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?”
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.
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: http://www.sporttechie.com/2015/03/03/fifa-decides-to-not-use-video-technology-despite-blown-calls/
If you are interested in reading more about a piece on Opta and how it works: http://www.sporttechie.com/2015/03/11/moneyball-is-coming-to-soccer-and-it-will-change-team-operations/
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): http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-analytics-can-teach-us-about-the-beautiful-game/