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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 leap forward in terms of technology. Fast forward 60 years, watching sports on TV has become the most basic thing. Today we watch sports on the go on our cell phones or any device with a screen and internet connectivity. Proud of how far we’ve come, aren’t we? I hope I can change your opinion on this by the end of this article.

What is sports? Sport is a group of people who come together to play a game with predefined rules and a referee to ensure that these rules are followed during the passage of the game. I am a sports lover and I play sports all the time. time. My love for tennis and football in particular is indefinable. My problem with technology and advanced analytics was about football in particular. Football is such a beautiful game. The strategies that the coaching staff come up with and the way they are executed on the pitch by the players, it’s actually a thing of beauty. I was a football player myself (just an average player) and played on various teams. I know firsthand how strategies are constructed, how much thought goes into a single sequence of play.

Enter -> Advanced Analytics

Most of you would have seen the movie Moneyball. The film was based on the book that Michael Lewis wrote in 2003. It tells how a jock turned luminary uses advanced statistics to gain a competitive advantage over his better-funded opponents. This book caused a revolution in sport. Fans and football club boards no longer wanted to settle for mediocre statistics or analysis. What Moneyball did was it took an old cliché – “sports are business” and moved us to the next logical question – “how can we do things smarter?”

Now let’s talk about advanced analytics. Advanced analytics in today’s world plays a huge role in every industry. Advanced analytics has been a boon to us. In moving from descriptive analytics to prescriptive analytics, we’ve come a long way. In various businesses, where the requirements are high, advanced analytics are of utmost importance.

When you look at football, it’s a game that doesn’t require too much artificial intelligence, it’s a game that needs the human element. When you bring in analytics and technology and try to reduce the human element in sports, it just crushes the spirit of the game.

Relying on analysis strongly killed the Premier League’s long ball game and brought the pressing and continuous tiki-taka to pass. Each league had its own style of play. The Premier League had the brash, brazen style of football that was called “The way real men play football”. There were some nice long balls, hard tackles but all the players just sucked it in, pushed it away and it was up to the referee on the pitch whether or not to penalize the offender. There were arguments and fights, the passion of the fans was crazy, it 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 football world disappeared soon enough and the diving and biting began. Then there was the tiki-taka style of football that was played in the Spanish La Liga, the silky style of play that caught everyone off guard. The legendary Pep Guardiola and his army in Barcelona were the masters of tiki-taka. There was Real Madrid who were still a star side with excessive parts of their game relying on lightning fast counters which more often than not left opponents stunned. There was Manchester United who had their own brand of football led by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. This United team was a team of courage and character. Each of these leagues had its own beauty and the teams had their own style of play.

When you bring in excessive technology and analytics, sad technologies emerge like VAR (Video Assistant Referees).

The operation of the VAR takes place in 3 stages:

Step 1

The incident occurs

The referee informs the VAR, or the VAR recommends to the referee that a decision/incident be reconsidered.

2nd step

Examination and advice by the VAR

The video footage is reviewed by VAR, who informs the referee via headset what the video shows.

Step 3

A decision or action is taken

The referee decides to review the video footage at the side of the field of play before taking the appropriate action/decision, or the referee accepts information from VAR and takes the appropriate action/decision.

Now the referee can consult VAR for any doubts he wants to clarify. What does it do?

• Removes the human element from the game.

• Takes too long and brings too many stops in the game, a game that was previously fluid and continuous.

This makes it similar to Formula 1 racing. The scans that resulted in the fuel weight management systems and the numerous pit stops ended the continuity of the race and the viewership dwindled with the increase in technology. A rather similar trend could occur in football if this implementation becomes mandatory.

The positive side of advanced analytics in football:

Analytics aren’t that bad in football. Take the case of when Simon Wilson joined Manchester City in 2006. Simon Wilson was initially a consultant for an analytics startup called Prozone. He joined City to start an analytics department and hired top data analysts under him. He wanted to change the way data was used by football teams. He saw that after a loss there was no soul-searching about why they lost and what to do next time. City were a mid-table club at that time. In September 2008, 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, the team suddenly found itself with the resources necessary to mount a challenge for the Premier League. Today, Wilson is Manchester City’s director of strategic performance analysis. He has five departments under him, including the performance analysis team, which is now headed by a sports scientist named Ed Sulley.

After each match, the team’s performance data would be reviewed. The list is long. Line breaks (a rugby term), possession of the ball, pass success rates, ball win/loss time ratio were what was analysed. “Instead of looking at a list of 50 variables, we want to find five, say, that really matter to our style of play,” says Manchester City match analyst Pedro Marques.

“With the right data feeds, the algorithms will produce the statistics that have a strong relationship to wins and losses.” Wilson recalls a particular period when Manchester City hadn’t scored from corners for more than 22 games. His team therefore decided to analyze more than 400 goals scored from corners. It was noticed that around 75% resulted from in-swinging corners, the type where the ball curves towards the goal. The next 12 games of the following season saw City score nine goals from corners.

Teams are investing heavily in analytics today and it works in their favor. Look where Manchester City sit today, sitting atop the Premier League table and under no threat at all. Look at Manchester United this season, their play has been such that their possession percentages are low but their goal conversions are high. The Manchester Derby on April 7, 2018 saw United having just 35% of possession but they managed to prevail against City 3-2. Each team has its set of analysts who provide contributions based on the strength of the team.

Advanced analysis is like the Two Face piece in Batman, “Heads you die, Heads you survive!”

He can reap crazy rewards from a team’s perspective, but at the same time can disrupt the beautiful game by causing unnecessary stoppages, replays and removing the human element from it. The many replays and different angles show the fans whether the referee made a mistake or not. Let error happen, after all to err is human. Refereeing in football is not an exact science and everything happens in real time. Whether there are arguments about a decision, let the passion in the argument shine through. Do you want to watch a football game like the El Classico or the Manchester Derby and sit down with your group of friends and say “that was a very clean game, the better team won!” Surely not! Don’t chase football passion with technology and analytics. Let football be football and let technology stay away!

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