How big data will help keep football teams one step ahead

Taking the Guesswork out of the Beautiful Game

Football has been described as the greatest and most popular sport in history. It encompasses the joy, the passion and the dreams of the whole planet, it’s the sport that gathers the world together every four years to witness the greatest competition devoted to a single discipline. When it comes to technology, football seems to have been left behind when compared to other sports for example it’s only been two seasons since some of Europe’s top leagues have been allowed to use goal-line technology. Is this all about to change?

David Sally, co-author of ‘The Numbers Game: Why everything you know about football is wrong’ says “We haven’t had the a-ha ‘Moneyball’ moment in football yet but football epiphanies are just around the corner”. It’s difficult to compare both sports because baseball teams have gathered detailed statistics going back to the 1870s, it’s a game of isolated, measurable events. Whereas football is a free-flowing game that will have more outcomes so little data has been recorded or analysed.

So how data will help football teams?

By crunching data, clubs are finding they can virtually scout players from around the world to find talent that might otherwise have been overlooked. The use of data is also changing ideas of how to build a winning team, it’s showing that the relative strength of the weakest players on a team has more to do with winning than the relative strength of a star player.

In the coming years, football analysts are expected to apply network theory to the burgeoning reams of data about the passes players make and who they connect with. That should lead to fascinating discoveries about passing networks — which groups of players have the most effective connections and why? It could change the way managers think about how to assemble a winning team.

There’s a reason that football hasn’t yet seen the kind of earthshaking data breakthrough that changed baseballs Oakland A’s, as dramatised in the “Moneyball” film. Data is still new to football. A lot of traditionalists don’t like it. Teams that have embraced data, like Manchester City and Southampton are still trying to figure out how to best use it.

Football has gone from no data to huge databases and clubs haven’t had the long history of statistics and data that were inherent to baseball. “There’s still a disconnect between the technology and the ability inside clubs to handle it,” David Sally says.

And yet, as always happens, the technology and the insights from the data will improve and grow more valuable. Younger coaches, born into the Internet age, will understand what the data can do. Sooner or later, like Billy Beane in “Moneyball,” one of those coaches will use data to change the sport forever.


Quotes from David Sally have been taken from an article from Cisco’s news site.

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