Data in football needs context to be useful

WILL football one day be so “real time” that coaches will make in-game decisions based on data compiled during the 90 minutes? Surely this has to be on the agenda in the future as football becomes ever more technical?

Soccerex Connected included a session that included various professionals from the world of data. It has been coming, we were warned many years ago about the rise of “Big data” that everyone thought would just affect banking, trading, consumer experience and salesmen. Then came sport, with all its analytical potential. 

Sometimes, you have to wonder if we will all disappear up our own algorithmic orifices, not really understanding the heat maps, graphs, pie charts and figures at our disposal and guiding our lives. Certainly, while we look at heat maps and nod like wise old sages, do we comprehend and do we really need to? 

Football’s broad, universal appeal (there are probably little green people on Mars kicking a ball around) was its simplicity and accessibility. Now, clubs employ data scientists, analysts and other chin-stroking individuals who bring along corporate speak of the type you might hear in a management consultancy firm. Let’s be clear, using phrases like “user experience”, “configure”, “percolate” and “metrics” is not the language of the terrace or the cheap seats, which is why people like Gary Neville drawing on a screen hits the spot far better with the game’s demographic than any statistic.

So let’s assume this sort of dialogue is really for those that know. Jay Cooney of Major League Soccer club Philadelphia Union hit the nail on the head when he told the Soccerex audience, “all data needs context” and this is where so many people – over fascinated by the data rather than how best to use it – fall down.

Cooney pointed to other factors that affect players and their performance and how this is often ignored. For example, if a game is played in incessant heat or dodging thunder storms (which stop games these days), performance is undoubtedly impacted or compromised.

We have seen how taking the data often guides transfer target decision-making. Since Moneyball, any nerd in a dark room thinks he or she can successfully build a football team through statistical analysis. It can work, but it also fails – remember how Fulham bought a new squad based on data-driven processes and flopped miserably? If it was that easy, we could all make a fortune predicting football results. Fortunately, football depends on human fallibility, gut feelings, suspect temperament, euphoria and other emotional factors.

Human beings have faults, so until Manchester City buy a team of robots (that day may come!), then the game will never be perfect.

We are seeing the day of the data analyst at the moment, but it is a day that has only really just started. It’s still the coach, who has to deal with the raw material, the human resources, that carries the can. Do data specialists get the sack when all the number crunching and heat maps prove ineffective?

Photo: ALAMY

Has the absence of crowds created a purer, more focused game?

THE PREMIER League has been exciting so far with virtually every game delivering entertainment, drama and no small amount of controversy. After 28 fixtures, the goal-per-game ratio is an astonishing 3.68 – that’s higher than at any time in modern football history. In 2019-20, the ratio was 2.72 and in 2018-19 2.82. The trend has generally been upwards, but the goals have been pouring into the back of the net this early autumn.

Historically, this could have had something to do with the imbalance in the Premier, in other words, the rich thrashing the poor, but the results do not support that: Manchester United losing to Palace at home; City beaten  comprehensively by Leicester; and Tottenham slipping-up against Everton, for instance.

It’s not all raised glasses and clinking steins, for there’s a real elephant in the room and that’s Mr. VAR, that shadowy figure in a dark chamber dishing out penalties like Blue Peter badges.

The crazy thing about the whole VAR argument and the consequences of a finger nail being over a hypothetical line on the pitch, is that for a goal to be scored, the ball has to be completely over the line, yet the margins concerning offside are so narrow that players may consider wearing spray-on shirts to avoid a flap of material being blown over the line of shame. Furthermore, play is now being rewound like a scene from Basic Instinct to ensure something didn’t happen earlier in the game. Matches are lasting 100 minutes – God help us when we return to the stadiums, we are all going to miss that first train back home.

Some pundits have been livid, although good old Graeme Souness does point the blame not in the direction of VAR, but of the new rules. Quite right, but Mr. VAR is certainly the accomplice.

OK, there’s been 16 penalties, but goals have been coming from all directions, and some outstanding efforts, too. The Manchester City v Leicester game had a few crackers, including a glimpse of absolute brilliance from Jamie Vardy, who produced something straight out of Copacabana.

But why so many goals? Have we forgotten how to defend? It seems so, for almost every team seems to have defensive problems in some shape or form: Manchester United and City have looked very shaky, Chelsea have had enough of a suspect keeper, Liverpool started very sloppy and Fulham have been dire, and so on and so forth.

More and more teams are going for it, or is this the sign of more pressing forcing errors and keeping the ball in and around the penalty area? Or has it got something to do with empty stadiums?

The popular view is that football without fans is nothing and there’s something in that, but it is noticeable there’s less dissent, less rolling around as if a sniper had picked out the number 26, less added time and a more “get on with it” approach when incidents happen. There’s no choreographed goal celebrations, which must take-up a lot of time up and no player reaction from the mood of the crowd. Admittedly, that’s not football as we know it, but when there’s nothing else going on, we concentrate 100% on the football and the sound of leather on leather.

At first, it seemed weird, but people have become accustomed to it and what we are seeing to some extent is pure football, free of distractions. It may be the players just get on with playing and have one thing on their mind – goals.

It could make for a more open and interesting  season, certainly there have been very few bad games and every clash seems like a cup final occasion, the staggered kick-off times have created a huge shop window for every team.

We haven’t seen a goalless draw yet. Again, the trend has been for fewer 0-0s, from 32 in 2017-18 to 21 in 2019-20, but after 28 games, there have been just two score draws.

It won’t continue, for coaches will tighten their teams and the newly promoted clubs – who have seen 44 goals in their nine games (WBA 16, Leeds 15, Fulham 13), conceding an average of over three a game – will attempt to shore up their porous defences. Enthusiasm will inevitably wane as mid-tablers realise the slog is about avoiding the bottom three, and the title, Champions League and relegation issues will introduce an element of caution. But the chances are, the Premier could touch three goals per game this season.

And what of the impact of returning crowds? As much as the Football Association would like to think it is running this show, it’s in the hands of an uncertain and vague government, the behaviour of the masses and basic economics. At least the goals are keeping us royally entertained.


Photo: PA