Data Analysis
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Is Football Analytics Destroying the Beautiful Game?

Football is not the game it was in the 1990s or the 2000s. As it seems with everything in this world, it is constantly evolving. With football analytics, is it changing for the better, or is it losing its identity?

Analytics in sports arrived to the wider public through the publication of Moneyball in 2003, which is about the numbers behind baseball. Even though baseball is a completely different sport from football, they both can be analysed similarly. Football analytics is the use of complex data to leverage insights about what happens on the field and in training. Its present and future use is a contentious and hot topic in the sport. 

The notoriously controversial former Tottenham Hotspur player, Rafael Van der Vaart, is the latest in the football world to state his thoughts. While speaking on Ziggo Sport, the Dutch pundit said:

The ‘data people’ need to get out of the football world as soon as possible. Otherwise, I will quit watching football in three years. I am being serious.

Rafael Van der Vaart on Ziggo Sports
vaar 5

It’s a bold claim because it is a global practice that has been in the game for a while now. All the teams from the top leagues have these “data people” in their staff list. Every aspect of the game is analysed to the smallest detail and is presented in a way to improve decision-making.

Brentford F.C. is one club reputable for using structured and thorough data analysis as the basis of any decision they make, including scouting and transfers for their money-ball strategy. One of the first few changes during Erik ten Hag’s Man United tenure was the appointment of new data scientists. Man City’s Pep Guardiola holds meetings, which earned him the ‘data machine’ nickname.

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These examples have something in common, which is that the football teams are enjoying successful spells. They are adequate samples to suggest that the model works. At present, data analytics is vital for on-the-field success.

Thomas Frank's Masterclass appearance.

Brentford F.C. Manager Thomas Frank on The Coaches’ Voice

Evolution to Football Analytics

In the past, football used to be all about the eye test. Nowadays, without watching it live, one can find out about the next Ecuadorian gem sitting on a sofa. The information is often easily accessible with the numerous stat aggregators in the picture. To a degree, it can get ridiculous with some of the metrics; it must be satirical, but you can even come across expected throw-ins per game statistic. It can be tricky to understand and keep up with. Eventually, football should always serve the entertainment value more than a scientific one.

However, the game is currently all about winning. Detailed data doesn’t fool the eye, resulting in a higher probability of good decision-making. These decisions led to the exceptional competitiveness and quality of football we are witnessing in football leagues at this moment in time.

Performance metrics on display.

Hence, to answer the question of whether football analytics is destroying our beautiful game, nothing is conclusive. Instead, what is conclusive is that nothing suggests it will end soon. Van der Vaart and Co. should adapt to the new reality, a reality backed up by data.

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