Big data and football’s search for the Holy Grail
Luis Suarez's transfer value has doubled since the striker joined Liverpool from Dutch club Ajax in 2011.
November 6th, 2013
12:35 PM ET

Big data and football’s search for the Holy Grail

It’s football’s eternal search for the transfer market’s Holy Grail.

To discover a way where the numbers add up - and just as importantly to correctly interpret those numbers - and cheaply sign a player who goes on to become a star for your team, or someone you sell for a lot of money.

Many have tried and many have failed in trying to bring precision to this imprecise science.

Of those teams who have maximized value in the transfer market, Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, Porto of Portugal and Italian club Udinese immediately spring to mind.

Under the era of its former technical director Damien Comolli, English side Liverpool is a example of how not to do it, having bought forward Andy Carroll from Newcastle United for £35 million ($56 million) before selling him to West Ham for a huge loss.

Comolli, however, might suggest that the signing of Luis Suarez more than makes up for the Frenchman’s aberrations between November 2010 and April 2012 in buying and selling players, as the Uruguayan’s transfer value has more than doubled since he joined Liverpool from Ajax for €26.5 million ($35.8 million).

“There was a false belief that numbers can always be right, but they can’t be,” Chris Anderson, co-author of "The Numbers Game" - a book about the exploration of football statistics - told CNN, as he reflected on the Liverpool experiment.

“Numbers have to put into the context of uncertainty and other kinds of information,” added Anderson, who played in the German fourth division before becoming a professor at Cornell University in the U.S.

“It was a simple-minded application of statistics rather than a profoundly analytical approach.”

The good news for Liverpool, in Anderson’s view, is that it is one of a few clubs worth keeping an eye on in how it plays the transfer market over the coming years.

“Liverpool are doing a very good job,” said Anderson. “It’s worth also looking out for Manchester City, as well as Roma in Italy. They are clubs that are owned by people that deeply appreciate and understand the value of analytics.”

Written with behavioral economist David Sally, "The Numbers Game" is chock-a-bloc with statistical nuggets - such as that players in the five big European leagues who come from countries with high levels of civil conflict receive far more yellow and red cards than those from more stable nations, or that corners have practically no effect on results.

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has often talked about the huge advances that were made in sport science within football while he was at Old Trafford over more than two decades.

Key here was the general acceptance that your team needed to be fit to succeed. It was easy to measure players’ improvement in fitness and just as importantly managers were able to understand what the sports scientists were telling them.

Buying and selling players using analytics is different. How do you do that cheaply and efficiently and ultimately improve performance on the pitch?

Crucially, is football willing to open its arms to people that potentially might have the skills - we are talking about people with Ph.Ds here - to successfully analyze data, but are unlikely to come from a non-playing background?

“Generally you end up working within the football industry typically because you love football or you have played football,” said Anderson, who was speaking to CNN at the Elite Minds in Sports conference at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium on Tuesday.

“The way football clubs are organized, there is a real territoriality about who gets to make decisions and have input as to which players they have and what kind of football the teams play.”

Anderson was speaking on a panel with Everton’s head of technical scouting James Smith, and both made the point that football clubs arguably might do better to ditch the 25th man of their squad and spend that player’s wages on analytics.

Everton’s performance analysis budget –- to look at its own players as well as the opposition - is currently between £150,000 ($240,000) and £200,000 ($320,000), but Smith argues that just another £50,000 ($80,000) spent on analytics would allow the Premier League club to be much more thorough in its approach.

Smith happily admits that this is virgin territory for most clubs: "We do more GCSE (high school) maths stuff - averages, bar charts etc. - when it comes to player analysis, but that will change.”

He has even been in touch with five or six Everton bloggers who are interested in statistical analysis - “they were very impressive,” says Smith – to see what the club can learn from them.

“Bloggers need to find metrics that are so compelling that the critics can’t say no.”

Despite the resistance to analytics, both as regards performance analysis and buying players, Anderson believes football is slowly changing.

“Smart scouting departments are starting to organize themselves more professionally in the way they collect and store information than the way traditional scouts have done," he says.

“Rationalization, standardization and professionalization is happening at the bigger clubs, but it’s always linked to resources – it takes hardware, software and manpower to accomplish this.

“The bigger clubs have more at stake in that the player investments they make are bigger and they want to minimize risk. Conversely smaller clubs have more to gain if they invest in these tools.”

So with the January transfer window on the horizon, who would Anderson be looking to sign?

“Look at the defensive behavior of all players on the field –- that includes the No. 10 and the winger as well as the center back,” advises Anderson. “There’s a huge inefficiency in the market of understanding and evaluating the defensive performance of players.”

Anderson said he has recently been in email contact with Billy Beane, the general manager of major league baseball team Oakland Athletics, who was the focus of Michael Lewis' 2003 book "Moneyball" about the importance of identifying a team’s weakest line.

“Look to manage from the bottom up,” said Anderson. “How can you improve the average level of skill of your team? Remember it’s a lot cheaper and a lot less risky to improve the weakest than the strongest player.”

It sounds like perfect commonsense. Which begs the question – just when we will see a professor of politics as a director of football at a major European club?

“Hopefully soon,” smiles Anderson. “Within the next two or three years. If it is the right kind...” Watch this space.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. kmsraj51

    Reblogged this on KMSRAJ51-Always Positive Thinker.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  2. mishkab289

    Reblogged this on Mishka's Musings and commented:
    It's all about the benjamins....

    November 6, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Reply

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