In recent years, analytics has continued to gain more and more prominence within soccer. New methods of evaluating teams and players are introduced continuously, while stats like expected goals have become an accepted norm in post-game analysis. That has extended to teams investing in their own analytics, looking to gain an edge on the competition.
In the case of many of the largest teams and leagues, those investments can be substantial; that makes sense considering they could gain points in the league and ensure that large sums of transfer fees are being spent wisely. Despite that, I believe most teams are not making the best use that they could from these investments. I obviously don’t have any insider knowledge of how teams are handling analytics, especially because most are extremely secretive; however, based on what is publicly shared in reporting or books on the subject, here is what I think teams are doing wrong.
Investing in Analytics, but Not Leveraging the Results
Analytics departments have become a given among the top levels of soccer; despite that, in many cases clubs seem to have those departments only so that they can say they have one. There’s no actual effort to use the results to benefit either the on-field product or transfer strategy. Obviously, that’s the clearest example of clubs not benefitting the way they could.
First, teams are missing out on the ability to improve their tactics and strategy through what the statistical analysis would show. Second, there’s no point in having the department only to be able to say you have one. In many cases, the clubs are investing significant sums for no real return – they’d be better off not having a department and investing the money elsewhere rather than throwing money away. The even better solution is to have a clear plan for how analytics will be incorporated throughout the organization; not doing so will almost certainly cause clubs to fall behind.
Thinking That Analytics and Established Methods Can’t Be Combined
This ties into the prior section. When managers and players talk about analytics, especially those considered old-school, they’re often derogatory and voice the belief that the numbers don’t accurately reflect what happens on the field. Ultimately that leads to not using the analytics at all – what’s the point in leveraging something if you don’t believe it has value in the first place? This is made worse by the fact that personalities between the two sides often clash, and people involved in the game don’t understand taking input from people who never reached the highest levels of soccer. It’s not a coincidence that many of the analytics that gain traction quickly are those developed by the few people that reached that level of soccer and then moved on to pursue analytics.
While that side of the conflict is often the more obvious one due to the platform that proponents receive, it also goes the other way. There are some within the analytics community that want to take over a soccer team the way that they envision Billy Beane runs the Athletics – making all decisions based on the numbers alone. Again, that drives the thought processes above; others are going to be less willing to accept input from those who insist their ways should take over instead of being a complementary piece. It also ignores reality – Billy Beane made it to the major leagues. Part of the Athletics’ success has been that they have people who are able to interpret numbers and integrate them into the existing processes.
No matter which of these approaches a person or club takes, they’re missing out on the true benefits that could be achieved by choosing the best of both options instead of thinking it has to be a choice between the two. There’s no reason that analytics can’t be used to enhance the current way of doing things instead of seeing them as a replacement.
Not Having Someone to Translate the Numbers
Again, this issue ties in as a cause for many of the others. The numbers produced by analysis are worthless on their own – there must be a way to translate that product into useful guidance for tactics, evaluation, and strategy. Many teams don’t have someone who is able to bridge that gap between the analytics department and the coaching staff or other portions of the club. The lack of this focus just reinforces many of the other issues – most coaches and football directors aren’t going to use information if there’s no one there to explain in simple terms what it means and how it can be leveraged.
Copying What Others are Doing and Thinking
How big of a mistake this issue can be really depends on the club itself. In an ideal scenario, analytics departments could be continuously looking for innovative and better ways to evaluate performance on the field in order to improve teams. However, many teams simply look for their departments to do the same analysis that the other teams are already doing.
For the richest teams that are near the top of the league already, this isn’t necessarily a bad strategy. It’s essentially no different than the way they’re able to approach players – it’s better if the new ideas come from within the team, but they can also use money to hire analysts and use the ideas developed elsewhere. Money allows these clubs to pursue established analytics and aim to use them better than other clubs.
For teams that are lower in the table or don’t have the same resources, focusing just on using the same methods can be a much larger detriment. Those clubs can’t afford to just do the same thing in a better way, the same way that they can’t buy the most expensive players to outperform other teams without effective strategies. Just like with any other area of the club, these teams are missing out when they don’t look for innovations to get ahead of the pack.
Only Using it for Confirmation Bias
Another way clubs can be using the numbers wrong is by treating them only as a method to confirm what they already think. Within scouting, some clubs choose to send their scouts to matches without knowing who they’re there to watch; the theory is that they’re more likely to return a positive report on a player if they already know that’s who their boss is interested in. It’s more beneficial if they go in without that knowledge and still recommend that same player. A similar approach should be taken with analytics departments.
Obviously there needs to be a strategy in what to pursue within the department, but it would be a mistake to give too much guidance about what area of the game clubs are hoping to see as most valuable; ultimately, in many cases formulas can be manipulated in different ways until they produce the desired result. The same can apply to researching teams and players, just like it would with scouting. Using the numbers just to confirm what you already think is clearly not valuable and can’t be relied upon – a department that reaches the same answer without knowing the reason behind the request is providing a solution that can be relied upon much more.
All of these issues lead to clubs not making the best use of analytics and missing out on insights that could help the team. Ultimately, in my opinion the biggest winners in this regard will be the teams that are able to successfully bridge the gap between analytics and old-school methods to allow them each to complement each other. With that in mind, a future article will focus on how I would structure a team to encourage this.