This summer, StatsBomb is celebrating a special anniversary: 10 years since the site was formed and the first blog post was published.
A decade ago, the football analytics community was nascent, with a handful of prolific analysts experimenting with whatever football data they could get their hands on – which wasn’t a lot. But with every new blog post, a new analyst would be inspired, they'd write a new blog post... and so the community grew.
Ted (Knutson, now CEO of StatsBomb) created StatsBomb.com to house his own writing, but mostly to act as a centralised hub to amplify the work of the early analysts and researchers (for more on that you can read Ted’s 10 Years of StatsBomb blog post). Ten years on, we’ve spoken to some of those early contributors and will be sharing those conversations in a succession of articles that we’re calling the StatsBomb Originals series.
A warm welcome back to Ben Torvaney.
Ben (@Torvaney) was a thoughtful and regular contributor to the early analytics community. Like many, he started by publishing work on his own blog, statsandsnakeoil, usually looking at shot-based metrics for the Championship and his team, Middlesbrough FC. Ben's talent was quickly identified and he began to make the transition to working in football analytics professionally, and with AC Milan completed his journey from blogger-to-Scudetto-winner as I Rossoneri won Serie A in the 2021/22 season. He also presented at the 2022 StatsBomb Conference, which you can watch here.
What was the first thing you worked on as an analyst? Do you remember your first “analytics experiment” or lightbulb moment?
Ben Torvaney (BT): The first thing I can remember doing was replicating some work done by James W Grayson. He had explored the repeatability of certain shot-based team metrics from season-to-season. I was curious to see whether the results would hold for the Championship and had a go at replicating it.
What has been your favourite piece to write or read on StatsBomb?
BT: It’s too hard to pick just one. It’s a bit of a cop-out but I always loved James Yorke’s Premier League round-ups, first on his blog, later on StatsBomb.
Whose work did you read early on? Where did you read this early work?
BT: Back then, the landscape of football coverage and discussion was very different. Like a lot of people I think, Michael Cox's blog (zonalmarking.net) was probably the first thing I read that really had a more inquisitive, analytically-minded approach. It really felt totally different to what I was seeing on Match of the Day or on the BBC Sport website. A couple of years later, maybe, I came across the little ecosystem that had developed around the assorted blogs of the likes of James Grayson, Ted Knutson, Ben Pugsley, Colin Trainor, James Yorke, Howard Hamilton, Michael Caley, Mike Goodman, Omar Chaudhuri, Constantinos Chappas, Marek Kwiatkowski, and others.
It’s funny, because even back then people talked about the “old days” of Sarah Rudd (by that point at StatDNA) and Chris Anderson (who was blogging before The Numbers Game with David Sally was published). Howard Hamilton started his blog in 2009, I think, so also went way back (by the standards of the time, at least!).
On top of that, there were a lot of new people coming in and developing cool new things. I remember chatting a lot about the Championship with Owain Thomas and Seth Dobson, and then getting to know Sam Gregory, Tom Worville and Bobby Gardiner through their work and on Twitter, as well.
Do you remember any particular articles that inspired you? Ideas or metrics or research?
BT: The very first article I read on StatsBomb was this one about Christian Eriksen's performance in a 1-0 loss to Newcastle. I really loved that it took football beyond "a game of opinions" and asked whether those opinions can be validated, and what evidence might be relevant.
Are there any metrics/frameworks from the “early days” that you still use in your work now?
BT: Everyone still uses xG, right?
Do you remember any particularly bad analytically-driven takes you had in the past, or work that you would approach differently knowing what you know now?
BT: Last January, I wrote that Newcastle needed to more-or-less immediately improve to the level of a top-4 challenging team to be relatively confident of avoiding relegation. With hindsight, I suppose that stands up; although I didn't expect them to actually go and do that!
Interestingly, I think the tactics crowd were quicker on the uptake with Newcastle and recognising their improvement. I also remember quite a few tactics bloggers (and all-around football oracle Tiago Estêvão) picking up on De Zerbi at Sassuolo before the team’s numbers had really improved. So I think it’s possible that there are some leading indicators in teams’ tactics that aren’t really captured by some of the more common methods for evaluating team quality.
Is there any piece of work that you're particularly proud of?
BT: There’s a couple of small tools I made a few years ago that people seem to get some use out of. There’s an interactive xG explainer and a simple data entry tool for events on a football pitch (if you’re interested in this, I would also recommend An Nguyen’s excellent Shot Plotter app). I get the occasional email from someone using one of these tools at the grassroots level to help their coaching or personal development, which I think is lovely and something I would love to do more of.
Where has your analytics work taken you and your career?
BT: Stack Overflow, mostly
What are you most excited about in the future for football analytics?
BT: I'm really excited about how data and analytics might enable us to develop better tools for understanding the game. I think there's great potential to erode the boundaries between video, and data analysis, and jump between high- and low-abstraction levels, for example. I’d love to see how we can create tools to further empower players, coaches and other staff at all levels of the game.
But I think there’s also potential for data and analytics to accelerate certain pernicious, extractive trends within the game. New analytical methods can be used to bolster power structures within the game and the industries surrounding football. So this is something I am worried about, too.
We’ll be back next week with more from the StatsBomb Originals series.