moneyball

M******** (a.k.a “The Scottish Play”)

“Sometimes what doesn’t happen can be just as important as what does”

(Chris Anderson, Footballers Football Show, 2013)

Last week I had the good fortune of being invited to present at the inaugural OptaPro Analytics Forum. This forum featured many interesting guests from a wide variety of backgrounds, including representatives from professional clubs, getting together to talk about how numbers can be used to enhance our understanding of “the beautiful game”.

When contemplating the event later that evening it dawned on me that there had actually been a rather large elephant in the room . Just like superstitious Shakespearian actors,  even though many interesting topics were covered, not a single speaker or audience member mentioned “the M-word”.

baker

Statistics in sport hit the mainstream in 2011 when Brad Pitt starred as former Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane in “That Movie”. The film tells the story of how a down-on-its-luck, low budget baseball club achieved unprecedented success through the innovative use of statistics. The club’s success is primarily due to Beane (Pitt) and, in the Hollywood version, his hiring of a young stats whiz kid (Jonah Hill).

Around the same time “M********” was premiering, John W Henry was settling in to his new role as owner of Liverpool Football Club. Henry is also owner of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, had worked with Beane previously, and made no secret of his intention to try to implement a similar approach to building and running a “soccer” club.

One of Henry’s first moves was to appoint Frenchman Damian Comolli as “Director of Football Strategy”. Comolli had spoken before of his admiration for the work of people such as Beane, and was immediately given the remit of managing Liverpool’s recruitment strategy.

In the summer of 2011, Comolli oversaw an unprecedented signing spree:

carroll

Liverpool’s signings that season included Andy Carroll (£35m), Charlie Adam (£9m), Stewart Downing (£20m) and Jordan Henderson (£16m).

 The 2011/12 season was a disaster. Despite winning the League Cup next to none of the signings paid off. Liverpool finished 8th in the Premier League and both Comolli and manager, Kenny Dalglish, were sacked soon after. It was not difficult to sense a feeling of satisfaction in many quarters that such a numbers driven “experiment” had failed.

What struck me from several discussions at the OptaPro Forum, was that many people who work in this fledgling analytics community now see it as part of their job to defend statistics in sport and rebuild the appetites of club owners and fans for such work.

Although there have been several positive developments recently – notably Chris Anderson and David Sally publishing The Numbers Game and Sky Sports devoting a whole episode of The Footballer’s Football Show to statistics (3rd December 2013) – there has been an undeniable sense of a stalling, despondency and collective banging of heads against brick walls.

Chris Anderson is a well-respected and thoughtful academic but it was perhaps unfortunate that his co-panellists on The Footballer’s Football Show were Sam Allardyce and our friend Mr Comolli.  Allardyce speaks often of his admiration for statistics and video analysis, but the consistent lack of aesthetic appeal with which his teams often play is surely part of the reason that the phrase “playing the percentages” comes with such negative connotations.

recent article for When Saturday Comes in the Guardian caused a stir with a scathing attack on the field, including such lines as “these people don’t deserve football” . Only last night journalist and radio DJ Danny Baker tweeted to his 300,000 followers “Surely now we can finally see ‘stats’ are train spotting bullshit”.

 

allardyce comolli

Are Allardyce and Comolli really the best advert for football analytics?

  “M********” is an adaptation of a 2003 book by Michael Lewis which, for me, is far more interesting than the movie. This book was a catalyst for an explosion of similar work in the US, whose major sports all seem more prepared to embrace  such work than soccer. Indeed Henry himself is a confirmed speaker at the forthcoming MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference alongside  such high profile figures as current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck .

However, in this country it is the juxtaposition of the sugar-coated Hollywood story and the failings of  Comolli-era Liverpool with which most conversations about statistics in football both begin and end.

 

adam

It seems the shadow of Charlie Adam looms large in more ways than one.

 One analogy that sprung to my mind was the 2011 UK referendum on a proportional representation voting system (bear with me!). I, and many people I know, were advocates of such a system but I remember being not entirely satisfied with the actual proposal put forward by the Yes campaign. As such, I am sure many either abstained or actually voted to keep the current system. I personally voted Yes, not particularly because I liked the system for which I was voting – I just recognised that if the campaign was defeated this time the issue would likely not make its way back onto the political agenda in my lifetime.

Just because Liverpool was the first club to experiment with analytics and it failed, do we now write off the entire field of work for a generation?

It was therefore with some trepidation that I made my way to Birkbeck University this week – how would the forum play out? What would be the response from the army of mysterious and secretive “performance analysts” that the clubs had (almost) all sent? I personally envisaged one of two responses – either “Stats in football? Nonsense. What can you do for me? Tell me to sign Andy Carroll?” or maybe the polar opposite “Stats, brilliant, yes we have been doing that for years but we can’t possibly tell anyone, our managers would shoot us”.

Fortunately what actually transpired was a series of varied and interesting presentations across a wide variety of topics, with equally stimulating debate both during and after. My personal background is in the betting industry, but there were presentations from people in fields as varied as telecommunications, accountancy and theoretical biology. It was hugely rewarding for “outsiders” such as myself to have the opportunity to share our work.

In addition, much of the work was of a level that it was easy to envisage immediate and tangible benefits for clubs resulting from it.

Of particular interest were two presentations of work that is actually currently ongoing at two of the top clubs in the whole of Europe. Pedro Marques (1st team analyst at Manchester City) presented some of his and his colleagues work on visualising the nature and frequency of passing networks by forthcoming City opponents. This included not just detail on how they collect and look for patterns in the data, but also actual training ground footage of the coaching staff implementing their findings.

Also, representatives from Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica presented some of the work they have done for none other than FC Barcelona on “Players’ pre- and post-pass movements” – that is, not only measuring what happens when players have the ball, but actually measuring players’ movements when they do not have the ball.

After the event, it was enlightening to talk with representatives sent from Liverpool FC (who were not, incidentally, part of the Comolli regime) about the challenges they faced in trying to rebuild the reputation of analytics at the club in the wake of its previous experience. I think this remains a challenge for the whole industry. A club requires the full and unstinting support of all stakeholders to have any kind of success with data analysis but the vision really has to come right from the top. They spoke positively of the support they continue to receive from John W Henry and, judging by recent performances at least, it seems that finally Henry’s faith could be on its way to being rewarded.

To see clubs of the stature of Liverpool FC, Manchester City and FC Barcelona put their weight behind data analytics should be a huge incentive for other clubs to make similar investments – and not just financial investments.

Personally, I found the forum immensely energising and I hope to be able to continue to do work in this field in the future.

Just don’t mention the M-word.

 

  • Mike

    I find it strange that you mention liverpool, City, WHU and Barca. But forget Wenger, who first used statistics in the premier leaguue and reaped the benefits. Like thee Henry trandsfer who was used in the wrong way. An d the mandatory 60th minute substitution of bergkamp in his later years.

    • Oliver Page

      Hi Mike,
      Thank you for your comment. I do agree, I certainly could have mentioned Wenger and some of the reaction to his initial appointment in particular (probably no coincidence that he too was coming into the Premier League from overseas).
      The piece is largely a response to some of the current debates which I hope I am right in saying have become more mainstream since the movie was released.
      I am sure Arsenal could be added to my list of teams doing positive work with statistics too. They are perhaps just a bit more secretive about it than others 🙂

  • Henry

    Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Certainly food for thought – I wonder how a lower league side like current League 1 strugglers Shrewsbury Town could benefit from such forward thinking.

    • Oliver Page

      Maybe an idea for a next article…;-)

  • toshack

    Interesting post Oliver,
    The US sports were stats are used so much are more static, certainly Baseball and Baskeball but also NHL and NFL, which makes it “easier” to use stats (my interpretation). This doesn’t mean stats cannot be used in football, we (i.e. you “stats nerds”) just need to find different ways…

    And good to see “the dog that didn’t bark” theme picked up! Purposeful stats reflecting non-ball action would be able to give a entirely new dimension to football stats – I think/hope/believe.

    • Oliver Page

      Thanks – the off the ball movement presentation was one of my favourites. I believe all the videos and material from the forum are going to be published online soon so I would encourage you to check them out.

      • Mike

        Aha makes sense. however Wenger as an economist has always been using statistics (maybe sometimes wrong) and esspecially in the early days I think they were rewarded handsomely with this advantage over their main rivals notebly the dinosaur like approach of SAF an Manu.
        I guess they are pretty secretive but a few months ago (maybe almost a year) they bought this statistics firm for a few milion pounds which is intersting…

  • Steve

    Comolli was looking at statistics alright. Unfortunately he was looking at the wrong ones and/or interpreting them badly. It’s also hard to know how much those transfers belonged to Comolli and how much to Dalglish. What LFC have now is what the Red Sox have. A football operations staff who will use both old school scouting and state of the art statistical analysis to advise the manager, and a manager who will use whatever advantage he can find to improve the team.

    When you talk to anyone in any front office in baseball today, they will all say the same thing. You’d be a fool to ignore any competitive advantage that is available to you. They’ve gotten past the obstacle that statistical analysis didn’t come from the “old boys network” of former players and managers. It’s actually happening faster in football than it did in baseball.

    Steve

  • http://aysep.wordpress.com Aysep

    One of the themes in the story of Moneyball was the reluctance of the baseball community to make use of stats. Bill James more of less fought the MLB and other data collecting companies for that data he needed. We’re in a similar position. Though I feel that the companies that hold the data we need have even less of an incentive to share this data with us.

    • Oliver Page

      Hi, thanks for your comment. The access to data question is an interesting one – maybe there were actually 2 elephants in the room last week given which company was organising it! I think I am still processing what the answer to that might be in football, if there even is one. That too could be a whole new article in itself!

  • Errorr

    As an American the anti-stats bias reminds me of the early days in many sports. Although I think soccer is behind the curve it has a lot of potential. From an analytical perspective I think the NFL has the hardest path in the long run but the experience in basketball and to a lesser extent hockey gives me a lot of hope.

    To me the NBA has transitioned quickest in embracing analytics. The nature of the leagues in America has allowed the compilation and dissemination of data to be mandated by the NBA. The newest camera tracking data implemented league wide this year has finally allowed the possibility to analyze basketball at a level previously unthinkable.

    Last week on Grantland.com Kirks Goldsberry, one of the world experts on data visualization and visiting professor at Harvard, outlined a project he started with some graduate students to analyze the camera tracking data provided.

    The data collected covers the location of every player several times a second combined with game state data (time, score, possession, etc.). They then used that to construct a model of basketball decision making to evaluate the players decisions at every single second of the game. They could then evaluate not only passing or shooting but eventually things like off ball movement and defense.

    The problem is that the data set is huuuuuuuge. 96GB a game of data. The model also had to construct 4-d decision matrices for how players act. Ultimately you need supercomputer time to run even simple analysis. Of course, Harvard has a distributed network platform to use spare cycles of all of the schools computers.

    There was is nothing preventing this kind of analysis in the future for soccer. It would allow complex evaluation of tactics based on player tendencies. It would give coaches the ability to emphasize in training certain player deficiencies. It could answer how damaging is a lazy player.

    Although this type of holy grail of analysis is difficult to see anytime soon the future is possible. Nobody can deny that kind of concrete analysis of players. The paleo-sport commentariat can bay and whine all they want but the will eventually fade.away into irrelevance.

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