Last night, The Footballers Footballer Show on Sky Sports 1 dedicated a full 90 minutes to soccer analytics. This is not a small deal. Chris Anderson, who co-authored The Numbers Game with David Sally, sat alongside West Hast manager Sam Allardyce and former Liverpool Director of Football Damien Comolli. They talked about the state of analytics, what statistical analysis can and can’t do for teams and players, why fans and clubs are skeptical…that sort of thing.
There was instant reaction from the analytics Twitterati, including some corrections, criticisms, and a lot of general enthusiasm. Analytics in prime time! We did it Reddit! (If you want to listen to the show in podcast form, click here).
For someone who writes about this stuff every week, and often finds it exceedingly difficult to keep up with significant developments which happen now almost daily, this kind of wide exposure tends to involve a bit of anxiety. This is in part because the soccer analytics field has not developed as a single, unified field of study. There are competing spokespeople for the movement. There’s the pseudo-analytics of heat maps and infographics, the raw data presented in a stylish but often statistically sloppy way by popular websites with an increasingly larger percentage of fan eyeballs, the proprietary analytics of clubs, technical scouts and data providers, and finally the public analysis of independent statisticians working online.
A confession: I have a horse in this race, and I want it to win. I believe that, for the most part, the independent analytics writers are best positioned to do the most interesting work. Many don’t have a vested interest in SEO or bending the ear of coaches and executives. Generally, this group tries to look at what numbers mean something and what numbers don’t, all while showing their work. There is a lot of healthy debate (particularly in the area of shot quality and shot locations) and accountability. And, though it isn’t universally true, claims tend to be supported where possible with regression analysis with adequate sample sizes. There is no proprietary wall to get around to see the results, either (though more and more are going down the ‘secret spice’ metrics route, which I’m very much against).
Because I want this group to succeed, I believe messaging is important. As far as that goes, Allardyce and Comolli are two important figures in European football and, joking aside, their voices count more than most. Yet while there was a lot of discussion of individual metrics (Allardyce banged on about clean sheets while Comolli focused on shots per game), there was precious little about whether these metrics are repeatable, whether they can be addressed through coaching or whether they are primarily a function of luck, whether individual metrics rely in any way on the quality of the team as a whole, etc. etc. I worry that the wider public will hear this kind of thing and come to the conclusion that stats are worthless, full of holes, static, dead. And so I get anxious. It’s a nerd thing.
Except it’s also possible that despite the hemming and hawing over the sorry state of football analytics in comparison to say basketball or baseball in the US, good analytics will, in the end, triumph. There won’t be a ticker tape parade or anything. Rather, one day a key performance indicator will be in general application where it wasn’t before.
Why? Well, club analysts don’t work in a vacuum, and neither does media. As the field progresses, we may one day take it certain team and player metrics for granted. As someone smarter than me, a fairly prominent analytics skeptic, wrote in an email recently about the lack of major, anti-intuitive breakthroughs in soccer stats, “I suppose progress [in analytics] is gradual, so by the time it’s invaluable people won’t be surprised.”
On Monday, the Guardian’s Sean Ingle pointed to stats from Prozone that indicate the era of long-ball is coming to an end in the English game. While the influence of tiki-taka and Barcelona have certainly had an impact, there is another reason for the shift:
Analytics is slowly having an effect, too. We know, for instance, that corners have a much lower success rate than once thought, as detailed by Chris Anderson and David Sally in The Numbers Game. That, as Colin Trainor has shown, headers from the same position as shots in the penalty area have a lower chance of going in. And that Reep’s original analysis, which sowed the seed for long-ball football by claiming 80% of goals are scored with five passes or fewer and that possession was not particularly important, is somewhat simplistic.
English football’s disastrous marriage to the long ball, which has endured for at least half a century, is heading towards a decree nisi.
If this transition was indeed partly the result of decent club-side analytics, then it didn’t arrive with a bang, but a whimper.
The general point might be for those doing the great work every week might not in the end worry too much about the image of analytics in the broader press, where this kind of thing—
— Barney Ronay (@barneyronay) December 3, 2013
—still reigns supreme. And by the time the effect of analytics is felt from the dressing room through to the press box, people may not even stop to wonder how it could have been any other way. The process will continue along its quiet, merry little path, and the rest is just noise.
World Cup Draw
The dudes at 21stClub have put together a “Fanalytics” site with lots of neat tools ahead of the World Cup that you should check out. I’m going to be keeping an eye on the coming weeks on World Cup-related analytics stuff, so stay tuned.