Modern football is huge business. Every season millions of fans take their seats in stadiums, pubs and homes up and down the country to witness excitement and entertainment unrivalled in any other medium. It also seems to get bigger every season. We live in an era of £200m transfer fees, £500m sponsorship deals and Television deals that net the Premier League, and its clubs, £Billions per year. Naturally, clubs are doing everything they can to reach maximum levels of performance… including embracing big data.
At a live event held by the Football Writers Association on Wednesday evening, long term Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger gave his stark predictions on the type of impact that big data and analytics will play in the future of football management. “Management specialists, rather than football specialists,” will soon be running clubs, Wenger concludes, “football decisions will be made by technological analysis.” Managers could soon become a masquerade, with player selection, substitutions and injury management handled by data and algorithms. And it isn’t just management that could be effected. Big data is already helping to define every aspect of the daily operation of a top level football club – both on the pitch and off it too.
Arsenal, themselves, are no strangers to using big data to help to inform their on-and-off the pitch activities. After adopting a “moneyball” approach – named after the stat driven success of Billie Beane’s “Oakland Athletics” baseball franchise – Arsenal purchased US based data company “StatDNA” in 2014 for £2m, putting them at the forefront of data use within English football. Without the financial backing of billionaires, Arsenal’s CEO Ivan Gazidis called the purchase “critical to Arsenal’s competitive position,” explaining that “The insights produced by the company are widely used across our football operations – in scouting and talent identification, in game preparation, in post-match analysis and in gaining tactical insights.” In essence, data is helping to support and define the whole operation; the most notable use thus far being the low-cost purchase of midfielder Mohammed El-Neny for a “budget” £4m.
It isn’t just Arsenal that have embraced big data. The “City Football Group” – a conglomerate of football clubs based across the globe – have enlisted the help of German data specialists SAP, to provide cloud and data analytics technologies to their entire portfolio of clubs, including Manchester City F.C and New York City F.C. Additionally, a number of the worlds biggest clubs have enlisted the help of Scout7 to help with player recruitment, including Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. Scout7 provide clubs with deeply detailed player reports, video highlights and analysis as well as existing squad management solutions based on data collected directly from the training ground.
The most notable and successful use of data within English football comes from the fairy-tale story of 5000-1 outsiders Leicester City, who used data to as a springboard for one of the biggest sporting achievements of the last hundred years, by winning the Premier League in 2016. Leicester coupled data from firms like Opta and ProZone, who also supply 18 other league clubs, with wearable technology such as Catapult Sport’s OptimEye S5 to micro-manage individual player performance and fitness in excruciating detail. In fact, it worked so well that Leicester had the lowest total injuries in the league and could largely play an unchanged side throughout a significant part of the season. This, coupled with incredible data based player recruitment, such as ‘Player of the Year’ N’Golo Kanté, helped lay the foundations for one of the most remarkable results in football history.
Ultimately, Football is seeing a real data revolution. Fans are thirsty for increasing analytical insight, which has, in part, increased the growth of casual data websites such as Squwaka and WhoScored; social media accounts such as @Opta and video games such as Football Manager (who incidentally, share their database with ProZone). Premier League clubs, on the other hand, are looking for insights much deeper. Unable to compete in a world of rising transfer fees and ballooning costs, many clubs are turning to data to help streamline the running of their organisations and drive top level performance. Big data is helping inform club’s player recruitment and helping to manage their squad in efforts to find the next ‘hidden gem,’ and keep players as fit as possible throughout the season.
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