If you want an idea of how badly run most football clubs continue to be (beyond just reading this blog everyday), you should look no further than Jonathan Wilson’s post today on the Guardian. In it, he takes on the “marquee purchase” which has become a staple of the summer transfer market:
Some clubs do stand for collectivity and harmony: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona all have a clear philosophy in which the team is paramount, and it is no coincidence that they have been the most successful sides over the past few years. But in the era of the superclub, as football essentially becomes the entertainment wing of the oil industry, it increasingly seems that transfers become almost an end in themselves, with little thought to the overall tactical picture.
For the new money that makes sense. How better for Monaco to alert the world to their arrival back in the French top flight than by picking up one of the most sought-after strikers in the game, signing Radamel Falcao for £50m or so. Look at us, that signing said: we are a major force, the sort of club who can attract top talent and pay big money. Manchester City did it with Robinho. It’s the signing as advertisement.
Wilson is more interested in whether these big ticket players fit into a coherent tactical system, but to me, this vanity shopping is also indicative of the schoolyard view that in order to win at the football you need to do is buy the best players who post the biggest numbers. It’s like telling someone with a terrible personality that all they need to do to get girls to like them is to work out in the gym. Lord knows that’s part of it, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
This is the environment into which many aspiring performance analysts find themselves. I don’t know of any struggling analysts personally (if you want to anonymously send me your horror stories: firstname.lastname@example.org), but when your job is to hand over spreadsheets to the chairman or manager of one of these vanity clubs on why they really shouldn’t spend half a million euros on a single player who has one and a half years left of peak football and an inflated shot percentage that’s bound to quickly regress, it seems to me you’re going to have a bad time.
Anyway, that’s the old, boring theme of soccer analytics these days: football is conservative and risk-averse, so good luck getting them to take your silly little theories seriously. And yet many of these clubs will still “have a data guy” for the same reason they’ll spend 50 million euros/pounds whatever on Radamel Falcao: because all the cool clubs have a lonely nerd in a far off corner office.
This is all kind of a shame because now, at least in the public, non-proprietary sphere, we’re kind of amassing the kind of information that might actually one day translate into better football. Of course with this kind of thing you need to be very careful to avoid any and all Reepism: not seeing the statistical forest for the trees.
However, throwing caution to the wind for a second, if a rogue analyst wanted to get carried away this is what they might recommend to their first team coach. Teams should try to score as early as possible and then exploit the space opened up by the pushed up opposition side to score more goals and shore up the lead. They should attempt to create chances up the middle, but if their strikers find themselves to the left or right of goal, they’d be better off aiming for the far post (read this cracker of a post from Colin Trainor for more on that). To that end too, goalkeepers might think of moving to cover the far post a little more.
Strikers should also not be afraid to miss shots as volume is pretty important. And teams should work hard on developing players who can win possession in the opposition final third (this last courtesy of Mark Taylor), although the jury is out whether this is a matter of baseline individual talent. You’ll also want guys who generate final third entries (but avoid the Comolli Mistake and spend on that metric alone).
Of course convincing a manager to experiment with this kind of thing would be difficult to say the least. To some extent that’s a good idea; ideally football should be played according to the most effective tactical approach until we have a good enough reason to change something based on new information. What then of a possible analytics staging area?
This is again where I think the La Liga model of B sides playing in the Segunda provides a compelling option, in which reserve teams compete in the lower leagues but cannot be in the same division as their parent clubs. No future, so try anything! Including radical experimentation with whatever the in-house analyst is farting around with at the time. Obviously any team with a reserve side can do this, but I think it only works in a proper competitive league with a bigger mix of players.
The main point here is that I’m slowly moving off my rock with regard to whether basic statistical analysis might in fact change how clubs play football. Everyone needs to proceed cautiously here, but there does seem to be growing consensus on a few major, controllable areas of the game. Of course these developments may be Old Hat behind closed doors in the Premier League (read this), but for now they’re something at least to watch for in your own club.