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Are statisticians taking over football?

There was a time not so long ago when Monday mornings were when we talked about goals scored, points won, and perhaps the odd bad tackle or two. These days however it’s all about win ratios, possession, and form. Yes, it seems that soccer is following in the footsteps of American football, basketball, and baseball as it becomes a sport obsessed with statistics.

We need only take a look at two currently successful managers as shining examples of how data and statistics are increasingly prevalent, not only in the minds of fans, but also how the team approaches a game. Take Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea for example. This is a man who moved from the world of banking to manage at the top level in both Italy and England. And he never kicked a ball in a professional capacity in his life.

His ‘Sarri-ball’ approach to the game has been analyzed to death, so we won’t go too deep here. But we will say that he plays the game of percentages like a master statistician. In the Carabao Cup final vs. Man City, Sarri knew that Kepa needed to come off and had he managed to sub the keeper, there’s no doubt in his mind that Chelsea would have won that shoot out.

Bielsa’s Data

Then we have Marcelo Bielsa, the former Lille and Marseille manager who is currently revolutionising Leeds United, and who looks likely to take them to the Premier League. You probably remember the whole Spygate affair, where one of his backroom staff was found to have spied on upcoming opponents Derby County. But what was most interesting about that episode was not the actual spying, but the subsequent press conference where Bielsa showed himself to be something of a data geek. He hosted a magnificent PowerPoint presentation that statisticians drooled over. And his data-driven approach is paying off.

But what about the fans?

Sarri and Bielsa are the two most obvious examples of how coaching is now often led by data. And in a game where the club lifespan of a coach is sometimes measured in games (we’re looking at you Nantes), we can appreciate their need for a new alternative to traditional coaching methods. But it’s in the stands and living rooms where statistics are really making a mark.

One of the most recent innovations in football data analytics involves the expected goal or what is now dubbed xG, and some experts believe it is changing the face of soccer. It sounds simple enough, but it’s actually a little complicated. It involves counting the chances created by a team and recording the results and then comparing them to what should have happened. Yes, we did say it was complicated, but this is just one example of how soccer fans are now approaching the game.

Another one would be the much talked about net spend. No longer can we say a club ‘bought’ their silverware if their net spend is relatively small. Liverpool are the perfect example of one club who have achieved a great deal while seemingly throwing money around. Breaking the transfer fee records for both a defender and keeper paints them as a team that overspends, but when you factor in player sales (Coutinho to Barca), they haven’t actually spent all that much.

Analysis is the future

So what does this mean about the future of football? Are we to expect awards for chances created and league tables for tackles and off-sides? Should Liverpool win the European Net Spend Cup (a cup that PSG would never win!) and would the fans celebrate? Okay, perhaps we taking things a little too far here, but you can see where we’re coming from.

While clubs will never win awards for stats such as possession and assists, there’s no doubt that this type of analysis is the future of football. With such a huge swathe of data now at fans’ disposal, it only makes sense that they use this information to figure out how their team will do in upcoming games. We can already see its use in the media, and we expect stats such as xG to become much more commonplace as the years go by. Even now, Manchester United fans are talking about it as a barometer for new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s success particularly that win over PSG.

So yes, statisticians are slowly taking over football, and this is a very good thing indeed. Sports science has brought the game on immeasurably in recent years, and we can only assume that deeper analysis can only bring more positive progress. It might be the second tier of the English game (yawn) but watch Bielsa at Leeds United, and you’ll see how data can improve a team’s fortunes.

 

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