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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“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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Sports business professionals advise Birkbeck students on how to crack the industry

Event: The Football Industry Uncovered: How to Make a Career in Sports

This post was contributed by Jenna Davies, an employability consultant in the Birkbeck Careers and Employability team.

event-1Birkbeck Careers and Employability’s Upscale Programme welcomed sports industry professionals working in a range of roles to deliver an inspiring panel event on following a career in this field. From the player side to the club side, attendees gained an invaluable insight into the world of sport and what it takes to get to where the panellists are today.

Hugo Scheckter, Player Liaison Officer at Southampton FC, honed in on the importance of having the right motivation to succeed. Hugo says it’s not about being a super fan of the club you want to work for, as that will often result in an automatic rejection for the job; it’s about being passionate and showing your professionalism and commitment. Hugo studied and worked overseas before returning to the UK with his current role, advising students to consider working internationally or out of London where a host of opportunities will exist.


Confidence was a key theme throughout the event, with every panellist referring back to the importance of being confident in yourself and what you have to offer; purely having strong knowledge in your field won’t get you through the door or progress you in the industry. Ehsen Shah, a director at digital and commercial agency The Integrity Club, develops player profiles in order to provide strategic partnership opportunities. Hard work and absolute dedication to his career propelled Ehsen to where he is today, and his advice to students was smart networking and going out to find opportunities.

Leon Anderson, a football executive with Wasserman Media Group, rated Jerry Maguire among his pool of inspirational moments and it’s clear he’s an exceptionally professional and devoted agent to the players he represents.  Bouncing back from a number of setbacks throughout his career to date, Leon highlighted the importance of staying focussed on your goal and pushing through the obstacles to make a success of your career in sport.

Every panellist exuded positivity around their demanding roles and intense work schedules and Daniel Geey, a partner and sports lawyer at Sheridan’s, summarised the discussions about the secret to their successes: that there is no secret. Perseverance, positivity, hard work and, ultimately, building connections led to their success today. Given the response from students, who queued to have a further chat with the guys at the end of the evening, it seems the advice was well received and ready to be put into action.

The Upscale Programme is part of Birkbeck Careers and Employability, hosting a range of employer-led events to inspire students to get into technology within their field of interest. For more information and to book similar events visit the Upscale Programme website.

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Not Only Lewandowski: the resurgence of Polish football

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

The Polish national stadium in Warsaw

The Polish national stadium in Warsaw

There are few things rival football fans set aside their partisan passions for. Indeed, there are also few places with rivalries as pronounced as in Polish football, a place where rivalries can become enmeshed in local politics, cultural identity and even criminality. But, for all the bitter rivalries present, there is one thing most fans will agree on: Polish football is not what it used to be.

During its heyday in the 1970s and 80s, Polish football saw its national team reach two World Cup semi-finals (1974 and 1982) and three of its domestic teams (Legia Warsaw, Widzew Łódź and Górnik Zabrze) reach the semi-finals of the European Cup (now called the Uefa Champions League).  Players such as Włodzimierz Lubański, Kazimierz Deyna and Zbigniew Boniek were the envy of Europe’s biggest clubs and helped cement a golden era for Polish football, an era all the more distinguished by failures played out in the following two decades.

Between 1997 and 2015, there were no Polish teams in the Champions League and between 1987 and 2002 the national team failed to qualify for either the World Cup or the European Championships – a devastating indictment of a footballing regime that had become mired in match-fixing and corruption scandals, culminating in its league champions being punitively relegated, over 100 arrests of players and officials and the entire board of the Polish Football Association being suspended in 2007/08. This nadir signalled an overdue change in the fortunes of Polish football. Euro 2012 served as a catalyst in forging a new identity, ethos and strategy that could launch Polish football back to its position among football’s elite teams and nations. It is this ascendency that brought Robert Blaszcak, a sports media executive and commercial consultant to clubs, federations and media groups, to Birkbeck to discuss this transformation and moving past Euro 2012.

Discussing the steps necessary to a resurgent Polish game, Blaszcak highlighted some crucial areas of development taken by the Polish FA. The most immediate would be the benefits of hosting tournaments and events, as Euro 2012 saw £26 billion invested into infrastructure, something that has provided a platform for the remaking of Polish football. Another chief component was the rebranding initiative that introduced new logos, crests and fan engagement strategies. This, along with securing themselves as hosts for the 2015 Europa League Final and significant investment into youth and women’s teams, has recalibrated the dominant narrative around the Polish league, the ‘Ekstraklasa’, and created a new identity separate from the tarnished one of the 90s and 00s. Furthermore, the league itself has been restructured to avoid scandals of the past, with a transparent distribution model maintaining domestic competition and allowing bigger clubs to still compete in Europe. Indeed, the salary to revenue ratio in the Ekstraklasa is at 52%, something British clubs such as Chelsea, with a ratio of 68%, must see as a far healthier balance between revenue and talent.

Central to galvanising Polish fans however, have been the creative and concerted efforts of club marketers, with a robust commitment to bringing in new fans and those who were disillusioned some years ago being targeted with creative and engaging marketing campaigns. This has translated into games being populated with many younger people, a crucial aspect in creating a sustainable following for clubs and guaranteeing the future of the domestic game. During the ‘dark years’ for Polish football, many young fans adopted ‘second teams’ that would compete in the Champions League, whiletheir hometown clubs failed to reach the group stage. Although events on the pitch are beginning to reflect these positive changes, events off the pitch still have a long way to go, as evidenced by Legia Warsaw’s recent dramatic draw with Real Madrid – a fantastic result marred by the fact it was played behind closed doors due to fan trouble. While many problems persist, particularly in the influence of local politics and crowd trouble, Polish football looks finally set to redeem its golden years.

Robert Blaszcak’s talk was part of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre public seminar series, an opportunity for open discussion and dialogue, with guest speakers chosen to reflect current trends and issues in the sporting world. You can see their upcoming events by visiting their website.

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