Big Data and the Beautiful Game

“Data is worthless, only decisions have value” – this was the overriding sentiment at this year’s 2014 Sports Analytics Innovation Summit.

As a self-confessed data junkie, Qlikview addict, armchair football analyst and long suffering Blackburn Rovers fan, it was probably only a matter time before these four cornerstones of my life (at least the ones I’m prepared to share here) all converged at once into a ‘Big Bang’; the result being my first blog.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (at the bottom of the Mariana trench) for the last couple of years you will have no doubt heard about the ‘Big Data‘ revolution and how it’s changing the way we look at businesses, economies, human behaviour, and everything else that’s within farting distance of a Wi-Fi connection.

You may also have noticed that the Big Data juggernaut has been quietly revolutionising the way we play our beautiful game.  And with another footy season coming up (Hurray, Boo etc. etc.) it’s time for that early optimism and firm belief that our lads are “by far the greatest team the world have ever seen”.

Now I’m quite happy to admit that nowadays my team, Blackburn Rovers, are no longer good enough to simply sweep aside the likes of Huddersfield, Derby and Birmingham (actually we’ll probably still clobber Birmingham, we always do).

BUT: You ask any Rovers fan if we’ll go up this year. The majority will say with quiet confidence that we’ll make the play offs at an absolute minimum and a fair portion will say we’ll go up automatically.  

Who is anybody else to argue? Your average Blackburn fan knows way more about their club than anybody else – that’s the definition of an “expert” isn’t it? We have a striker that scores goals more often than not. But what makes our team more likely to reach the promised land than any of the others? 

The answer is a simple one. Nothing. It’s pure sentiment, or a ‘gut feeling’.

Call it what you will, but there is absolutely no logical reason to entertain that sort of nonsense.  Some extremists say there is no place for it in the game. either from a coach or a fan perspective.

Step forward a tsunami of data, the growth of football analytics and the charge of the football analysis geeks.

You only need to watch a ‘Super Sunday’ game on Sky Sports to see just how much data is now being captured about both the game and the players.

From the rather basic ‘shots on target’ (which means that if you had more than the other lot and still lost the game, you were robbed) to the highly sophisticated “pitch coverage” telling us how far a single player had run in a game.  It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of Big Data.

In 2004, ‘Big Data’ told Arsenal’s head coach that an unknown French teenager, Mathieu Flamini, could regularly run a jaw dropping 14km per game. Is this why Arsene Wenger snapped him up for peanuts?

No, of course not.  Was it just because he was French? Well, possibly…

However, he ultimately made his decision by going to watch him play. He then decided his running was effective, generally in the right direction and the lad had a bit of the old ‘je ne sais quoi’.

The data alone may just as well have concluded that he was a headless chicken, but Wenger knew best.

Another fine example is one of the first pieces of football analytics recorded way back in 1950. After analysing the number of attacks in a number of games, Wing Commander Charles Reep, an accountant in the RAF Bomber command (no, me neither), calculated that 99.29 percent of attacks in football failed.

He therefore went on to promote the idiom that there was only one ‘correct’ way to play football and that’s to launch the ball into the opponents box every opportunity you get. The numbers will do the rest. He was, of course, on a hiding to nothing as this simply wasn’t true. Sam Allardyce take note.

David Moyes (the ex-Everton manager, not the one who managed Man U) had the right idea. According to Simon Kuper (co-author of ‘Soccernomics’) he would regularly quiz his analysts about Everton’s next opponents.

How efficient are they at scoring from crosses? What sort of passes do they make? In which areas of the pitch does their danger man look to receive the ball?

My point is that data alone will not give you that winning edge. Conversely, without data you cannot solely rely on expertise to grant you success.

In order to be the best in any industry, the two must must co-exist. Data does not give you all the answers, but if placed in the right hands and presented in the right way, it will allow the right questions to be asked and answered, and the best decision will ultimately be made.

This, in both business and football could well be the difference between winning and losing. And it will give you the edge you’re looking for.