Failure — the motivator for expanded use of soccer analytics

Brian Moore of the London Daily Telegraph has written a sharply critical article on the attitude of many within England’s football community toward fresh ideas regarding the sport.  I’m going to use the article as a springboard to make a larger point about the future of soccer analytics and their impact on the game.

Now, this article could be part of the typical process that occurs when England fails in an international tournament, to be forgotten a couple of years later when England is once again pronounced one of the favorites for the title.  But technology has advanced enough in sport to be incorporated seriously and widely.  Moreover, the differences between those organizations who have embraced the use of technology as part of a systematic approach to preparations and those who have not are becoming more apparent on the playing field.

Systematic approaches to preparation in sport, from training to diet to other logistical preparation, have been widely accepted in football.  Quantitative analysis in football has taken a much longer road to acceptance, because of the nature of the game (the analytical problems are hard!) and also the culture surrounding the game, which is much more hostile to such ideas.

Such resistance is starting to fade in some quarters in a variety of ways.  Moore’s article mentions the extensive scouting reports that German national team officials made for every player in the World Cup, which accounted for actions taken with and without the football.  England’s FA certainly has the funds to finance such an effort, but there does exist the mentality that there is either too little to be learned from a quantitative analysis or too much to be learned which would overburden the national team players.  Perhaps there is little understanding of what analytics in football are good for and what they’re not.  Football analytics are not good for deciding tactics and substitution decisions in the heat of the match; players are still tasked with making the decisions during the game and coaches are still outfitted with a brain to give instruction and make adjustments.  What these analytics are good for are assessing performance of players, teams, tactics and strategies, and (in the case of clubs) determining who might be over- or undervalued when it comes to squad selection.

Another reason for considering football analytics is the cost of assembling a squad for league competition and the cost of failure.  For large clubs fighting at the top of the table, the cost of failure is missing out on continental competition and the millions of euros in extra revenue.  For clubs at the bottom of the table, the cost of failure is relegation, substantial loss in revenue, and an uncertain future in the lower rung of the league structure.  For national teams, the cost of failure is an early departure from international competition, or even failure to qualify for the finals of those competitions.  Margins in world football have become smaller through the years and will continue to shrink further.  In this kind of competitive environment, refusing to embrace new technologies and approaches to understanding the game and exploiting inefficiencies is tantamount to a unilateral disarmament.

Analytics continues to be an evolving and maturing field, especially when it comes to football, but as the difference between joy and tears narrows, teams and federations will seek even more systematic approaches to the game to find an edge.  For some, though, it might take a couple more failures in international competition before they get the message.