Soccermetrics Interview #3: Gavin Fleig (Part II)

Continuing the Soccermetrics interview with Gavin Fleig, head of Performance Analysis at Manchester City Football Club.  Part I of the interview is here.

A number of teams, if they do embrace analytics, start at the front-office and work their way to on-pitch activities.  Has it worked that way at Manchester City?

I would say historically analysis/analytics within football in England has always been represented on the pitch and also within the front office/board room when required, but that has changed at a number of clubs as you rightly identify, bringing the two closer together.  A more comprehensive and considered approach to the asset management of players, financial modelling and recruitment of players etc means that analytics and the development of those have an increased value within the front office and at the moment at which they point towards a decision or change in strategy (not playing strategy of course) they will come to life within the football operations.

I would imagine that over a 90-minute League match there are so many quantities to track that your team of analysts has to enter a match with an action plan — these are the KPIs we will monitor, these are our points of emphasis, etc.  Is that accurate?

I would say that is a good assessment.  The top line data created by 3rd party providers gives you a level of information on team and player performance that can indicate particular trends but they are very generic and subject to interpretation.  A valued judgement on your own team’s and individual players performance can only come from a clear understanding of your own team’s intentions and playing philosophy, which will often represent itself within it’s own metrics.  This may be set game-by-game based on the assessment of the opposition you are playing or an over-arching playing philosophy that the manager asks of the team, units and individuals within it.

What challenges do you face to make the Performance Analysis department relevant to the decision makers, whether it is the technical staff or management team?  

Making your work and yourself ‘relevant’ is in my mind very simple. It’s done in two ways – firstly by understanding what they need from you and secondly, being able to identify the spaces where you can support their work that they may not necessarily be able to see themselves.  If you are able to understand what support is required, at any level of the organisation, and what type of information they would find beneficial and essential to support their decision making  then you can make yourself a valuable asset in that process. The challenge then is to carry out the correct analysis and delivery the information effectively.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?  And the most rewarding?  

One of the most challenging aspects and therefore arguably one of the most rewarding is always pushing yourself to improve and not getting complacent about the developments and successes of yesterday.  Continuously evolving and stretching the boundaries of how we work must often be done outside of the available resources within the football industry and this searching of other industries, markets and businesses to acquire the tools and skills to take us forward is challenging but often very fruitful.  In developing our understanding and application of performance analytics to support both football and business there lies another big challenge, because we step forwards into an unknown space together with a number of people who focus their time in this area and there is no template to follow and no path to re-tread.  Challenging but exciting!

Unquestionably the most rewarding aspect of the role, as with any role I would say, is knowing that the contribution you have given has made an impact.  Whether that be seeing the outcome of a research project being adopted by the coaching staff through evidence based practice; supporting a manger’s half-time team talk through visual presentation to the team which ultimately leads to a goal in the second half; or completing a performance review that will be read at Board level, my team and I are very fortunate that Performance Analysis is valued throughout at the club.

You’re perhaps the most visible case of a performance analyst associated with a League-winning football team, at least in England.  I’ve read some analogies made between you and Roland Beech, the statistics coach with the Dallas Mavericks when they won the NBA title last year.  Do you feel those analogies are accurate, and do you feel any sense of vindication on behalf of performance analysts in professional football?  

That is very kind of you to say, but it’s important to note that the output of the Performance Analysis department at Manchester City is very much a team effort.  Any number of people within the support staff at a football club clearly contribute towards the success of the team.  Our Medical and Sports Science department oversaw one of the best injury records in the Premier League last season, keeping our players fit and available and as such played a huge role in the achievements.  What I take pride in is the work that we produce and the impact that it has within our team with our pre-game, half-time and post-game analysis and support.  A statistics coach in the NBA, a successful one such as Roland Beech, works within a sport where true analytics are much more advanced and integrated within the make-up of the game and I believe it’s a difficult comparison to make.  I can point to several areas that I know our work has significantly contributed towards the success of the team, where concepts and strategies have been implemented, but a sense of vindication is not the right phrase.  I believe more than ever that right now, in the Premier League in particular, the work done by Performance Analysts across the clubs is highly valued.

Where do you see football analytics headed over the next 12-24 months?  

One thing that I have learnt over the past two years is that football analytics has grown significantly in profile but has still not overcome some its biggest challenges.  There are some big movements in the world of data providers who are looking to re-invent products and services which will change and develop the way in which clubs manage their game analysis service.  More focus and awareness will be given to the use of analytics in scouting and recruitment, which already lives in a number of clubs and has been present for some years, and clubs will look to expand their use of such methods to not only follow market trends but also to support models and strategies for financial compliance.  I certainly believe that the media will focus the spotlight on data and I hope that it is represented and communicated in a way that is not damaging to the discipline and that it is delivered with context and interpretation.  I guess finally, one area that I feel needs to continue its development is the creation and collection of better and smarter data, more complex in its operational definitions and making better use of positional x&y data.

So what are you doing now, other than celebrating the League title?  

On a personal front I have in fact just been away from work for a couple of weeks getting married and enjoying some time with my family.  The off-season does provide a nice opportunity to take stock of where we are all at and one thing I feel really passionately about is supporting the growth of analytics in the football industry.  I have met and got to know a lot on new people over this past 12 months and there is a growing passion within the analytics community for this area and I can see it expanding throughout the leagues and certainly across the U.S.  There is some consistency in the reasons why growth is not as fast as we all hope it could be and over the coming months I am working on some interesting projects that will hopefully support this and meet these challenges – I’ll let you know when we are there.  One thing the football season in England does not provide too much grace on however is the time between the end of one season and the start of the next, so the first day of pre-season training is not too far away!