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Context is king: correcting soccer clichés with data

25 March 2015 | Posted in Magazine Features | By James Emmett | Contact the author

Context is king: correcting soccer clichés with data

The battle lines in soccer management have been drawn: the traditional approach, relying on instinct and experience; and the modern method, fuelled by Moneyball thinking and data evangelism. According to 21st Club founder Blake Wooster, however, there is a middle way.

By James Emmett

By the founder’s own admission, 21st Club was born out of a boozy evening, a meeting of minds, and several napkins’ worth of vigorously scrawled notes. Blake Wooster, chief executive of the company, is describing the evening he spent having dinner with Rasmus Ankersen, a Danish author with an interest in tracking, understanding and finding sporting high performance.

Ankersen had just published The Gold Mine Effect, a book that recorded his efforts to apply data science to the question of why there appear to be tiny pockets of intense talent production around the world – why does Jamaica produce a disproportionate number of top sprinters, for example, and why are 137 of the world’s best 500 female golfers from South Korea? He was in England to give a talk at the offices of Prozone, the digital performance analysis company for which Wooster had been working for nine years. The pair went for dinner and hit it off.

“It was one of those really indulgent nights where you go through a couple of bottles of wine,” recounts Wooster. “We were essentially putting the world to rights, saying, ‘If we were a football club, if we were the 21st club in the league, how would we make decisions? How would we run our business? How would we recruit talent? How would we be different? How would we get a competitive edge?’ In the morning, with a bad head, I pulled out this napkin… and thankfully when I opened it up a lot of it actually made sense.”

A few months and meetings later, in August 2013, 21st Club was open for business.

Wooster and his team have developed 21st Club into a digital consultancy for the soccer industry. They work with clubs to instil better-informed planning processes and decision-making systems to aid mid to long-term stability and development. They apply what they call ‘contextual intelligence’ to data to find a competitive edge, both in the boardroom and on the field.

At the heart of the 21st Club methodology is a working document Wooster calls “the manifesto”.

“We haven’t got all the answers at the moment and it’s never going to be a bible that we publish and go, ‘There you go – that’s everything you need to know,’” says Wooster (above), by way of caveat. “But what we try to do is help people understand what the future of football will look like. For the manifesto, we tried to look at all the different challenges a football club face, on the football side and on the business side, and ask ourselves about every aspect: ‘Is there a better way to approach this task?’”

Drilling down further, Wooster explains that the manifesto has helped 21st Club find more efficient ways to present common sense systems within football clubs –  there is a detailed chapter on succession planning, for example – but also to debunk many of the myths that are perpetuated on a daily basis by football cliché.

While any productive, efficient business would see an adequate succession planning strategy as straightforward business common sense, it is rarely so simple in soccer, where tradition, media scrutiny and emotion combine.

In England, south coast Premier League side Southampton are rightly lauded as a club with a vigorous and fruitful academy system and an approach to player succession planning that makes the most of it. Yet when the club sacked their manager Nigel Adkins in January 2013 – the Englishman having guided the club to two successive promotions before faring admirably in his first half-season of Premier League management – there was uproar. The opprobrium was still being heaped on the club even when it became apparent that Mauricio Pochettino, Adkins’ replacement, was far from the untested no-hoper some in the media had made him out to be.

Succession planning is all well and good in management, it seems, as long as it is only visible once the man at the helm has had a patchy run of results.


Evolution, 21st Club's flagship software platform, is intended as an accessible and visually clear aid to long-term squad development for soccer clubs

A similar scenario has played out in English soccer this season. In February, it was confirmed that Mark Warburton, the respected manager of Championship side Brentford, would be let go at the end of the season despite the fact that, under his guidance, the club have a serious chance of a second successive promotion. Brentford owner Matthew Benham, who made the decision, is known to favour a more statistical approach to club management.

Not uncoincidentally, Benham is also the majority shareholder of FC Midtjylland, the unfashionable Danish club currently blazing an unlikely trail at the top of their own domestic first tier. When Benham took the reins at Midtjylland last year, his first move was to install one Rasmus Ankersen as chairman.

Ankersen, though a founder of 21st Club, is nevertheless not a full-time employee of the company. Yet it’s clear that the focus he has instilled at Midtjylland is straight out of the 21st Club manifesto of applying contextual intelligence to pertinent data.

So if Benham is using Midtjylland as a test bed for Brentford, is Ankersen’s position at the club itself something of a proving ground for 21st Club?

“I’m cautious about communicating it, because I don’t want people to think, oh, Blake just wants to run a football club,” says Wooster. “But ultimately there must be an opportunity for us to put this blueprint, this manifesto – even though it will never be a finished article – into practice ourselves within a football club. I think that’s quite a nice vision.”

Correcting the cliché - 1. ‘Take each game as it comes’

“We often use the analogy that football is a ticking clock,” says Wooster. “Every clock has an hour hand, a minute hand and a second hand. Football clubs are always concentrating on the next game, one game at a time. That’s the second hand. We try to be their surveillance system or their hour hand. We won’t help you win the next match, but we’ll probably help you win in two or three years’ time.”

The ‘concentrate on the next game’ philosophy is one that soccer clubs have adhered to, by and large, since leagues were founded. 21st Club’s flagship software application, Evolution, has been designed to nudge club hierarchies away from that philosophy by making mid to long-term succession planning easy.

The tool, aimed at boardroom level, is updated with statistical data as it happens, and linked with contractual data the club inputs itself. Appreciating or depreciating player values and bonus payment commitments are visualised simply. It has been designed to enable chief executives, owners, finance directors, directors of football and managers – in the modern game, rarely to be found in the same room – to input scenarios – letting this or that player go, promoting this or that player from the youth team, buying this or that player from elsewhere – for the next few seasons.

Correcting the cliché - 2. ‘The league table never lies’

A key part of the thinking that informs the 21st Club’s manifesto is a statistical model Wooster calls Performance League. “Often people in football will say that the league table never lies,” he says. “But, in our experience using our data, the league table almost always lies.”

In high-scoring games like basketball, tennis or cricket, Wooster explains, the better individual or team will typically win out. In football, however, there is such a premium on scoring, and such a degree of luck involved, that often “the team that deserves to win the game doesn’t always do so”.

“How many times,” he adds, “do you see a manager interviewed after a game, saying, ‘I thought we performed really well today and the better team lost.’? It drives fans mad, but often the managers are right in their gut feeling.”

21st Club’s Performance League takes data from across the leagues, strips it down to critical chances created and conceded – and the combinations which produced them – to give what Wooster believes is a “true measure of the underlying performance”.

He cites Newcastle United, who endured a torrid start to the Premier League season this year, as a club whose underlying performance suggested they were down at the foot of the table through misfortune. Newcastle amassed just four points from their first seven league games, and the board, by all accounts, was getting twitchy.

Wooster says that 21st Club were able to get their message across to the Newcastle hierarchy. Alan Pardew, the then-manager, remained in his post, and results, just as predicted, improved.

Correcting the cliché - 3. ‘The new manager effect’

Had Newcastle United opted to sack Alan Pardew early in the season, the team would then undoubtedly have been the beneficiary of what’s come to be known as the ‘new manager bounce’. This, explains Wooster, is usually another nonsense football cliché.

“We’ve had examples this season of teams that have sacked managers prematurely because they’ve lost the last two or three games, either due to bad luck or bad refereeing decisions,” he says. “It’s based on a small sample size and a lot of emotion has gone into that decision when actually the underlying performance is ok and the team would have improved if they’d continued to play that way. And then the new manager comes in, often rides on the back of that system and it’s hailed as ‘the new manager effect’.

Correcting the cliché - 4: All data is good data

Wooster, first with Prozone and now with 21st Club, has operated at the heart of a shifting data landscape over the last decade and a half. “One of the broader changes we’ve seen in the marketplace is that if product A was all about having data for the first time, access, product B was all about giving context and meaning to data,” he explains.

There is a lazy distinction made in modern football between the old school ‘football men’ and the data-crazed Moneyball acolytes. You’re either one, or the other. Giving context to data, says Wooster, should be about treading the line between the two. “We’re data-savvy,” he says, “but we’re not data-obsessed.”

In fact, Wooster empathises with the sceptics. Statistical analysis, he says, has become a “very noisy” space, and the media in particular are guilty of using what Wooster would define as meaningless data.

“It’s the lazy distribution of the same old stats,” he says. “The broad mistake people make is that more is better: More possession is better; more distance covered is better. They mistake volume with quality. If you look at the Champions League winners over the last few seasons, the teams typically – Barcelona aside, maybe – have less possession than the opposition because tactically they’re trying to hit them on the counter attack. But the media don’t seem to be intelligent enough or listening to what’s really important. They’re pumping the same old stats out there.

“Any coach or player, or even fan can tell you that it’s about the quality of the running not the amount. The better players – the Thierry Henrys – will purposely try to do less running than the oppositions, but more explosive running at the right time.”

Gary Neville, Wooster says, is the exception that proves the rule. The former Manchester United player and current UK soccer media darling spends a lot of time at the offices of data company Opta, learning how to marry their statistics with his own experience, intuition and articulacy.

“In the media’s defence,” Wooster adds, “the challenge is that if you’re going to use data in a contextualised, intelligent way, there are only so many windows of opportunity. You need a magazine programme where you’ve got time to sit down and review the game. Then you can dissect the performance at a deeper level.

“I understand that during a game some statistics have to be thrown out there. We’ve come up with some data widgets that are there to enhance the viewer’s experience. They could be used in a live environment. We came up with this thing called ‘attacking momentum’, where we weighted all the attacking actions that would happen in a match in order to get just one number, visualising the ebb and flow of the match.”

This article appears in the April 2015 issue of SportsPro magazine.

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