Numbers Game: Football Is in the Midst of a Stats Revolution
There will always be a place for subjectivity in football. But as technology advances and an ever-greater array of statistical data becomes available, there are more and more decisions at the mercy of numbers, and arguments that can be won with cold, hard facts.
Elite coaches know the worth of this information only too well.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger deploys sophisticated GPS tracking to monitor the running distances of his players in training and matches—looking for signs of tiredness and to educate team selection and his activity in the transfer market.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is one of many to utilize performance data from Prozone, who provide a wealth of bespoke statistical analysis for his consideration.
Opta are another industry leader in the field. In this clip, Chelsea performance director Mike Ford explains the part their data plays in the club's extensive scouting and recruitment operation. Manchester City, Inter Milan and Liverpool are others to exploit this resource.
With such a big net to cast, it's hardly surprising that the world's best clubs are leaning on analytical data to play the transfer market. And with the difference between success and failure so marginal, it's easy to see why the likes of Wenger and Ferguson are seeking to gain every advantage by playing the numbers.
"If you can gain an inch, you take it," said Ferguson of the trend to embrace performance analysis in 2010.
It's not just coaches who are relishing football's data revolution. Resources like FourFourTwo's Stats Zone app and the Castrol Edge Rankings are being lapped up by fans and writers alike—thirsty to add another layer to their knowledge.
Remember the days when fans had little more than goals scored to go on? Remember a time when you could watch Barcelona without being bombarded with their possession stats and completed passes number?
A new level of understanding has come to football fans, as it has to the teams they adore. And it's revolutionizing the way we consume the world's biggest sport.
One of the more recent additions to the field of statistical analysis is the popular London-based website WhoScored.com, which was founded in 2008 and offers free access to stats on a dizzying 500 tournaments, 10,000 teams and 100,000 players (delivered by their data provider, Opta).
Over email, I asked co-founders Cristiano Acconci and Ali Ozturk to explain the explosion of interest in the area:
Statistics give another side to the story; now you can place a figure with a certain opinion to back up your argument. For example, when comparing two players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, statistics can help determine the aspects of the game in which each player has the upper hand.
That it can. We know both Ronaldo and Messi have scored eight goals in La Liga this season, for example, but WhoScored.com data tells us Messi has been four times as successful at beating players with the ball at his feet.
Moreover, Messi averages 55.1 passes a game, with a pass success rate of 84.5 percent. Ronaldo's numbers are significantly lower, with an average 29.6 passes per game, achieved at a completion rate of 76 percent.
For those who don't study these things, you might be surprised to learn Arsenal's Mikel Arteta leads Europe's top leagues on passes per game, averaging 94. Unsurprisingly, Xavi's success rate of 96.3 percent puts the Barcelona man atop that category.
Access to this kind of data unquestionably influences the way we think about players. Acconci and Ozturk also believe it's having a direct impact on how coaches are setting up their teams.
You see a lot of modern teams adjusting their tactics or team selection using statistical analysis of their opponents. Some teams have players whose styles differ in the same position, and such a difference can be highlighted through the use of stats. In turn, a manager can alter his team selection in order to counter the opposition’s tactic.
Every coach has different ideas on which is the most important area of the team, depending on the team’s strengths or style of play. To a manager like (Brendan) Rodgers, passing is at the forefront of his philosophy so pass success rate will be a key stat for him.
Rodgers is a good example. The Liverpool manager is known for his meticulous attention to detail, and he views performance data as a vital instrument in his job. If you read the article I wrote yesterday, referencing WhoScored.com stats, it's evident he's already made a big difference at Anfield.
One Liverpool stat that might surprise you—offered up by Acconci and Ozturk—is that Steven Gerrard has misplaced 109 passes in the opposing half this season, more than any other player in the Premier League.
Nuggets like that are what keep fans coming back for more. There's only so much we can take in while watching a game without sacrificing our enjoyment, so to have somebody else trawling through the data afterwards is the ideal solution.
As for the future of football performance data, Acconci and Ozturk believe we may soon see something similar to next season's Adidas miCoach trial in the MLS—which will see real-time data fed from chips worn by the players to iPads on the bench—make an appearance in Europe's top leagues.
With players like Rio Ferdinand and Lucas Leiva following the whoscored.com account on Twitter and Bleacher Report writers among the increasing numbers to access its resources to help offer readers deeper analysis, the website has clearly come upon a successful formula—and done so with immaculate timing.
Said Acconci and Ozturk:
Five years ago, hardly any teams were using statistics and now almost all of them are. WhoScored.com has evolved hugely in the past two years as well, and with our own technology we are beginning to realize the potential of what we can do with our data—for example, player scouting, opposition analysis, in-play tactics.
WhoScored are particularly proud of their player rating system, which is calculated using, "complex algorithms and detailed statistics," and currently has Messi atop the overall standings.
It might surprise you to learn Ronaldo comes in 21st.
Acconci and Ozturk go so far as to suggest these rankings may have influenced the transfer market, citing the the high scores awarded to Marco Reus early last season and raising the possibility that increased hype afforded to a player can bolster his value.
But is there an argument that all this focus on numbers is taking away from our aesthetic appreciation of the game? Are we in danger of quantifying too much, thus jeopardizing the simple pleasures of watching 22 men (or women) kick a ball around a field?
Acconci and Ozturk believe the opposite it true. They say statistics "add to the magic," and bring fans closer to the game than ever before.
Many would agree with them. Others will say we're in danger of turning the beautiful game into a math lesson.
Wherever you stand, this we can say for certain: Somewhere in the world this weekend, there will be a coach for an Under-5 team recording his team's completed passes and making note of every interception.
iPads are the new chalkboards.
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