In search for a bargain, scouts now trust in spreadsheets



Times have changed. Now almost everything that happens on the pitch, save for phlegm being flung from players’ left nostrils, is codified across a vast number of leagues. And, subtly but inevitably, the scout and the spreadsheet – never natural soulmates – have started to squeeze up tight, like new lovers in a single bed.

As John Coulson, the head of professional football services at OptaPro – which works closely with clubs including Manchester City and Chelsea – puts it: “The biggest area we’re involved with now is player recruitment. No team will sign a player based on data alone, but it’s increasingly a shortcut to a shortlist.”

Some clubs buy raw data and stay schtum, keeping their algorithms in house. Others use outside analysts as the first stage of the recruitment process, with a manager setting out the type of player he wants and getting a list of suggested targets in return.

As Prozone’s business development director Blake Wooster, who counts Real Madrid and Manchester United among his clients, explains: “It’s like when Amazon tells you other books you might like after a purchase. A coach might not have heard of a player in the Polish second division – but he might have similar attributes to the guy he’s looking at in League One. We are just increasing the due diligence process.”

Some in football’s food chain remain sniffy about data, although such attitudes often dissipate the higher up you go. To some extent that is understandable. Some of it is as irrelevant to a team’s performance as the colour of their jerseys. How far a player runs in a match, so beloved of Uefa’s Champions League coverage, tells you little when used in isolation. Similarly, a 90% pass completion rate is probably less impressive if a ball is continually tapped five yards sideways. Context is everything.

But when it comes to the January transfer window – football’s irrational global hypermarket – clubs are realising that using advanced-data analytics is sensible soccer-nomics. Even the biggest clubs find it impossible to assess every potential target, let alone the Championship manager hunting for bargains to keep his team up.

The analytics, for instance, suggested that Michu was hugely undervalued at Rayo Vallecano. But data remains a starting point, not a solution. As OptaPro’s Simon Farrant admits: “We can’t tell you how a player behaves off the pitch. But when clubs want to know whether a target could do a certain job, that’s something we can answer.”

The vastness of the data, much of it not in the public domain, is a nerd’s paradise. Players’ movements can be tracked every 10th of a second, while everything that happens on the ball – around 2,000 events in a match – is collated. A pass is not simply a pass: an analyst will plot where it went, whether it was driven or chipped, played as a through-ball or to feet, which foot it was kicked with, and more.

Such detail allows the technical scout to delve in, dissect, play detective. He might watch a game and note that a midfielder is more confident passing to his left than right. By pooling that player’s data across many games – and controlling it for the state of each match and different formation and tactics – the scout can assess whether it’s a blip or a trend.

Similarly, a striker’s goals might not provide the complete story of how he has performed. Plotting actual goals against what was statistically expected – given the quality of chances and strength of the opposition – provides greater context and a potential bargain.

So why the ongoing suspicion about data? Some of it, surely, is down to clubs not going public about what they have learned – understandably so, given how valuable an edge might be. As a result some remain sceptical that analytics can ever apply to a sport as fluid as football. Mentioning Moneyball remains one of the best ways of silencing a pub full of fans.

It’s now about numbers and eyeballs, raw data and intuition, processors and people. And you sense this is just the start.

The full article is available at The Guardian.

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