Is The Obsession With Data Restricting Players?
Opta, Squawka, Prozone, Football Manager, Soccer Manager and WhoScored. Six examples of data providers who Premier League clubs use on a regular basis to analyse the performance of their players from youth level to first team level. After failing at the 2010 World Cup, the English FA became obsessed with creating a structure for English based clubs to benefit from, and invested heavily in data mechanics. Five years on, Football manager statistics are being used as gospel and players are being bought using this data alone.
To put some context into the situation, Manchester City use 40 scouts worldwide to hunt the most coveted talents, Football Manager on the other hand have a team of 1,300 scouts updating over 651,000 profiles a day. The first club to actively invest in data from the PC-game were Everton, who used the database to shortlist players to buy and have taken an even bigger step towards digitalising their scouting system since.
On a performance level, however, the obsession with data is having a negative effect on the pitch. Whilst profiling a player with data can be done fairly simply the deeper dive into individual game performance with stats becomes a shopping list of KPIs that must be hit be a certain player. West London club Brentford FC implemented not only Football Manager data to buy players, but also ProZone data to measure individual performance – prompting players to hit objectives per match. Whilst this worked in the short-term as their moneyball effect drove them to the play-offs, their form this season and transfer dealings would suggest that the process isn’t exactly succinct.
Football is a game driven by emotion, not data, but the implementation of KPIs has meant that players are constantly trying to tick boxes rather than play their natural game – whilst it’s unnatural to expect a player to squander scoring a goal to improve his passing accuracy – it is completely conceivable that said player would limit his number of take-on’s to boost his stats. For example, on his arrival at Chelsea, Eden Hazard lead the league for dribbles made and take on’s completed, this year his take-on figures have dropped significantly whilst his chance creation have also decreased. Interestingly,there is a correlation here with an increase in passing statistics with his pass completion increasing year on year.
Those who watch football regularly will recognise that since 2010 the Premier League has become much more static with clubs failing on the European scene whilst those from the continent have pressed on. This correlation between increased investment in data and conservative play on the pitch certainly suggests that managers who study the analysis of their teams are restricting their players from taking risks on the pitch. Whilst possession stats are king in the Premier League their biggest flaw is when the opposition attacks them at speed, in a direct nature. Although a loose tie, it can be seen that the introduction of data points to the game has glossed over the core features of the game; the emotion felt by a player, their willingness to take risks.
David Bentley, renowned for being somewhat of a maverick said that he fell out of love with the game because he was required to perform a certain number of performance objectives per game. As such, his career tailed off. Whilst data offers a great deal of insight into what a team can become this information is being used in the wrong way. It is almost impossible that Moneyball philosophy could win a game that runs purely on emotional instinct and is so low scoring. But nevertheless, the suffocation of some of the brightest players is down to ticking boxes.