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I caused a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter yesterday with my comments about football commentary, so much so that I thought it worth the time to explain it in longer format here.

For those who are blissfully unaware, this is what I said:

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That last part was the real impetus for the complaint. My son watches Match of the Day religiously. Every Sunday morning, he sits captive in his pew, listening to the wisdom of the commentator pastors preach about football.

Sitting there together Sunday morning, watching the Arsenal highlights, we heard this from Phil Neville:

“Walcott should have scored 4, or at least 3…”

MotD then walk through the first two goals, the first made via graft from Theo, the second mostly by being in the right place at the right time (though it’s a beautiful knockdown and turn). Then we get highlights of the next chance…

“He’s GOT to score. It’s a simple chance.”

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The shot is 7-8 yards out, off a headed pass. Walcott hits it cleanly, on the volley… WITH HIS LEFT FOOT. Now granted, it went straight at the keeper, but the problem here is this is anything but a simple chance.

Let’s break it down by layers.

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First, it’s a shot with feet, 7 yards out. That’s between a 40-60% chance of scoring.

However, it’s actually taken out of the air on the volley/half-volley from the side, which makes it closer to a cross. Now we’re in the 20-40% probability range, and probably at the lower bound because it’s a volley.

And finally, it’s with Walcott’s weak foot.

I’m an Arsenal fan and have been for about two decades now. There was definitely a period of time where I wasn’t sure Walcott HAD a left foot.

Now this is a guess because the sample size is too small to actually calculate it, but let’s say Walcott is probably half as likely to score from there with his left foot than his right.

We have now gone from Neville’s “simple chance” (which was never actually simple) to at most a 20% likelihood of it being a goal.

And this is my problem with commentary like this: It’s wrong.

Not just off-by-a-little-bit wrong, or yeah, mostly-in-the-same-range-but-imprecise wrong. This is completely-misanalysed-what-happened-on-that-chance wrong. It would be more fair to say Walcott did well to keep the ball down and get it on target with some power than it is to say he missed an easy chance.

The bigger problem here is that this happens all the time. We have commentary on football that doesn’t understand how the game actually works. I have heard commentators say goals should be scored off headers 12 yards away from goal. They must watch most of their football on some other planet, because that’s not how football here on Earth actually works.

Neville told the audience a very difficult chance was simple and that Walcott should have scored, neither of which is actually true. This is an opinion that is then easily refuted by data.

Lest you think I am cherry picking, let’s fast forward to the analysis of the WBA v. Spurs game in the same show.

Talking about Dele Alli, Shearer says, “I love the way he gets into the positions. He’s not afraid to miss them” (referring to shots).

*nodding along* Cool. Me too. Dele is such a clever midfielder in and around the box and I really love his sense of spa…

Shearer: “He’s got to work on his finishing.”

Wait, what? Why? Why would you say that? Aside from the fact that Alli is young and all football players presumably work on their finishing in some way, why would Shearer explicitly say this about Alli?

Unfortunately, we never find out. The show then cuts to show Alli’s goal, which just happens to feature an insanely good finish.

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Nine yards away, outside of the boot, across his body, in the corner and away from both the keeper and a defender on the line. The level of difficulty on this is incredibly high.

Funnily enough, if you look at both Alli’s and Walcott’s goal scoring stats, you see that they actually score more than we expect them to versus expected goal models. This is a pretty reasonable indication that both of these guys are at least above average when it comes to finishing chances.

But the Match of the Day analysts are telling us Theo missed a simple chance and Dele Alli needs to work on his finishing.

We Can Do Better
I don’t think Match of the Day or general football commentary needs to become a bastion of precise statistical analysis. It’s possible you could post the expected goal of a shot as a pop-up graphic on the screen, but it’s probably not necessary, and I certainly don’t want Alan Shearer saying a shot from a certain location is normally a 43% chance of being a goal.

However, I do think our commentators need to be less wrong.

Telling kids that the Walcott chance was simple and “should” have been finished is incorrect. This happens constantly, and I think the reason it happens is because so many of our ex-footballers who are now commentators were poorly trained in what should and should not be a goal.

The only way to overcome this is through education, and the best way is teaching via example. Get the data from their own finishing, or from that of their teammates, or current favourite players, or whatever, and walk them through the actual probabilities. I have done this myself with both footballers and coaches, both of whom have found the concepts very easy to grasp.

Additionally, telling the audience that Alli needs to work on his finishing might be fine, but you need to justify it with actual logic and example, and not just use it as a throwaway line.

The great part about having guys like Shearer on Match of the Day is that he was an amazing goalscorer. Leverage his knowledge to talk about what he thinks players could do better in front of goal, but in specifics not clichés.

Why do you think Alli’s finishing needs to be better beyond the fact that every shot he takes does not turn into a goal?
How does Alli make his finishing better?
What part of a technique does someone need to improve to allow them to put away these allegedly simple chances? Or did the goalkeeper simply close off all possibility of a chance becoming a goal by good anticipation and positioning?

So many times there are coaching badges on the couches that go completely unused as part of the commentary, but these little elements are the actual expertise the analysts bring to the show. Segue into past video analysis of Alli’s poor technique and suggest how Pochettino could improve that via drills going forward.

And while on the topic, maybe producers need to stop assuming that these ex-footballers actually know everything there is to know about football. It’s now clear to the general audience that they don’t, but somehow that never stops them from being both overcritical and constantly speaking in cliches that lack insight.

Story Time
The models for expected goals aren’t perfect. They never will be. That is an up-front admission that doesn’t remotely limit the impact of using them.

Right now the models are so much better than the pundit estimations it’s farcical.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and with some experts it’s definitely not.

Last summer I sat in a room with Bob Bradley – you may have heard of him – and I talked to him about how our models work in evaluating chances. His reply to me was that there are plenty of instances where a chance is either better or worse than the model thinks it is, because someone is blocking a player’s shot, or because “two of my guys have a body on a player trying to make a header” close to goal, or any number of other reasons.

And he was totally, completely correct. Without tracking data, we lacked the appropriate info to evaluate the different factors he throws into evaluating his own team, and even with tracking data, we couldn’t see everything with his expert eyes.

On the other hand, Bob’s eyes can’t evaluate every touch in every game across 27 different leagues. And no one in the world could sell us tracking data to go along with it. We could neither clone/scale Bob’s expertise, nor buy data that would let us make the dramatic improvements he wanted, so we simply did best with what we had.

Which, at that time, was probably better than 95% of other clubs in the world in using and evaluating data.

Expert eyes plus the data is far better than the data by itself. But right now, data is dramatically better than the “experts”, or at least the ones we see regularly on TV.

At some time in the future, it will be commonplace for experts to leverage data models and tell us why something was a better or worse chance than we might think based on the specific game situation. Unfortunately right now, using data at all is still a scary thing.

No One Will Watch/Read That
Back when I started writing about football stats in 2013, penalties were lumped in to all goalscoring stats, and no one in media ever used rate stats like per90. Nowadays we see some level of sophistication in both of these topics, even in mainstream outlets.

Basically, we are three years down the road, and a small proportion of the media talks about football in the way we started to back in 2013. Should we be satisfied with that? Hardly. The advances made in the last three years in public football research and knowledge about the game dwarf anything we knew back then.

The two things that haven’t changed at all are the older generation of newspaper writers and the entirety of television punditry. Columnists like Martin Samuel and most of his generation are a lost cause, which is fine because I’m not sure having them as champions for new things is a comfortable fit anyway. Television though…

Here’s the thing – the audience for football on TV is changing rapidly. Consumers have more football knowledge at their fingertips than ever before, but somehow almost none of that makes it through to broadcasts. Meanwhile, nearly every other sport on the planet is rapidly pushing forward with ways to add insight to their product.

The combination of these two elements makes football look like the kid wearing a dunce cap in the corner of the classroom.

It’s really not hard to talk more intelligently about the game. A lot of the work done in analytics is easily explainable to footballers, which means it’s both useful and digestible for a television audience.

Arsene Wenger mentions expected goals in a press conference. Do we think that’s by accident, or because he uses that as a tool to determine how well his team and individual players are executing on the pitch? And IF the concept is completely embedded at Arsenal and other teams in the Premier League, maybe it deserves to be broadcast on television?

Instead we get “distance run” stats, which to my knowledge have never been proven as relevant to anything in football other than telling us who happened to run further in a match. Which must be interesting for reasons that are completely unknown to me, because I have always been the type of person who wanted to figure out how to get the best results from the least amount of work, not the other way around.

I had a throwaway comment yesterday that we should take the Sunday Supplement panel and privately ask them how likely they thought a number of different shots were to turn into goals, then discuss the results. This sparked a lot of ire from certain members of the journalistic community. To me it’s an interesting experiment because again, I don’t think the actual difficulty of chances is very well understood, even among people who cover the game on a daily basis. To some journalists, I had clearly profaned their own Sunday morning church of aspirations with the prospect of making their elders potentially look silly.

My point was not to make people look bad out of ignorance. My point was that I want our press to speak more intelligently about the game, at least in this respect, and the only way you can do that is via education.

I am a huge, avid consumer of sports media. I subscribe to both Sky and BTSport. I am a Guardian member. I have been paying for ESPNInsider nearly constantly since 2002. I have also written for the Daily Mirror and appeared (briefly) on Sky, TalkSport, and BBCRadio 5Live. When I say we can and should do better, my criticism is both as a paying customer and as a producer of media content.

Back when Monday Night Football first started, there was a clear common belief that the average football fan probably wouldn’t be interested in smarter television about tactics and analysis. MNF blew that idea out of the water, but strangely we haven’t seen a flotilla of clones try to copy the formula.

I’ve heard the argument that people won’t watch or read more smart statistical analysis with their football either. They might be right, but it’s not as if anyone has really tried.

Meanwhile, Fantasy Football is one of the fastest growing ways to interact with the Premier League. There are literally tens of millions of unique players who take part in fantasy football leagues every week – a game that is entirely driven by statistical output of players.

This is to say nothing of the legions of Football Manager and FIFA Ultimate Team fanatics who also deep dive into games that are also entirely driven by player stats.

Hmm…

Meanwhile, in an age of media cutbacks, the world’s largest sports media company ESPN just launched a stats and analytics vertical because they thought there was a rabid audience out there who want to read smarter analysis of all sports, so it made sense to collect that information into one easily accessible place.

Hmmmm…

Oh my god do people gamble every week on the Premier League. With odds. That are probabilities.

Hmmmmmm…

OptaJoe has 852K followers on their English account alone. WhoScored and Squawka nearly 600K a piece.

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There is an audience out there. Leveraging their interest while making a workable media property is the tricky part, but some combination of fantasy sports, gambling, statistical analysis (especially visualizations) and tactical insight probably makes sense.

Conclusion
I want smarter football commentary.

I want it so that my children, who are rapidly becoming football consumers themselves, can understand more about the game they are learning to love without me having to fact check every step of the way. And I want it so that I don’t want to simply turn off the sound or fast forward the analysis section every single time I watch your program.

The bar here is pretty low. I have personal experience teaching a lot of these concepts inside of football, and they are honestly not that hard to grasp.

I also want to listen to experts who clearly have something unique to contribute, and see them show their expertise in a way that teaches me new things. And I want to hear far fewer cliches from guys who are paid significant sums of money to appear on my TV and contribute knowledge and insight while doing anything but.

I will take insightful, lesser-known commentators and analysts on my football every time versus well-known, cliché-spewing sound machines. The vast majority of people I talk to will too.

There is an audience here. If you build it, they will come.

  • NinJa

    Good stuff! But if you want to have a real impact on the football world through analytics, you need to look at analogous situations in other sports where analytics have had an impact.

    Take baseball. The Oakland Athletics won year after year in the 1990s by championing high-OBP/SLG players who were underpaid. Coupled with advocates in the media like Rob Neyer (then at ESPN), the realization spread to other teams that some stats (e.g., OBP) are far more important for success than the old, cliched ones (like Batting Average). Soon the book (and then movie), Moneyball, appeared. Now, every team in MLB is heavily oriented towards analytics.

    To translate this into football, the analytics community should
    champion “smaller” clubs that achieve success using lessons learned
    from xG or other models. You really need a poster child for analytics.

    What is frustrating is that you may well have that in the Premier League with clubs like Leicester, Southampton, and maybe Everton. But all the talk, analysis, and discussion still centers around the richest (“Big 6”) clubs and any time a smaller club achieves something they are dismissed as being “outliers”, “lucky” and “unsustainable”.

    For example, on this site, Ted seems to be an Arsenal fan and James a Tottenham fan. It would help if both of you and your other writers at least had a “second” team in the PL that you embraced and analyzed closely week after week.

    The problem is exacerbated in football by the willingness of clubs to disregard the contracts they sign with their own players after a year. For instance, after one good year at Southampton, Sadio Mane is sold to Liverpool even though he has signed a 4 year contract. That is no way to sustain success. The path to success is to identify bargains, sign them to long-term contracts and KEEP THEM over the duration of their contracts. The player’s desire to change teams should have nothing to do with it.

    • Spursiolo

      I think that over the next couple of years you might start seeing some resistance to players looking for a move. I also wonder what the impact of Brexit is going to be on this issue in England? Could it actually become easier for smaller teams to resist bigger teams’ poaching attempts?
      Overall, I think that there are a few teams in the second tier who are looking to be in quite good health – Everton, Swansea, Bournemouth, and Southampton. They may not be consistent enough to challenge the top 6 yet, but I think that they will be able to continue to build.

      Here’s a question since I wasn’t in the states at the time of Billy Beane’s rise – how much media attention was on them during the regular season, before they started reaching the playoffs/division championship game every season? Or was it all in hindsight?

      • Ron IsNotMyRealName

        Smaller teams in England or abroad? If England significantly weakens, it might matter a bit, though a lot of the revenue is derived from abroad. I don’t know if their TV deal specifies a denomination to be paid in or not. With the number of teams with US-based owners, I would think arranging to be paid in US dollars would be a preferable option, and Murdoch certainly has access to that.

        But right now the midtable clubs (and downtable) are more able to resist the big clubs than ever before. It’s not even close. Clubs simply don’t have to sell for financial reasons.

        I would say the attention has mostly been backward looking, though people in the know knew that Sandy Alderson was a stats guy among the baseball people in the profession. He’s actually the one that really started the As down that track. Moneyball obviously popularized the story. The thing that people don’t talk about much about that A’s team is that their biggest advantage was that they had 3 very good young pitchers, which has very little to do with moneyball. A team might be able to get a data-driven advantage through the draft now (though I’m not sure many really do), but back then, not really. Give him average pitchers with the same moneyball hitters, and probably no one ever makes a movie about them.

    • Ron IsNotMyRealName

      I think Ted would love to have been that champion, but it wasn’t up to him, ultimately. I think there’s also good evidence that his work made a difference (ask Manchester United).

      As far as the writing itself, I agree, but I imagine their thinking is that they have a better chance to get a broader audience by not focusing quite so tightly. Like the stuff Dustin Ward is doing I think is excellent. Ted is probably trying ot keep his cards close to the vest, and not give away the farm.

      Mane was a great example of how even when people use data, they often get it wrong. People looked at Mane and his dry spell and his total goal rate and saw him as a reach, at best. But if you looked at only the games where Mane played the position and role he would play at Liverpool, and well, all I can say is you got a distinct Alexis Sanchez impression. G/90 are similar, both are active tacklers, both get tons of shots in the box for wide players (up to this year for Sanchez, anyway). Add in that Mane is only 24 and at 34M or whatever, he was a no brainer. I support Liverpool and he was tops on my wish list. I was overjoyed. I was something less than overjoyed at their other summer business (not counting Matip in that since it was well done by then). Karius looks shaky, Wijnaldum is fine but you feel they could have done better (maybe with Idrissa Gueye, who was a stat monster that I’m sure people here noticed, but didn’t talk about all that much).

      Swansea or Bournemouth would be a good test case, but one issue is that in MLB, there’s basically no downside if you’re a small market team to taking chances. But in the PL, you have relegation. So maybe the better case is a team that’s generally safe from relegation, but trying to take the next step. Southampton, West Ham, Everton, maybe Crystal Palace. Swansea has been safe lately but they’re still fragile, and I think they may be in trouble now with the underpowered hire they’ve made.

      Really IMO the big gains are to be made in Germany. If Britain really is harmed by Brexit, Germany will be the natural winner football-wise. Red Bull Leipzig has given a great view as to what’s possible.

  • NinJa

    To put it differently: (almost) every year, there are only 6 clubs that have a remote chance of winning the PL. The way forward for the analytics community is to show how a small team can build a sustainable winner, competing for the title year after year. Unless and until that happens, football analytics will NEVER have the impact that it should.

    • Ron IsNotMyRealName

      This assumes that they can. In the long run, Oakland wasn’t sustainable either. They got picked apart, and teams stole their advantage by adopting their tactics, and then going way beyond. Analytics might be able to help build a great at a smaller club, but they can’t suspend economic reality, and you can’t just replace a player at the time he’s sold, because buying is a more a matter of seeing value and opportunity, and that may not match a positional need.

  • Richard Hughes

    Ted – what evidence do you have that the audience for football on television is changing rapidly? Do you have access to BARB figures and demographics going back 10 years? Have you seen the viewing figures and audience research for MNF and Match of the Day? Have you conducted your own verified research – or heaven forbid – is this just an ‘opinion’ you casually plucked out of mid-air to support your article?
    Interesting you choose Fantasy Football as a pillar of your argument. A game based on goals scored, assists and clean sheets…all of which are referenced every week on television. I’ve not seen a game yet handing out points for expected goals.
    As for betting, I do believe that began sometime before 2013 when the analysis revolution apparently began.
    You must really pity all those ‘mug’ punters who’ve enjoyed a weekly bet on football for the past 100 years without the benefit of analytic models.
    Also could you be any more condescending towards players and coaches when you talk about “walking them through” your models and that they’re very “easy to grasp”.
    These are people who’ve succeeded in perhaps the most competitive industry of all and deserve better than being told: “it’s ok…I’m a genius but don’t worry this is easily explainable…even a you as a footballer would understand”.
    There’s room for everyone in football, and data and analysis is obviously a critically important part of game but so is opinion and debate. Of course you are just as entitled to your view as any pundit on television.
    I just think you’re in danger of coming across as a ‘cliche spewing sound machine’ with such a patronising and misinformed view of footballers in general and also the skills and experience they bring to punditry, regardless of whether you agree with them or not.

    • Murray Thomas Allan

      Marginally harsh. It’s a pundit’s job to have an informed opinion, with the key word there being informed. They wouldn’t struggle to put their hands to the information referenced in the article so why should we accept the dark days of the past 100 odd years? Just so pundits can trot out the same old lines that would have some teams winning 20-0 each week?

    • Spursiolo

      I’ll agree with Murray Thomas Allen – I think you’re being a bit harsh. I will say that even if the writer doesn’t have all the evidence you ask for, I will say that I, for one, am totally ready for a new type of football show with more varied analysis that the stuff that gets regurgitated on MOTD every week.

      Having said that, I do think that Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas are the two exceptions to this – both of them have stepped up their level of analysis. As Ted says, its a low bar, but its encouraging nonetheless.

      Phil Neville is just crap. Same for Chris Sutton. Not an interesting/enlightening thought between the two of them.

    • Ron IsNotMyRealName

      My experience is that the viewing public is mixed, and polarized. Some people eat up the analytics and love the chance to look under the hood and see what’s happening. Others actively resent the encroachment of (relatively) advanced analytics on the game. They see it as a simple game about individual skill, brilliance, teamwork, etc. When someone takes a pop from outside the box, they aren’t thinking about expected value and whether it captures the value in the shot.

      I think it’s right that the commentators are mostly dull and unoriginal. The bias is nauseating as well. One pre-game with Jurgen Klopp was better than the last year on Sky. He showed clearly why Gary Neville was out of his depth as a manager — just far above the level of him or Carra.

      It would be cool if an analytics-focused manager like Allardyce got into an influential position. I wonder if after he retires Wenger will talk about innovation in analytics and what might have happened at Arsenal in that regard.

  • Paul Tiensuu

    You should print this, at least the first chapter on Walcott, send it to BBC, and tell them to rub it in Phil Neville’s face.

  • Gamblein

    Dear Ted,

    I feel bad that you are getting stick, especially since your ideas have merit and are that backed up by facts. My personal gripe is with commentators saying that keepers have to keep out all near post goals. While that is a great mentality to have, I am not sure that is always realistic, I have been an outfield player all my life, but I dislike that commentators (who are usually not keepers) criticizing keepers unfairly.

    Maybe to add in more subtlety, shearer’s meaning could be that a world-class player should but that Walcott chance in, do you have any shot maps of Messi, Ronaldo at 7-8 yards from crosses? I assume those you presented in this article are probabilities of all shots from all players.

    Ninja, great point about the Oakland As but you will notice that people praise them for winning but not the world series in the moneyball era, and criticize Wenger for doing the same. To be fair, the Oakland As might have it harder, and the availability of postseason creates another layer of targets for teams.

    Richard, erm, Ted just showed a chart to back up his ideas, so it is not baseless, remember we can discuss the chart and ideas, but please don’t accuse him of plucking ideas out of the air, the chart was in the article!

  • NinJa

    Richard said: “Also could you be any more condescending towards players and coaches when you talk about “walking them through” your models and that they’re very “easy to grasp”. These are people who’ve succeeded in perhaps the most competitive industry of all and deserve better than being told”

    No, Ted is right about shot locations and shot probabilities. And if you read other articles on this site, you would be able to see that.

    Players and coaches in every sport have many blind spots. They do things the “way they have always been done”. Good analytics can open their minds to new possibilities.

    For example:

    * In baseball, up until recently, coaches and GMs kept over-valuing batting average (BA) and kept undervaluing players who hit lots of home runs but struck out a lot. This has changed a lot in the past decade due to the influence of analytics.

    * In basketball, coaches still over-value players with high usage rates and mediocre shooting percentages. Long 2-point shots are advocated, whereas the corner-3 has a much higher probability of success. Only recently have teams like the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors upended conventions and tailored their teams around 3-pointers and shots in the paint. The record for most 3-pointers in a season was set only recently.

  • Spursiolo

    appreciate the article and your thoughts generally. I watch the premiere league from the states and here the colour commentary is done lately by lee dixon, who is quite insightful at times and talks about what the players might be going through on the pitch *in the context* of the match that is happening, not in generalities or cliches. However, the best co-commentator I’ve heard by in recent times was actually Tim Howard. His insights into how the defense should be setting up for a particularly placed free kick or corner was amazing, and for me, pretty much unprecedented.

    I think you were a bit harsh on Alan Shearer. The context of his comment was a montage of Alli’s chances, not just the goal (what a brilliant finish btw). He just showed that he ran onto a 1 on 1 from the left, on his stronger foot, with plenty of time to think about it, and Lamela wide open on the penalty spot and he managed to put it basically in the only spot that the keeper should be able to reach.

    This isn’t the first time he’s done this. Alli’s made a fair habit of missing even simpler (don’t know the expected percentage on that particular one) chances, both for Spurs and England. Luckily for Spurs, he’s better than that more often not, and even in a match where he flickered sporadically, he’s so important to have in the team because of what he showed with that goal.

    • kidmugsy

      Those of us who remember the Shearer of his early seasons as a commenter know that it’s impossible to be too harsh on him. He’s weak now; then he was horrendous. Mind you, I’m old enough to remember wen Alan Hansen was far and away the best of the chaps who did that job. I agree that Lee Dixon is good; does anyone know why he left the Beeb?

  • Ron IsNotMyRealName

    This is more like what I come here for.

  • Froyo

    Their level of English is pathetic! Just listen to how the talk, it’s like they’re in a squatter camp. That is terrible generalisation, but it’s true, mostly. It baffles me how some of these ex-pro commentators made a living out of football.