Data analytics has taken over modern sport in a way that many predicted it would more than a decade ago.
Leicester City’s success in 2016 is arguably the finest example of a team relying on data, instead of merely the quality of its players, and getting excellent results, but it was in the early 2000s when managers began to believe in the benefits of technology.
Fast forward to 2017 and any team or individual that isn’t using data analytics in some form has fallen behind.
There really is no excuse not to use data in an era where the margins have never been slimmer and the costs for failing to produce so severe.
And accessing these figures has never been easier. Opta, who lead they way in what is fast becoming a congested market, collect up to 2,000 detailed ‘events’ during every football match from the Premier League to the Colombian Primera.
Years of studying data has shown that football matches are decided by more than just basic stats such as shots on target and possession. Indeed, clubs are now adjusting the way they attack and defend set-pieces based on the information they receive.
Roberto Mancini favoured the outswinging corner when he arrived at Manchester City in 2009. Man City’s data analysts convinced Mancini that inswinging corners were much more dangerous and the Citizens went on to score 15 goals from corners in the title-winning campaign of 2011-12, the
most in the Premier League that season.
It’s the responsibility of performance analysts and data scientists to interpret the statistics in order to identify the factors that quantify player performance, tendencies that can be exploited, and events that, ultimately, decide whether a team can pick up three points on a Saturday.
Leicester harnessed data analytics to propel them to the Premier League title in 2016, with scout Steve Walsh managing to convince Claudio Ranieri that N’Golo Kante’s height wasn’t a deterrent in his ability to provide an indefatigable presence in midfield.
The better a club can interpret the figures, the more beneficial it will be. That’s precisely what Liverpool found out when they signed Andy Carroll from Newcastle United in 2011.
Liverpool supporters may not believe it but there was some logic when then-director of football Damien Comolli decided to spend £35m on the forward.
Comolli envisioned a Liverpool side that could play direct football when it needed to, with Carroll utilising his 6 ft 3 in frame to provide an unstoppable threat in the air.
That’s why the club signed Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam in the summer of 2011 - players who could feed the ball to Carroll.
In the 2010-11 season, Henderson had an 81.2 per cent pass completion percentage for Sunderland and completed 3.5 long balls per game. In the same campaign, Downing hit 2.1 crosses per game and 2.2 long balls per game.
Meanwhile, Adam made a stunning 7.5 long balls in each Premier League match for Blackpool.
So Liverpool’s plan to become the anti-Barcelona was clear. But it didn’t come to fruition, of course, because relying on headed goals and knockdowns is not only completely unreliable but also very one-dimensional, and thus easy to defend against.
Especially in an era where the opposition can use data analytics to understand any team’s favoured route to goal.