Has the impact of data analysis been overstated?
A clash of coaching cultures?
by Andy Roberts
We’ve often talked about sports data analysis on this blog, namely the sheer depth and scope of modern data gathering and analysis. But the question is how much this data means in the real world. Yes, it’s great for computer modelling and prediction, but what does it actually mean to the coaches and players out on the field?
I am of course playing devil’s advocate here. Sport Acuity is a business that is steeped in the world of sports data and analysis, both in terms of the numbers themselves and their value as a corporate asset. Much like broadcast rights, sponsorship rights and the players themselves, sports data is big business in the modern sports industry.
Old School v Data Nerds
To look at the meaning and value of sports data, a good place to start is the importance of gut feeling and individual approach, with football managers being a great example. Old-style managers like Brian Clough preferred to work on instinct and man-management alone, while modern managers rely on reams of statistics and specialist analysts to guide their tactics, squad selection and recruitment policy.
The role of data in modern sport should not be underestimated. Manchester City alone employs 11 full-time staff in its data analysis team. Liverpool’s director of research has a PhD in theoretical physics, and it’s his job to analyse the 1,500 data points collected during each match, using them to produce insights and recommendations that will boost team performance on the pitch.
While nobody would dismiss the importance of sports data, there are however two schools of thought on just how fundamental it actually is. On one hand we have the likes of renowned pollster Nate Silver and author Billy Keane, who believe that sports data can be used much like a stock market trading analysis, to help guide future tactics and strategies. They don’t discount the value of intuition, but they value dispassionate analysis over human gut feeling.
In the other corner you have the traditionalists. These are the old-school, in the model of Harry Redknapp perhaps. These are the guys who don’t discount the value of data gathering and analysis but will always follow their nose first and foremost. Redknapp’s opinion of data is well known. He once said: "I'll tell you what, next week, why don't we get your computer to play against their computer and see who wins?"
Sports Data and Coaching Cultures
As history shows, the results for each approach are mixed and the ideal methodology probably involves a mix of intuition and analysis. A lot of it is about culture as well. David Moyes went from 10 years of over-achievement at Everton to abject failure in his next three roles. His approach to management and data did not change, but the clubs and the players obviously did, which only serves to demonstrate that data analysis and intuition are only part of the picture.
To succeed in any sport, you need any number of factors to be working in your favour. From training to attitude, analytics and good old-fashioned luck. Sam Allardyce is one football manager who you might expect to be in the traditionalist camp, but after spending a season with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1983, he became a lifelong advocate of the importance of statistics, albeit allied to an old-style gut instinct.
Sports clubs, and football clubs in particular, are notoriously secretive about the depth of statistics they use, how they are analysed and how much they influence the style of play. Sports in the US tend to be more reliant on data than their worldwide counterparts and that culture might rub off as the US betting market opens up and the culture spreads, as American ideas tend to do.
The degree to which the manager or the players base their tactics on data analysis will vary from team to team and – ultimately - if the performance is positive and the results keep coming, the fans and the board won’t care.