Last week I spoke at the FC Barcelona Football Coach Analytics Summit, held at Cuitat Esportiva Joan Gamper, or what is effectively modern La Masia. It’s the complex that houses the training areas for Barcelona’s football teams plus basketball and handball. This is a bit of a report on what I did and learned on my trip.
On a personal level, it’s difficult to convey how special this felt. For a journey that started from absolutely nothing in 2013 to be invited to speak at this kind of event in Barcelona in 2018 is kind of staggering.
As if being invited to speak wasn’t enough, the people I spoke alongside are among the best of the best in their fields.
- Sarah Rudd of Arsenal, one of the pioneers in the field of football analytics.
- Dean Oliver, one of the fathers of NBA Analytics.
- Will Spearman, actual fucking particle physicist at CERN, who now solves tracking data problems for Liverpool.
- Ravi Ramineni, also an early pioneer in football analytics who works for Seattle and gets to tell stories about actually having an impact on the pitch.
- Javi Fernandes, who merely taught the world that Messi does amazing things just while standing still.
- And Evil Luke Bornn, whose resume of notable works in the field is taller than the NBA players he teaches now. The less said about this man, the better.
If you could quietly shadow any of these people in their jobs for a day, you’d learn a massive amount technically, statistically, and about the game itself.
Anyway, it was amazing just to be there amongst very humbling company. Below are my notes for the weekend.
For starters, it’s fairly clear at this point that the data revolution in football is ongoing. It’s not just rich teams like Barcelona, Liverpool, and Arsenal that are investing here. And it’s not even all the rich teams, to be honest - there are plenty of teams with money that haven't touched serious data analytics. It’s the SMART teams that are now involved. Early mover advantage is serious. What I know now after working in this field dwarfs what I knew at the start, and even though our early work was pretty good, we're far more capable of contributing useful insight across most of a football club than we were in 2013-14.
What the smart teams know now - with better data access and a lot of money to invest - may even dwarf what we know outside, or at least it probably will soon, largely because they get to incorporate our research alongside their own.
Luke’s Talk - Communicating Ideas Visually
Those of you who saw Luke speak at the OptaPro Forum in February saw a similar talk, which was really good. There were minor adjustments this time around, including a lovely Jose Mourinho quote about people who use stats in football.
The basics are that, despite doing a lot of modelling with a lot of math, Luke’s group at the Sacramento Kings constantly try to find ways to summarise their info visually. This includes plenty of TVs around the practice facility that subtly convey info that helps teach the players about their own games and that of the opponents.
Every shot at the training facility is tracked in their data, and they end up with something like 2.5 million shots a year plonked into their data set. What’s interesting though is that unopposed, the best shooters in their team can make around 90-95% of their shots from three-point range, while it’s closer to 40-45% in games, so basic practice data is not the same as game samples.
Ted(’s) Talk - Game Models and the Full Data Stack
The beauty of not working in a football club is that you have way more freedom in what you get to talk about and how you get to do it. The downside is you don’t get to show cool stuff that has practical, on-field impacts with stories to tell behind it. And you don’t really get to work with tracking data (yet). And you don’t get to have words like “Liverpool” or “Manchester United” next to your name. For like 99% of the audience, Liverpool is just going to be cooler than StatsBomb, and nothing I can do will change that.
One of the requests for my talk from Javi was to discuss how data can help coaches make in-game adjustments. This is complicated, because I don’t work for a club currently and we don’t collect our data live just yet, but as you can see from my talk, I made do.
Sarah found the sweet spot for giving insight about work she does inside of Arsenal while also not giving away super sekrit info.
As teams do more with tracking data, the level of technical knowledge you need to be able to work on those parts of the team increases dramatically. StatDNA in particular has gone from being able to work in CSV files to needing an entire real-time SPARK infrastructure that scales as necessary.
We’ve seen recent discussions about teams being able to use data to communicate with the bench, but I’m not sure the meaningful tech problems, like parsing and digesting the vast amount of info in tracking data in real-time, have actually been solved.
As I noted on Twitter, I really loved Sarah’s slide on “surfaces”, or different analysis frameworks that get repackaged over the top of their tracking info. One of these is spatial control, but the other one is for mapping pressure. We obviously use some form of these ideas at StatsBomb, but I didn't know what to call them. Surfaces feels right.
I missed Dean’s talk because of a meeting, and only caught half of Ravi’s due to room change confusion.
Javi’s talk was a small spin on his Sloan work linked here, plus updated practical stuff for how they are starting to approach the use of complex tracking work at FCB. He also discussed the translation of some pretty massive model and data work regarding a question from Valverde on whether the team was transitioning too quickly and needing to pause to let the opposition retreat and create space.
All of this model work was distilled across multiple visualisations and was eventually communicated by back to the team by the coach, on a tactics board, with two horizontal lines.
Months worth of work, and the coach just drew two lines…
On the other hand, it’s a hell of a lesson in information compression and delivery.
Will’s stuff has really progressed since he was wowing people at Forums with his early work on vectorization of passing models and space control. This talk provided insight as to how he thinks data helps them right now (to remove bias, to act as a force multiplier), plus some cool, relatively basic application info.
His background probably makes him the nerdiest of the professional football analytics practitioners, but Will's so smart and good at communicating that he's able to compress these incredibly complex ideas into understandable bites.
OBSO does an awful lot to help smooth the progression of scoring expectation in a football match to something closer to what we generally see on the pitch. After the event finished, we were taken on the team bus to Camp Nou, where the gala to kick off the Sports Tech Symposium was held and I got this photo.
And the next day there was a morning discussion panel on Analytics for the more general Sports Tech audience. Panels with people who actually work for teams are often boring because they have to be guarded about their insights, but I thought Luke did a great job moderating this panel, and extracting interesting perspectives from the panelists. I recorded some of the highlights in a tweet thread.
The afternoon of this event coincided with a monstrous thunderstorm that went on for hours. I think I’ve been in Barcelona about 20 days in my life and this was the first one I can remember rain. Obviously I failed to bring a coat and ended up drenched while waiting for my cab back to the hotel.
Dinner that night was a jaunt to Enoteca Paco Perez, which was good but not amazing and certainly not value for money. This is basically the opposite of how I feel about the rest of the cuisine in the city, and pretty much Spain in general. I don't know if it's my favourite country in Europe, but it's way way up there.
One thing that was amazing were the brew pubs in central Barcelona. Friends thought I was in Copenhagen when I posted this photo, but no, there is a fantastic Mikkeller pub smack in the middle of Barcelona. Mmm, beer.
And Garage Beer Co was pretty great as well.
After dinner on Thursday, I ended up at the hotel bar with people from Liverpool, Ajax, Huddersfield, and MIT and drank waaaaaaaaay too many old fashioneds, and forgot to set an alarm before passing out into bed. Luckily my internal body clock woke me just in time to catch a cab to the airport for my flight home. Sometimes you run hot, though the hangover from Thursday took forever to shake off, so maybe the karmic scale zeroed out on that one.
Anyway, StatsBomb. Barcelona.
Really smart people giving lots of football insight. Very lucky.
Maybe we can do it again next year? Peace.