The subject of this post is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, but wasn’t motivated to write something until I read that Paul Gardner anti-analytics piece in Soccer America. (I referenced it in the SRC Newsletter, which you really should subscribe to if you haven’t already.) Here’s the final paragraph:
To sum up: until adidas and all the other companies involved in what seems to be known as “sports analytics” can prove to me that their miracle products have made the game more exciting or more worth watching … until that moment, I do feel justified in summing up their field with a single elegant abbreviation — I do regard it all as b.s.
Now, I’ve written in the past that I believe analytics to be a potentially useful tool, but one tool among several that performance analysts, managers, and sporting directors could use. Football is a game that you play with your brain, to quote Johan Cruyff, and managers and players will still have to bring theirs to a match.
I can convince myself that the use of analytics can produce more efficient soccer. But can it producebetter soccer? Would it be more entertaining and compelling to spectators?
I believe that just as you can use statistics to justify every point of view, you can use data to justify any playing style. Bolton’s style of play during the Allardyce era probably wouldn’t be described as attractive aesthetically, but it was effective enough to allow them to outperform clubs with much larger payrolls during the mid 2000s. Barcelona in its current era plays the most attractive and (until this season) dominating football in a generation, and while I don’t know for sure, I’m willing to wager a significant amount that they incorporate data in some of their decision-making.
Now that I’m thinking through this topic, I’m beginning to understand the opinion of people like Bill Gerrard who say that analytics are best employed with an understanding of the manager’s overall game plan. There are current and yet-to-be-discovered measures of team and player performance that can motivate refinement, but the team’s style of play begins with the manager and then the squad of players under his direction.
So I believe analytics are ultimately style-agnostic. Can they make football better, as in more efficient? Perhaps. Can they make a team better, as in more attractive? I’m not sure.