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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