Data Analytics in Soccer: The Man Taking a Lead

A look behind the scenes of modern professional sports.

Soccer is a beautiful and historic game that has played a crucial role in cultures and communities around the globe. This global aspect of the game yields various tactics and aspects of play. Whether it’s Flavio Costa’s 4-2-4 formation with the Brazilian National Team in the 60’s, or even the Dutch giving us ‘complete football’ with their 4-3-3 spearheaded by the legendary Johan Cruyff, the sport has taken several different approaches by managers from all over the world. Even chemistry between players, albeit harder than it sounds due to the countless amounts of languages spoken on the pitch at once, plays a huge role in how a club functions with on the field performance.

What if I told you that this could all be in jeopardy?

Okay, maybe that could be a drastic exaggeration, but believe it or not analytics have entered the sport of soccer and it could potentially take it by storm. My model for you are two clubs who both share the same owner Matthew Benham, an Oxford Graduate and british financier. He owns a club in the English Football League (EFL) Brentford FC, based out of London and currently resides in the Championship Division, the 2nd highest division in the EFL — as well as owning current Champions League team, FC Midtjylland out of the Danish Superligaen.

Benham is obsessed with looking into the statistics and data behind the game, and has a crew of nearly 300 data scientists in London working for both clubs. What do Data Analytics in soccer look like? For example take a simple penalty kick situation, a situation typically handled within the goalkeepers comfort. They may go with their gut, electing which way to dive at the spot kick, but not Benham’s clubs. He’ll have the free kick statistics for every potential threat, knowing what percentage they elect shooting to a certain side. How about goal scoring? Brentford or Midtyjylland aren’t necessarily going to sign a striker who leads the league in goals, but rather goal chance quality, or number of chances created, something that falls in line with the notion of overall efficiency.

This strategy has proven to be a gold mine for his two clubs. Brentford were in the Championship Playoff Final, but sadly lost to fellow London club Fulham FC. Yet, by the end of the season they had the highest goal scorer in Ollie Watkins, a player they sold for a whopping £ 28,000,000. The club even built a brand new £ 71,000,000 stadium a couple blocks from the historic River Thames in West London. On top of that, FC Midtyjlland finished in the top of their league and are currently in the UEFA Champions League Group D, playing amongst the likes of English giant Liverpool and Italian powerhouse Atalanta. Qualifying for the Champions League alone puts you in a pool of teams who could claim € 82,000,000 throughout the competition (see below figure).

So honestly, is this feasible?

We have seen Major League Baseball commit to the analytical data, with teams like the World Series finalists Tampa Bay Rays leading the way. Even leagues like the NBA and NFL are constantly looking at NextGen Stats like complete player ratings or difficult catch probabilities, respectively. Given all this, in my opinion it hasn’t made a necessarily good impact on the content and quality of the games. I think it’s been dreadful for baseball with whacky statistics and numbers, completely alienating the new fan and younger demographic from the sport. In terms of a soccer perspective I fall in line with legendary Manchester United goalie and SkySports analyst Peter Schmeichel who said,

“I think it would be fine to have some of it, but I don’t want to see it completely take over the mindset of the clubs.” 

Preach Peter… Please don’t let every single position on the field be corrupted with some piece of paper stuffed in their sweaty socks, filled out with data and numbers on how to approach the game. I worry it may remove exactly what I opened this piece up with, the uniqueness of various styles of play throughout the sport of soccer. Will special chemistry link ups, like the seemingly everlasting defensive pair of Marcelo and Sergio Ramos on Real Madrid eventually be proven worthless? We shall see, and I encourage the sport to definitely give it a chance to improve on field performance, while not letting it affect the blueprint and manager’s idea of the club.

Whether we like it or not, data analytics IS the new modern professional sport. Inherently it will dip into every sport in some way, we as a whole just have to be able to draw the line in terms of  preserving the culture and classical ‘quality performance’ within each sport, especially soccer.