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 to Paul Riley.
Paul, who you probably know as @footballfactman on Twitter, quickly became a popular figure in the community for the work he shared on his differentgame blog, his focus and thought on analysing goalkeepers with data, and for his often-grumpy Everton takes. He’s slightly less active in the public space now due to working with several professional clubs through his consultancy, Differentgame Analytics, but as a result of that work has a sharp overview of the industry, with real-world experience of applying analytical frameworks in a professional club environment.
What was the first thing you worked on as an analyst? Do you remember your first “analytics experiment” or lightbulb moment?
Paul Riley (PR): The first thing I worked on as an analyst for my blog was a piece analysing all the penalties Frank Lampard had taken in senior football. The 2012 Champions League Final was coming up and a friend had noticed his placement preferences. Of course now it’s commonplace for cameras to catch penalty info taped to keeper’s water bottles and whatever. It was a lot of work…and Lampard scored anyway.
My first ‘lightbulb’ moment was researching for a piece I was writing on Kevin Mirallas. Squawka had just come onto the scene and I was browsing through their site and saw my first player shot maps.
The clear clustering of where goals were scored from on the visuals made it clear to me I could develop my own more detailed shots model based on location of shot, etc. Colin Trainor was working on it at the same time and for me, it’s us guys involved in StatsBomb at the start that really pushed xG into the mainstream picture.
What has been your favourite piece to write or read on StatsBomb?
PR: Definitely my favourite thing to write was my goalkeeping piece with Maths Elfvendal. Maths is the Swedish national team’s goalkeeping coach, and a coach educator. Since then, he has coached Gigi Buffon at Parma and now of course works with StatsBomb itself too (SB: Maths is our Head of Goalkeeping & Set Pieces).
It was great to know a respected practitioner in the game was using some of your work to influence his coaching theory. Being a teacher he was also able to open my eyes to new and applied ways of thinking and working around the subject of xG too.
One of the things I miss about ‘old’ StatsBomb are James Yorke’s weekly round-ups – a great handy-sized read, cutting through a lot of pundit nonsense you’d heard on TV over the weekend!
Whose work did you read early on? Where did you read this early work?
PR: For me the GOAT will always be Mark Taylor and his The Power of Goals blog. You name the subject or question and Mark had/has already been there answering it. He wrapped a lot of his writing up in stories too to make it accessible while also doing a lot of math that went right over my head.
The guy I regard as pure numbers was James W Grayson on his blog. Again, a maths whizz, but not enough of a ‘football’ person for me. Both James and Mark helped me with technical stuff for modelling back then. Sorry to bore off but James taught me how to do funnel plots (which I love) and Mark taught me how to do my own Monte Carlo sim.
Omar Chaudhuri (now at Twenty First Group) was another help as he explained really well on his blog 5 Added Minutes how he went about things. I always loved listening to Ben Pugsley on podcasts as well. Ben was a brilliant mix of talking about the game itself while bringing a shed-load of Ice Hockey stats knowledge to the table that was applicable to football.
Do you remember any particular articles that inspired you? Ideas or metrics or research?
PR: Just the general competition back then between the bloggers to get fresh insight out was remarkable. I remember being genuinely excited for each guy to write up the next thing. It was highly competitive but people were also willing to help and share.
Someone wrote something and you just tried to improve on it each time. The drive from Ted and the guys that made content for StatsBomb was insane. The football data scene literally exploded.
Are there any metrics/frameworks from the “early days” that you still use in your work now?
PR: Pretty much all of them. Maybe not in their original form as they’ve been tweaked and improved over the years but they all still tell part of the story. I’ll never try and work things down to one magic number. It doesn’t work.
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?
PR: Too many. You’ll always get egg on your face if you are sounding off in public around matters of probability. In the early days I was too quick to write something on or off without having a good enough grasp of probability or indeed, enough data at the time to make predictions. I had bad takes a-plenty – Michu (remember him!?), Nikica Jelavić, Luis Suárez to name but a few.
Is there any piece of work that you're particularly proud of?
PR: I’m proudest probably of any early work just on the basis of the work/effort I put in to studying football analytics. I collated all my data by hand from phone apps, or TV – I’ve never been a coder able to scrape websites or anything. I basically taught myself how to model football data with a few helping hands from others. There’s nothing like Googling a problem and figuring it out. Someone’s always been there before you.
Where has your analytics work taken you and your career?
PR: I own a football consultancy now called Differentgame Analytics. My focus has gone entirely away from writing and social media content to working with clubs in the professional game. Essentially that means the majority of my working life in football is one long WhatsApp conversation (or 20) and being on Zoom.
I’ve gone from Twitter debates with fans to talking to players, player families, player agents, coaches, managers, directors of football and club owners.
How would you rate the progression of analytics in the last 10 years, in terms of both research and application?
PR: In all honesty, I’ve mostly concentrated on doing my own thing rather than following the latest thing. I’m not aware that there’s anything ground breakingly new in recent years to get overly excited about. I’ve never been one for the academic side of analytics research – frankly if most of it is inaccessible to me and I’ve been into analytics for a decade, I can imagine how your average football person feels about it.
90%+ of clubs still aren’t doing basic processes in logical, efficient ways let alone making it guide important decision making. Football is an emotional business. The pressure even away from the elite end of the game to get sidetracked, veer off course or make knee jerk decisions at clubs is enormous. There’s a lot of horse whispering involved in football consultancy!
What are you most excited about in the future for football analytics?
PR: More people being open to it and listening to what it is and what it isn’t before dismissing it out of hand. We are still nowhere near acceptance yet.
But also practitioners being way more realistic with what analytics can and can’t do. You have to know exactly what the metrics are and what they mean. I still look up definitions of metrics to this day because a lot of times, things do not meet the eye test. You’ve still got to know the game to be good. You’ve got to question everything.
We’ll be back later this week with more from the StatsBomb Originals series.