It is no surprise that big data is changing the way we act, think and work. But a particularly important revolution is happening within the sports industry, and especially in football. Thanks to the numerous possibilities offered by data analysis, football teams have revolutionized the way they hire athletes, monitor players and develop their tactics.
Nowadays, football clubs are hiring more statisticians than talent scouts. At every game, athletes are monitored by numerous electronic devices which control their heartbeats, distances covered, passes but also their speed and positioning on the pitch, among other things. On average, about 4 million data are collected during the 90 minutes of a game. Although this technology is not exactly new, it is becoming increasingly precise, diverse and detailed. This wealth of data has made the difference on and off the field for clubs.
The small Danish club, Midtjylland FC, had only one title in its history, a second division championship title before it was purchased by an English businessman, Mathew Benham. Midtjylland became the first football team to use data in Europe. Passionate about data and football, Benham is the founder of two sports betting companies, Matchbook and Smartodds. By taking over the Danish club, Benham quickly incorporated the use of data into the club’s philosophy. As an example, players unknown to the public, and playing in lower divisions, were signed thanks to data. The following season, the club went on and won the national championship, qualified for the preliminary round of the Champions League and then beat the giant Manchester United in the first leg of the Europa League last-32.
Another successful example is being applied by Liverpool. The Fenway Sports Group, owner of the club, has a profile focused on data collection. Its founder, John Henry, is known for having already invested in baseball. He offered Billy Beane, the man behind the Moneyball story, a $12.5 million deal to become general manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2002. Today, one of the data analyses used by Liverpool is “field control”. By tracking the field and perceiving the areas which are usually dominated by their opponents, the club can visualize the probability of a goal being scored in each action. The information can be complex, but once well used, it gives Liverpool a great advantage over their opponents.
Although we have some success stories, there are some details that numbers do not tell us. The English club, Fulham FC, started to use their analytics system known as RITA (Roster Improvement Through Analysis) in order to make their signings more scientific.That’s how Aboubakar Kamara joined the team. Even though he had excellent numbers, there is one thing that data couldn’t analyse: the character of the player. After a dispute at the training site, Kamara was arrested on suspicion of actual bodily harm and causing criminal damage.
With the increasing use of data in football matches, some people tend to look more at statistics than the match itself. Data only gives a certain kind of information, but there are a lot of intangibles which shouldn’t be overlooked such as the player’s character and work ethic. We cannot deny that the use of data has become an important asset. Yet, there is more which needs to be taken into consideration when a club wants to sign a new player. A combination of useful data, technical skills and mental attributes are the recipe for success.