Moneyball, Data and the Future of Soccer (Football)

I love soccer, but I am no purist. As always, the game must evolve.

                                                                                                                                                                             ‘People who buy franchises, whether it be in the Premier League or an NFL football team… they want rational reasons for why things are done and the old gut-feel approach in business is no longer going to sell’

-Billy Beane, the man who inspired the Oscar-winning “Moneyball” film

Just like any other complex system, the stock market, weather, elections, traffic, gambling odds or insurance predictions, there are patterns hidden in sports among the myriad variables. While still falling short of Minority Report predictions, police forces in LA, Vancouver, London and Miami are using data analytics to predict crime. They can calculate dates, people, times, and places which are more likely to be linked with crime and thus they can be much more effective in targeting their resources to higher probabilities of success. As with any of the other systems, data-based predictions do not give 100% accuracy, but increase odds of success, even by small percentages, can bring great overall improvements.
                                                                                                                                                                                  Unlike supercomputers, our brains are utterly incapable of making accurate predictions based on such large amounts of data, which is why we often fall back on gut feelings. Gut feelings can be very important, especially for quick decision making. Soccer, more than the other major sports, still relies greatly on intuition and is feeling reluctant to change. As technology and data tools become cheaper it will become too costly for teams and coaches not to join the Big Data or “sabermetrics” bandwagon.

ProZone technology

So far, there is very little qualitative reasoning done in this sport, because it is believed that anything can happen. Yes, anything can happen, but some things are more likely to happen or to work than others. Soccer seems like a totally unpredictable sport. However, even if there is a great factor of randomness, like any other complex event in the world it can be modeled (approximated) mathematically.

Let me give you an example of how mathematical soccer is. The Israeli military created a system to detect missiles headed towards their territory. Within seconds, with no human assistance, the technology can detect a missile being fired from anywhere in a huge area and give an approximate trajectory. Keep in mind that these (mostly Palestinian) rockets are very crude, erratic and extremely difficult to aim. This allows alarm systems to go off at specific sites, with high confidence, if a missile is headed towards the area. The same technology is now being used in World Cups to measure the precise speed and distant covered by the players and the ball.

Perhaps the reason we fear the introduction of so much determinism into soccer is that we fear that it will take away it’s beauty and excitement based on spontaneity and unpredictability. I beg to disagree. The current kings of soccer are with out a doubt the Germans. They play wonderful football and that is not only compatible, but possibly driven by their obsession with data. In 2006, the national goalkeeper, Lehmann jumped in the right direction for all four penalties the Argentinians took on him, saving two of them and earning his team a pass to the next round. His manager had run a database of 13000 penalty shots before that World Cup and handed him a cheat sheet of predictions. In this last World Cup the German machine humiliated the local Brazilians and went on to beat Argentina in the final. In this World Cup, German discipline beat South American passion and creativity. Before their triumph, the Wall Street Journal had published a column titled Germany’s 12th Man at the World Cup: Big Data. I am proud of the predictions I made for 2014.

Germany’s game is definitely not ugly but neither is it a guarantee of success. Personally, I prefer it aesthetically over the overused tiki-taka possession game of Barcelona and former World champions, Spain. Everybody knows Pep Guardiola was the key behind the two latter teams success. They got caught up in their previously innovative and successful method and ended up losing, while Pep went on to revolutionize another team: Bayern Munchen, the base for the current World Champions: Germany. Perhaps Guardiola’s greatest disappointment was his loss to Real Madrid by 5-0 in Champions league. By the way Real Madrid has now partnered up with Microsoft for data analytics. Not surprisingly, Guardiola soon after teamed up Bayern with a firm called SAP.

Here is an example of what data analysis has already discovered about soccer. According to Simon Kuper:  “The numbers suggest that shooting from free kicks — an unquestioned method in soccer, much as sacrifice bunts once were in baseball — is a terrible waste of a good ball. (…) You have the ball near the other team’s goal, the opponents have to stand at least nine meters away, and they have to put a few players in the wall in case you shoot. That gives you acres of space to pass to your men in the penalty area. Yet, players almost invariably shoot from the free kick. They are chasing glory, recalling those rare but memorable balls that plop wonderfully into the top corner.”

Fear not, be excited. Data analytics will become another great tool or factor which increases, but doesn’t determine one’s odds of winning, just like technical and physical training, playing with a home crowd, proper nutrition, high motivation, discipline, smart tactics or comfortable sportswear. Maybe, just maybe, this will be America’s chance to become a soccer powerhouse.

Further reading

The Guardian. The Number Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong – Review

Poor Stephen.

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