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




Europe’s most prolific teams

MANCHESTER CITY are probably the most successful team in Europe this season in that they won all three domestic trophies on offer. But City did not have the best league record across the continent, that honour arguably belongs to Red Star Belgrade of Serbia and Greece’s PAOK Salonika.

In real terms, Red Star, with 33 wins from 37 games, have a win rate of 89.19% which would give them a points haul of 102 (92% of available points). But the Serbian championship is a two-phase affair and the second phase includes the addition of 50% of points from the first. Hence, Red Star have 60 points, but in assessing their success, Red Star are certainly the most prolific team in Europe in 2018-19 and were only denied the “double” by their fierce rivals Partizan in the Serbian cup final.

PAOK, champions for the first time since 1985, were unbeaten in 30 games and won 26 times. Furthermore, they clinched the “double” by beating AEK Athens in the cup final. PAOK’s league performance was, effectively, the best in Greek football history. Their points won percentage amounted to 91.11%. They had to beat off the challenge of Olympiakos whose own points percentage was 83.33%.  PAOK’s triumph was largely based on a strong defence, their 14 goals conceded represented just 0.47 per game.

The following clubs also won the “double” – Ajax, Bayern Munich, Red Bull Salzburg, Slavia Prague, Celtic, Galatasaray and The New Saints (Wales).

Manchester City, with 98 points (85.97%) are fourth by percentage of points won. The second-placed English team, Liverpool, are in the top 10 with 85.09%. Liverpool lost just one game, the only team from the top five leagues to enjoy such a record in 2018-19.

Top 10 by percentage of points won

    Pts won %
Red Star Belgrade Serbia 91.89
PAOK Greece 93.33
Shakhtar Donetsk* Ukraine 86.02
Manchester City England 85.96
Benfica Portugal 85.29
Dinamo Zagreb Croatia 85.19
Liverpool England 85.09
Ajax Amsterdam Netherlands 84.31
Young Boys Bern Switzerland 84.26
Porto Portugal 83.33

*Campaign still in progress

CIES Football Observatory’s latest report reveals that since 2000, the top points haul belongs to Juventus in 2014, 89.5% which is marginally ahead of Bayern Munich’s 89.2% in 2013.

CIES adds that champions are winning more and more points in the big-five European leagues. Between 1999-00 and 2003-04, the champions from these leagues obtained 69.9% of points. Over the last five years, the figure is 80.5% – providing further evidence of the imbalance that is growing in European football.

For the first time, the champions in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain all regained their titles in 2018-19. But in the top five leagues, the winning margins appear to be falling. While Italy and France saw their champions – Juventus and PSG – increase their advantage over the runners-up by seven and three points respectively, Spain was down three, Germany 17 and England 18.

Manchester City’s title win was the tightest to be decided on points (Malta’s championship, won by Valletta, was determined by a play-off), with 0.877% of points (1) separating them from Liverpool. Bulgaria’s Ludogorets, similarly, won their title by one point (0.925% of points).

The biggest margin of victory was recorded by Dinamo Zagreb, who won the Croatian title by 25 points, representing 23.14% of points. Young Boys Bern were Swiss champions by 18.5% while another nine finished top by more than 10% of available points.

In terms of win rates, only nine clubs managed to achieve an 80%-plus rate, with Red Star Belgrade winning 89% of their games in the Serbian league. They won 33 games, while Manchester City and Liverpool, on 32 and 30 respectively, were close behind. Young Boys Bern, Dinamo Zagreb and Paris Saint-Germain all won 29 league games.

Only three clubs netted over 100 goals in 2018-19 with Ajax topping the list with 119 from 34 games, a goal-per-game ratio of three and a half. Ajax had the best goal difference +87 followed by Wales’ New Saints with +83.

Have there been any surprises – is European football predictable the continent over? Poland had a new champion, Piast Gliwice, and PAOK were champions of Greece for the first time since the 1980s. But the roster looks remarkably familiar: Red Bull Salzburg have won 10 in 13 Austrian Bundesliga titles; Dinamo Zagreb have won 13 in 14 in Croatia; Benfica have been Portugal’s champion for four of the last five years; Bayern have won the Bundesliga for seven consecutive seasons and Juventus have won eight in a row in Italy.

Unlikely league champions do not come around very often, although in England, Leicester pulled off an unexpected title win in 2016 – a triumph that will, undoubtedly, look more impressive as time passes. In Germany, the last team to surprise was probably Wolfsburg, while Italy has to go back to 1984-85 when Hellas Verona lifted the Serie A title. Spain’s last league champion from outside the establishment was Deportivo La Coruna in 2000. Despite people harkening back to the days of level playing fields, success has often, throughout history, gravitated towards the clubs with money, critical mass and influence. The problem is, the modern era makes it more difficult than ever for a romantic tale to emerge.

Photo: PA