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

VAR: Time to rethink before someone does it for us

WHEN technology moved in a new direction in the 1990s, we were told all the gadgets and gizmos being invented in Californian garages would make our lives less labour-intensive, simpler, more wonderful and enriched. Those that wondered what would happen to all the people who were not in finance or graduates of tech schools or designers didn’t foresee a future of service and call centres and coffee bars. They also wouldn’t have predicted that football, that simplest of games, would become more complex, less spontaneous and a slave to the mighty god VAR.

No, VAR is not a Norse god, not a miracle drug and it is certainly not the panacea for all the game’s ills. In fact, VAR has become a noose around the neck of football and while technology is a pre-requisite, it is not being applied properly. Just as business became over-fascinated with technology and didn’t quite know how to best leverage it, football is allowing the technology to damage the very essence of the world’s most popular pastime.

Is it appropriate to make football a precision game played at speed, a game where a fingertip can be considered offside when the virtual “line” cannot be seen by anyone other than men in dark rooms analysing the build-up to a “goal”? 

Was this what VAR was supposed to be all about – experts scanning every goal for reasons not to give it – like insurance companies desperately trying to find a get-out of every claim?

Wasn’t it about solving contention, not creating it? And when we mean contention, wasn’t the definition really to be applied to controversial incidents, not as an affirmation of every goal, every free kick, every card? If we allow the game to be decided by technicians rolling back the film, why do we really need referees, are they not the decision-makers or has the fear of accountability seen them embrace the opportunity to apportion blame to shady figures in dark rooms?

These are early days (actually, are they really early now?) and eventually, we will see we are destroying a fast-paced sport that was attractive to the masses because of its simplicity and its ease of interpretation.

How can someone be offside by millimetres when a goal or penalty wouldn’t be given in the same circumstances? And while the penalty area provides the markings to allow defenders to see if they are tackling in the danger zone, being offside by a fraction that cannot be seen by the naked eye seems ludicrous.

Too many decisions are being deferred, too many goals disallowed and some of the fun is being removed from football. Technology needs to be applied properly and in the spirit of the game. Above all, we have to remember this is not a case of sending people in space and needing life-saving accuracy, it is a game where the aim is sending a leather ball into a big goal that has big nets. And the players are not astronauts, they are men and women with all the faults that come with being a human being. Football is not played by robots. Yet.

Photo: PA