Sunday, 8 July 2012

Finding The Right Statistic

As a budding Performance Analyst, I have always been intrigued by the use of statistics in sport, particularly in football. I have kept a close eye on the standard indicators within football such as how many goals and appearances a player has made, possession statistics, number of corners….the type of information which is easily available on the BBC Sport Football website.
While pursuing my path as a professional Performance Analyst, it has become clear just how many statistics there are within football. Companies like Opta and Prozone capture virtually every action on a pitch (roughly around 2,000 per game) all mapped out by individual players. The digital revolution has certainly aided the Sports Science side of the game. While capturing information and statistics as a way to aid the manager's decisions through training, performance, recruitment and fitness was barely thought about 10-15 years ago, we are now at a stage where there are so many numbers flying around, clubs are needing to employ a specific member of staff to sift through these and decipher them – putting them into football language!
Some clubs have as many as eight analysts (including interns) and particularly in the Premier League and Championship it is practically unheard of to not have at least one analyst. As part of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), to gain the higher levels of accreditation it is mandatory to employ a full-time analyst. This shows how much emphasis is put on the numbers game if it is something the Premier League and FA are wholeheartedly embracing and many League One & Two clubs are gradually getting on board with the opportunities this data can provide.
This got me thinking about how different players would excel in different indicators and what managers would look for when looking to buy a certain player. It should come as little surprise that according to, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney top the list of players who average the most ‘Shots per game’ (4.6) and Juan Mata plays the most key passes (3 per game on average), but the area I want to focus on is flair players.
What brought this to my attention was during my time working at Rotherham United, they had a talented young player called Ben Pringle. He has a great deal of potential and towards the end of the season found his feet in the team and helped push them on a late surge towards the play offs playing in a relatively free role in an advanced central midfield position. While his passing is good, he has a tendency to shoot when he should pass and pass when he should shoot, a trait that a lot of young players have and often better decision making skills come with experience. One thing he had in abundance was a combination of determination and skill and he would regularly take 2 or 3 players on before being tackled or losing the ball.
While statistically this would go down as the ball turning over to the opposition or an unsuccessful pass, it regularly excited the crowd who were right behind him and the next time he got the ball he would have players coming out of position to attempt to tackle him, leaving space for other players to exploit. He regularly won man of the match awards towards the end of the season and I expect him to be a big part of Rotherham's promotion push next season.
The closest players I can think of in the Premier League in terms of style and who compare statistically would be Victor Moses and Junior Hoilett. Both players played for teams battling at the wrong end of the table and are exciting young talents.
Hoilett and Moses top the charts for the most successful dribbles per game (Hoilett 2.6, Moses 2.5). They are two players who regularly get the ball, run at opponents and have a reasonably good product at the end of it. Despite this, they both have reasonably low number of key passes (Hoilett 1.3, Moses 1.1)
This could partly be put down to the teams they play for. If Hoilett breaks out of defence and runs at the opposition, will Blackburn’s defensive style mean fewer players are up in support, therefore fewer options? That is surely a factor to a degree. Another likely cause is that the wrong ball is chosen. This might be a cross over hit, pass misplaced (his passing accuracy was less than 80%) or an off target shot. But one thing he did manage was to get noticed by the fans, get noticed by the opposition and if rumours are to be believed, be noticed by some of the top teams in Europe.
By running at players, Hoilett excited the Blackburn fans, and was one of the few bright moments of an otherwise difficult season. This in turn encouraged other Blackburn players and had a positive effect on the team overall. Even if Hoilett lost the ball, it was likely that next time he was in possession, an opposition player came out of position to track him and potentially double up the marking on him, leaving space for someone else to exploit.
You only have to look across Europe at players like Lionel Messi (4.8 successful dribbles per game) and Franck Ribery (4.0 per game) to know the benchmark and see what can be achieved. If Hoilett and Moses can tie their considerable skill and dribbling ability in with an end product they could become stars, and at such a young age, time is on their side. With better team-mates, the potential is there for them to flourish.
Utilising analytics for recruitment has only just begun to be exploited but the value is there to see. This can lead to more astute purchases in the transfer market and depending on the clubs’ ambitions either success or financial viability. The days of a formula as in the analyst bible “Moneyball” are unlikely to be close due to the fluid nature of football as a game with many mitigating factors. It could however be the difference between that one player scoring the goal that seals promotion, the defender that helps prevent relegation or the keeper that is sold for ten times the fee paid for him, which keeps the club running for another year.
Both Hoilett and Moses are potential transfer targets for teams this summer. How many managers will look at their key pass statistics and consider that the data is telling them that their end product does not merit a £5m transfer fee? How many managers will consider other factors we have mentioned which hampered their final ball options, but may have potential to develop playing alongside better players?
The use of analysis in sport is lauded by some and criticised by others but in the modern game it is a brave team who shuns the modern way of thinking, possibly in danger of being left behind.

The post was original blogged at Onside Analysis definitely worth following on Twitter! @OnsideAnalysis
If you want to follow me on twitter just go to @donceno

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