In many ways football is pure emotion. Philip Lahm, the former captain and now honorary captain of the German national team went as far as to say: ‘Football matches are like modern gladiatorial battles.’ And you can see why. That sense of modern sport playing out like ancient warfare on misty fields echoes through the terraces and packed stadiums the world over. You can sense it with every intake of breath as a striker connects with a ball, hear it in every chant as your team’s stamina flags late in the second half – and you can feel it erupt in every collective primal roar of release as that decisive goal rolls past the keeper in extra time. But there is of course the other side: the clinical and hard-nosed reality that above all else, football is big business.
Due the increasing professionalization in the clubs, a huge ecosystem has formed around the sport. And as the money keeps flowing everybody wants some of the cake – clubs, media, sports management and other companies. Let’s take a look at how this would play out during a week in football, using a fictitious club, Wishtown FC as an example:
It’s Monday. Sally works as a Data Scientist at Wishtown FC – an ambitious football club and title-contenders, who play in the Premier League. Hyped from the big win at a local derby on Saturday, she has already finished the post-match analysis from yesterday. But this has to wait. Today she is with the team during training. Using GPS, she tracks the team’s high-speed runs and general fitness to determine whether the changes in the interval training have resulted in the desired performance improvement.
The scouting team of Wishtown FC is already looking for some possible transfer candidates for the next season. Finding underpriced, underestimated players, who still have their footballing peak ahead of them is of course still about hard-earned knowledge and scouting talent. But now they have access to different scouting platforms. These companies provide centralized analytical hubs with data analysis, statistics, visualizations and videos about every player you could think about. So the scouts are no longer guessing. Their decisions have become data-driven.
John is already excited about the upcoming top match between Wishtown FC and the division leader. He is a person always looking for this extra breeze of excitement. Betting on football matches is exactly this little breeze. But it’s just for fun. He knows, that the bookmakers are in a better position. Analytical companies can now use image recognition to produce the most detailed data collections about this sport – which they later sell to buyers around the industry. For instance, this data is the fuel for the predictive models of the bookmakers, which pretty accurately calculate the probabilities for the different match outcomes.
It’s Thursday. Again, an important day for Sally. She meets the medical team and the head coach. They talk about candidates for the starting eleven and training workloads. But not with respect to the player performance. Today, it’s all about using predictive analytics for injury prevention and forecasting. The GPS devices used during the training and for test matches not only track the position and speed, they also contain an accelerometer and a gyroscope. This gives her the possibility to collect movement, metabolic and mechanic features of every player. Combined with the existing injury history, she can get estimations about whether the workloads of each player should be decreased to prevent a possible injury.
It’s the day before the big match. Sally is again with the coach. They take a look at the pre-match analysis. Combining the tactical knowledge of the coach and her prepared statistics is always fun. The opposing team has been characterized by very clear scoring opportunities throughout the season. By using data they can quickly see they achieved this by high quality vertical key passes. So they not only lead the league, but also the statistics for ‘bypassed defenders’. The better information Sally provides the coach today, the better chance the team have of been able to adapt the overall tactics before the match.
Finally – it’s match day. Thousands of supporters are on their way to the stadium. Sometimes as they crane to see the runs on goal, it’s hard to stay on top of all the action at the other end of the pitch. But the tech and displays at the Wishtown stadium always use data to provide some basic match facts during the game. Who’s having a good game. Who hasn’t hadn’t any possession. Who had the most shots on goal, but the highest amount off target. Data analytics are now part and parcel of live match reporting and fan engagement.
The first half ends. Wishtown FC are down 2-0. The crowd shout from the terraces for substitutions. All eyes are on the manager.
Sally has been watching from the dugout and is hurrying to the coach with her tablet under the arm. The heat maps of the first half confirm what the coach sensed. They are getting outnumbered too often on the left wing. They need yo defend better in the half-space. The coach takes note and brings the team together for a huddle before the whistle.It’s a prime example of how data analytics again are used for match analysis and live tactical changes.
John is sitting on his couch and witness a remarkable turn-around – it’s an impressive second half, as if they have sent out a completely different team. Wishtown FC are relentlessly on the attack – and goals inevitably come. But it’s too late today and it’s only enough to draw the game. Was it unlucky or just inefficiency? Using data analytics for the expected goals, the finding reveals what the TV cameras can’t pick up. This is where the analytics come into their own for the fans. For instance, TV pundits can use football expert’s tactical analysis to reveal that the defensive changes during the half time break worked well. It gives the post-match analysis that little extra for the audience interested in more insights about their beloved sport.
It’s an end of an exhausting week for Sally. Her world is data and reducing the margins – but it’s still been full of all the drama and emotion of the beautiful game. So now it’s time to relax before it all starts again. And that’s even before they start thinking of those Champion’s League games.
Data analytics is football’s rising star – but even data needs a good manager
So, it’s clear to see that the amount of data collected during the training sessions, and during the match offers incredible value for the players, the staff, the clubs, the TV stations, the fans, and any other company which has a stake in this business of professional football.
But the increasing amount of data involved with these sports analytics requires something powerful, flexible and scalable enough to manage it. Otherwise, all the value offered by the data gets lost in a mountain of complexity. That’s why choosing the right in-memory analytical databases and visualization tools are often the hidden ‘edge’ that many over-look when they enter the league of data analytics.
And if we think back to Lahm’s quote, football will always feel like a gladiatorial battle and data is the new weapon in a team’s armory. But the game’s future generals are going to be the ones with the best databases.