How an increasingly scientific approach is improving football for clubs, coaches and players
Over the last decade, the most significant change within football hasn’t been what the players are wearing, what balls they are using, or how they are celebrating, but how they are being measured. Specifically, while it used to be that a player’s perceived success was pretty much entirely based on goals scored, goals conceded, and general consensus, they are now measured in a hundred different ways every day, both on and off the pitch.
Data analysis now influences how players should train, when substitutions should be made, and even who a club should sign.
While this change has been gradual with no clear defining start, some go all the way back to the famous 2003 book Moneyball detailing the story of data analysis in baseball as its origin. For many, though, Liverpool’s decision in 2012 to create the new ‘Director of Research’ role for PhD holding theoretical physicist Ian Graham marks the moment that stats truly began to define the modern game. Whenever you take as the start point though, it is unquestionable that data analysis is one of the most important factors in determining a team’s success, and though some traditionalists have fought against these developments, they are almost certainly here to stay.
Fully explaining all the ways that clubs and coaches use data in 2021 could easily fill several books (and people have written them!), but here at Project Vision, we felt it worth going over the most common ways that data analysis is improving the game today. Whether you are a coach looking to improve your side’s performance, or just a fan learning how the game is evolving, here is how the top clubs are using data analysis to enhance performances and get results.
Scouting for players
Perhaps the most famous way that data is being used by clubs today is in scouting. Scouting has always posed a significant challenge for clubs because, quite simply, there are only so many players they are able to physically look at each year, with a limited number of scouts and person-hours available.
In the past, this has meant that scouts have had to rely on the local news about certain young players, informants within clubs, or just getting lucky and spotting talent on the day. For obvious reasons, this old system was highly floored, and it often seemed that for every wonder kid a club signed, they had to waste money on three or four under-performers to get to them.
Now though, scouts no longer have to rely on these methods to look at a few hundred players a year. Instead, they can look at the data of hundreds of thousands. With the explosion of data available, even the general public has access to a wealth of data for over 400,000 players that would have been unimaginable ten years ago, and scouts get access to far more in-depth data sets than that.
This means that scouts are now able to analyse an unprecedented number of players without having to spend the time actually going in person. From here, they are able to narrow thousands of players down to a handful of hopeful prospects, then go and watch them play in person the old fashioned way to make the final decision.
Need a playmaker in midfield? Look at pass completion rates and the number of chances created in a game. Need some pace on the wing to add a counterattacking threat? Look at meters made and defenders beaten. Whatever you need, there is an unbelievable amount of data available to find it; you just need to know how to look.
We have all seen times where we have (sometimes strongly) disagreed with a coach’s team selection. Maybe it is a player who has been off form for a few weeks and you think needs a reset, or perhaps it is someone who has never really gotten the chance to play suddenly starting, but whatever it is, you are left scratching your head as to why the coach has picked the team they have.
Now, this could be because a coach is following their gut and experience in the game. Increasingly though, it could be because it is what the data is telling them to do. It could be that whether on the training ground or the pitch, the numbers are speaking for themselves. Sometimes, even though a player has made three or four horrible and obvious mistakes, they actually create more goal scoring chances than any other player on the squad. Sometimes it could be that despite being sluggish last week and running 5km for the whole game, they are running three times that amount in training.
Whatever it may be, data allows coaches to look past emotion, the press, or outside influences to pick players based on the actual facts of their performance.
This enables them to pick the right team with confidence and give themselves the best chance to secure that win.
Formations and tactics
Anyone who watches football analysis shows these days will be familiar with pundits drawing lines showing player movements, space available, and passes available. We are also increasingly seeing percentages and stats to go along with these graphics. What is just now coming to punditry, though, has been used by coaches for years.
Top clubs will have whole teams of people running using complex video analytics to look at what works, where space is, how players can increase their chance of scoring, and decrease their chance of conceding. They will look at not only their own team, but the opposition as well, comparing how different strategies work against different formations and how to break their opponents down.
All this will allow them to identify their own and others’ strengths and weaknesses, go with the best formation each week, and use the tactics to break their opponents down.
Something that may be a little bit less obvious is how coaches are using data to dictate training methods, routines, and intensities.
Now, we all know that if you want peak performance from your players on a Saturday, you probably shouldn’t make them run the distance of a half marathon over a five-hour training on a Friday, but how much should you push them? How about on a Thursday? How long should they rest after the Saturday before training at full intensity again?
These are the questions that in-depth analysis allows coaches to answer to make sure that they get the best out of players on game day. Tracking technology shows how much and how fast a player has moved both in a game and in training sessions to allow constant updates to training schedules, giving far greater optimisation.
Leicester City in the 2015/16 heroic Premier League title upset perhaps epitomise the effectiveness of this approach.
Although they did not possess the most star-studded team by a long shot, over the 38 game season they were able to maintain a consistency no one else could match, and this has been in no small part attributed to data-fueled, personalised training regimes.
A related but distinct category to training that data is helping coaches get the most out of their players is injury prevention. This involved all of the same avoiding over-working players listed above but goes a step further.
With complex analytics, medical staff and coaches can now identify stress injuries in particular as they happen. Analysing decreased mobility, a slower pace off the mark or a favouring of one side can demonstrate that a calf, ankle, knee, or hip injury, for example, is just beginning to set in, and allow coaches to react accordingly. This is hugely important at reducing the severity of injuries as players often either do not notice it themselves in the moment or are desperate to stay on and help their team despite it having negative consequences long term.
Comparing the data on players returning from injuries to baseline stats has also proved invaluable in stopping players from returning early, which can lead to them going right back to square one. Players are now thoroughly analysed at every step of their recovery, giving them a far better route back to full health and peak performance.
As you can see from just this summary of the key areas that data is helping coaches and clubs get the most out of players, saying that in-depth analysis has become influential at the top level of football is an understatement. What we haven’t discussed though, is how accessible data analysis is going to become, not just as a tool of the top tier teams but spread down through the football system.
Here at Project Vision, we are at the forefront of these developments. We are currently developing and testing the latest in video processing software and video technology (Project Vision), working with a few select clubs to finish our program and start our own data revolution. Once complete, this will allow us to offer clubs the opportunity to see exactly what is going on on the football field and uncover the facts of their teams’ performances like never before. So, if you are involved in a club and want to improve using advanced software to optimise all aspects of play and training, get in touch today to find out more. Contact Us >