Soccer Analytics – Do They Belong in the “Beautiful Game”?

By | March 24, 2015

There is a revolution happening in the world of sports, but it is not happening on a field or a court. Rather, the revolution is happening in the Excel sheets and the computers of statisticians and analysts who are tracking every play in sports today. In an age where the accessibility of data and the ability to analyze it quickly has reached team managers and coaches, the question remains, “How will analytics affect the sport of soccer?”

Sloan Conference

MIT Sloan recently hosted their 9th Annual Sports Analytics Conference February 27-28, 2015.

As defined on Wikipedia, “Analytics is the discovery and communication of meaningful patterns in data.” However, the tracking of statistics in soccer poses a significant problem in that there is little data to analyze in the first place. Games are relatively low-scoring compared to other sports, and plays cannot be easily separated due to the flow of the ball. Without data, it becomes difficult to gather a significant sample size. Furthermore, many argue that analytics in soccer will ruin the “Beautiful Game” of its fluidity and elegance through the ugly truth of numbers and data. However, despite this resistance to bringing number-crunching to the sport, it is in this writer’s opinion that analytics will continue to grow and become a significant tool in the arsenal of many teams and coaching staffs.

Jurgen Klinsmann has already announced the formation of a new analytics center for the U.S. National Team and other U.S. National soccer programs.

Recently, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has included the use of analytics in his blueprint for developing the 2018 World Cup squad. The U.S. Soccer Federation will be establishing a data analysis center at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA. The data from this center will be recorded from the senior team all the way down to the youth national teams and the development academy. How Klinsmann uses this data remains a mystery, but it is clear that he remains in the camp of forward thinking coaches who are eager to use the information to help guide his coaching decisions.

Motion tracking and video equipment are already being used to track every player’s movements on the pitch for an entire match. Translating this data into useful statistics, services such as Opta, which tracks MLS matches, can generate statistics for the individual, the team, and even the entire league. For example, a statistic such as “Tackles” can indicate a player’s ability to win a challenge against an opposing attacker, or “Dribbles Attempted” can demonstrate how aggressive an offensive player is. “Total Passes” or “Pass Completion Percentage” statistics can help paint a story about a team’s style of play or how successful they are at moving the ball around.

However, these statistics are useless as standalone numbers. They can only be used to tell a useful story when combined with what is observed on the pitch. No amount of numbers or data can accurately depict a soccer game or tell the entire story of the match. Thus, while the use of these types of statistics will undoubtedly increase, they will never threaten the vitality of the sport, they will only enrich one’s experience of the beautiful game.


Other discussion points:

The use of video technology to track every play has also raised concerns about using the data to overturn referee’s decisions, and thus FIFA has refused to utilize the technology:

If you are interested in reading more about a piece on Opta and how it works:

This article is also another opinion piece of the state of soccer analytics with some particularly interesting conclusions regarding Barcelona’s tiki-taka style (surprise, it’s statistically sound as well as successful):

8 thoughts on “Soccer Analytics – Do They Belong in the “Beautiful Game”?

  1. Pingback: Soccer Potpourri | OverLapping RunOverLapping Run

  2. Deemer Class IV

    I definitely agree with your post and agree that analytics will only help the game, or more specifically, teams that decide to collect and put the data to use. The data, when going beyond simply goals, saves, assists etc. could really help in strategy and technique. There will be things that are uncovered and could help innovate the game. Sure, the beauty and tradition of the game is seen as something that many long time fans and players will fall back on as a reason to prevent change and innovation. However, I believe analytics will only help to add value to the already fascinating sport.

  3. Hyun Moh (John) Shin

    Good article, Justin!

    I guess the problem is that the analytics of soccer that are available to the public aren’t as an accurate representation of the game as we would like to think so. For example, all the statistics you mentioned that OPTA delivers are limited to what some call the “on-the-ball” actions; in reality the players spend most of the game time off the ball, trying to execute certain patterns of movement, and covering the gaps made by the players on the ball. With the exception of “distance covered(km)” there is currently no statistics available to the public that indicates such off-the-ball movements. I’m sure OPTA has such data as well, but they demand compensations that are too much for an individual to afford – that was what I felt when I requested such data to them for my independent research paper.

    Even if such data were easily accessible, I doubt that the top-dog media would effectively utilize such data; time is such a huge value for them in their field that the top media wouldn’t willingly sacrifice a lot of it for improved validity.

    1. Justin Fu Post author

      Hi John, I agree with you that the current state of analytics precludes the common fan to gain access to the information. However, I also believe that in the near future the access to this information will grow. Already in other sports leagues that heavily use analytics such as the NBA ( or the MLB (, statistical information is being published and passed on to the fans. It may just be that soccer has yet to catch up to the progress in analytics that has been made in other sports. The compensations required by these analytics companies such as Opta are undoubtedly due to their lack of competition in the arena. As the practice of analyzing data is popularized, more companies offering similar services will lead to a statistic within your price range.

      Regarding, off-the-ball movements, one common data visualization tool that is increasingly used by soccer analysts is the heat map, which gives the frequency a player occupies a certain part of the pitch. Perhaps this information could help you answer your research questions.

      1. Hyun Moh (John) Shin

        Thanks Justin! The research was done last year, and I had to just use whatever information I had at that time. I agree that things will change soon enough when more “indie” organizations start churning out better algorithms to collect the off-the-ball movement.

        As for the heat maps, most of the current algorithms that generate these heat maps only count for specific events, which are mostly on-the-ball events (tackles, interceptions, touches, etc.). So they still are limited to on-the-ball movements; they just give the fans an illusion that what they are looking at the data are all that happened during the game. For example, if you look at Michael Carrick’s heat maps in Man Utd matches, they are often less significant than you would think, which could be mistaken as lackluster performances. But in reality, Carrick makes a huge contribution in maintaining structure of Man Utd’s defense – it’s just that he doesn’t like to actively commit himself to a tackle.

        You could argue that players still need to get on the ball often in order to make contributions, and I would agree with that, but I’d still like to believe that effectively capturing these off-the-ball movements would be the next step in soccer analytics.

  4. Harrison Kalt

    Justin, I really enjoyed reading this article and I completely agree with your conclusion. While analytics will not take over the game as they have with baseball, I believe that they can be used as a means to gain a better understanding as to who and what is truly valued on the soccer pitch. For my Soccer Blog Review, I choose to highlight, a beautifully constructed analytics site that is devoted almost solely to tracking the world’s most popular soccer league, the Barclay’s English Premier League. One such article on EPLindex that really struck me, and I think serves as a perfect example of the beauty and use of these analytics compared two of the league’s most “underrated” midfielders – Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork of Southampton, to the established, and, in my previously biased opinion, stronger midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva. Delving into an extremely involved statistical analysis of nearly every relevant aspect of a midfielder’s game that the human eye cannot simply track, the article underlined the strength of Southampton’s duo while giving the common sports fan a more well-rounded and accurate understanding as to which players are truly valuable to their teams when compared to others.

    Without analytically driven sites like, the average soccer fan is resigned to follow the headlines of the league’s biggest and most well-known clubs and players, and is left unaware of some of the more underrated or unknown players whose impact on the field can go unseen because of the relative size of their club.

    1. Justin Fu Post author

      Hey Harrison! Glad you enjoyed the article. I also agree that the power of analytics is its ability to analyze patterns in data, disregarding the most famous and well-known players, in drawing conclusions. By doing so, analytics is able to draw attention to players who are statistically equivalent to the big name players as you mentioned. As the field of analytics grows and its influence permeates throughout soccer, I believe that more teams who cannot afford the big name stars will feel comfortable signing “unknown” players to compete with the larger clubs. Perhaps, these analytical tools can help level the playing field and reduce the disparity between the major European clubs and the other clubs in their leagues. Sites like and other analytically centered sites will undoubtedly fuel the movement from the fans. If access to these insights are given to the fan, then they may be more motivated to pressure their club to make a cheaper signing over an overvalued one. One can already assume that the team managers are using these statistics to make decisions behind closed doors. Thanks for the reply, Harrison!

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