival.

The workshop itself is the product of thousands of discussions with businesses. The mechanics of Google – SEO, AdWords, Display, YouTube, Analytics – and digital marketing in general is a complex subject with many interdependent parts. There are three building blocks in my teaching. First I dedicate enough time on setting the context through a number of icebreaker and thought experiment exercises. We review the digital opportunity, explain the difference between traditional and online advertising and explore the importance of data-driven decision making. Secondly, I make the workshop as practical as possible. There is a lot of audience participation and I make sure to display a cumulative glossary so that the audience can see the concepts they are learning and can put them into a context. This is because I am a big believer in the proverb that “if you tell somebody to do something they will forget, if you show somebody something they will remember, but if you involve somebody they will understand.” Thirdly I use metaphors to teach as they make the unfamiliar familiar and the new memorable. For instance, I use empire building, fishing, football and restaurants as a way to make key digital marketing concepts come alive.

What do you think students gain from attending your workshop?

Attendees will leave the workshop understanding the power of digital advertising as well as practical insights into Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), AdWords, Display, Social Media advertising, Youtube and Google Analytics. Overall I teach over 35 concepts and run a practical exercise within a 2.5 hour workshop so it’s pretty intensive. I also hope attendees leave inspired and empowered, appreciating the power that their newfound knowledge provides them, given that all industries have and will continue to be disrupted by the internet.

What are your motivations for participating in UpScale and partnering with Birkbeck College?

I am a big believer in the power of education and the idea that life is a path with no set destination. Birkbeck as an institution embodies this philosophy by offering courses for people to reskill and zig-zag. I get a lot of energy from teaching people from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life who are investing in their careers. The Upscale program is of particular interest as it focuses on technology and emphases women in tech, ethnic diversity and people with disabilities, all of which are very positive things.

What’s next for you?

My objective is to make Amigo, our technology platform, a global standard. I’ll be happy if marketing teams from around the world use Amigo to deliver highly effective and magical marketing experiences to their customers. I also want to continue running Convertd workshops across London as there’s nothing better than seeing people empowered to make the most out of the digital revolution that continues to spark and spread around us.

Testimonials from student attendees

“Really good at appealing to people who came in knowing nothing to those who already had a basic knowledge. Moved at a fast pace and kept everybody involved”

 

“The resources the Presenter included in the workbook provided for one to do more studying”

 

“Powerful insight around the behind the scenes and little known “secrets” of Google and Google Analytics. For example the How the Quality Score can reduce the cost of AdWords. Huge thanks to the Upscale Programme and Team”

 

“A complex subject was communicated in a clear and understandable way with an engaging and interesting presentational style”

 

“The presenter was able to deliver a digestible presentation and there were a few ‘eureka’ moments”

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“Arsenal, Arsène, David Dein and Me” – An Interview with Alex Fynn

Ahead of an event with Alex Flynn, author of Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, at the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre on Monday 28 November, James Fisk from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics interviews the author

arsenals-business-strategyThe book provides a comprehensive overview of the modern era for Arsenal, what led you to write the book?

Most of my career was spent in advertising and then, subsequently, I moved in to sports marketing. In advertising I had been successful because I was comparatively honest and would tell clients what they should hear, rather than what they wanted to hear. Comparative honesty was a huge liability in football marketing with it being a cut-throat business. It was a difficult role to have. I enjoyed working for a number of clubs in the Premier League, the Football Association and the Football League, but to some extent I was a fish out of water. I advised people on what they needed to hear and so many of my consultancies were rather short-term. This was then exacerbated by UEFA and the Premier League who centralised control of marketing and I did less and less consultancy work.

I wanted to be involved in the game and so turned to writing about it, something I do because I enjoy it and have access to that milieu and, essentially, that’s why I’ve written about Arsène and Arsenal. Indeed, I was one of the first people in England to meet him, having met him in 1985 when he was still the manager of Monaco… and I’ve known David Dein for 50 years or so. The book was written because I had access to all the main protagonists and it’s an intriguing story to tell, something I did with co-author, Kevin Whitcher, who is a big Arsenal fan. I look at it from an objective point of view, whilst my co-author, who  is the editor of the fanzine ‘Gooner’, provides a far more subjective view. He has an unrivalled depth of understanding about his club and I have a breadth of experience working for other clubs and organisations in football so it makes for a good partnership.

What influence do you think the appointment of Arsène Wenger has had on English football?

An enormous influence! He was a revolutionary, changing the way the game was played, changing the way players prepared and trained. His influence on the contemporary game in England really cannot be underestimated. I think that the problem has been that other managers and clubs have copied his innovations and then evolved and advanced them in their own ways. Arsène can be stubborn and, perhaps, in this respect, hasn’t moved on as fast as he should have done. Although, I would consider him a football genius, as with any genius they can occasionally get things wrong; they need to be challenged and to have quality personnel to back them up – something many of the key Premier League managers he’s faced have had. Arsène’s not had substantive back-up, certainly not in the way Sir Alex Ferguson had at Manchester United.

Wenger introduced a paradigmatic shift within the English game, but where do Arsenal go from here? There are recurring jokes within the football fan community that Arsenal fans call for Wenger’s resignation periodically, following defeats to other big clubs. What does the future hold for Arsène and Arsenal?

Well, you’ll have to wind back a few years. You have to accept that the policy of the club is made by the owner and, this owner in particular (Stan Kroenke) really believes  in self-sufficiency – you spend only what you earn. This means not going into debt to win trophies and, for context, the last time Arsenal made a loss was back in 2002. They could have spent much more than they have done in recent times. Arsenal have somewhat reluctantly accepted that paying higher wages and transfer fees gives them a chance of success.

Again, it’s worth bearing in mind that, until recently, success for Arsenal was finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League competition. But the bar Arsenal set in those early years of Wenger’s tenure was much higher, so today fans are left disappointed. HOWEVER, this season is the first in a long time that Arsenal have every position covered, something they’ve often lacked in previous campaigns, although they still lack enough World-Class players. I think it’s down to Wenger’s obstinacy, his desire to be successful without breaking the bank and fitting in with the owner and the boardroom culture at Arsenal. Whilst other clubs tend to prioritise prizes over profits, I think at Arsenal profits come before prizes.

The appointment of Wenger heralded an influx of foreign management talent into the Premier League. How do you think he’s influenced the FA and their appointments of the England national team manager?  

I think, in this context, it’s actually far more appropriate to discuss David Dein. He took the initiative to find Wenger and bring him to England. I think you could say that without Dein you’d have no Wenger. With no Wenger perhaps the Premier League wouldn’t have undergone the changes it has – at least not this quickly. Wenger really was revolutionary in those days; he was a target for the FA when they were looking for a manager. Of course, Dein’s remit was first and foremost Arsenal, but he is a big fan of English football and, when the FA came calling, he tactfully directed them away from Arsène Wenger and on to Sven Goran-Erikson, which wasn’t actually a bad move for the FA.

Now Dein is no longer at Arsenal and by Wenger’s side (although they are still friends and talk regularly). English football, and Arsenal in particular, have really felt the loss of David Dein. Arsenal have felt the loss in as much as Dein would have challenged them, his driving ethos was always to get a winning team. The irony, of course, is that to have an optimum business you really need a successful team.  And success means winning trophies and titles, or at least making a good fist of doing so

With regard to England, Dein has always been passionate about the national team, supported by strong club sides and in this respect, his loss has been that of both Arsenal and the England team. At the moment, the Premier League is not an English league, it’s an international competition that happens to be in England. We won’t ever have a strong national side as the league is dominated by foreign owners, coaches and players who, quite rightly prioritise their clubs.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

man-booker_colm-toibin-9722

On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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