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The Secret Soccer Analyst: Data Analysts Must Adapt Quickly or Die

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The Secret Soccer Analyst: Data Analysts Must Adapt Quickly or Die

There is a famous quote that reads, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Whether it’s Blockbuster video getting bankrupted by Netflix or Myspace being blown out of the water by Facebook, the modern business world is fast moving and ruthless. Progress waits for no one, and football is no different.

A quick glance at the English Football pyramid presents a graveyard of once successful football clubs who believed they were ‘bigger than their current division™.’ Meanwhile traditionally small clubs like Bournemouth, Hull City and recently promoted Brighton thrive.

It’s not just chairmen and chief executives who are feeling the pinch; as an analyst, it’s an equally daunting time. Barely a week goes by when I don’t have some form of interaction with a fellow analyst, which leads to a guessing game about what the next few years will look like for us in this industry.

Every week there seems to be a new Twitter account dedicated to football analytics. Almost daily I receive emails from analytics startups who have developed a new groundbreaking algorithm for something or other, and universities are full of prodigious 18-21 year olds who can seemingly do it all at a young age.

Then, a few weeks back I saw this Tweet from Mark Cuban and, to be very frank, shit my pants a little bit:

This is the owner of an NBA team learning some complex stuff which that is of critical importance to the future of sports analytics. When the boss of the team knows how to do your job, you better be ready to do it better or you will be out of work.

Please don’t mistake this for alarmism; this is truly an exciting development. As owners in sports are more and more likely to be tech and data analytics savvy, they will inevitably invest more in the field, both financially and emotionally.

If I wrote out my skill set when I started this job, the list would probably be one tenth the size it is now. As an analyst, you either adapt or die, it’s that simple. That means learning new technical skills as well as social skills. Either way, if you don’t change, the football industry will not wait for you, and you’ll be “looking for new opportunities” soon enough.

It’s not just owners who are changing either. So are sports scientists, scouts and coaches. The modern football coach is more technically proficient than ever before. They can download video, make clips for themselves and their players, and generally survive at a reasonable level.

When it comes to video, I find myself getting called on less and less. This is in sharp contrast to when I first started, when I would be required by coaching to do anything remotely‘technical’, whether fixing the Apple TV to solving email issues to editing a highlight tape for a player. Today, I find myself exclusively consulted on far more difficult matters. This is both a blessing, and a worrying sign that I may not be able to keep up with advancements in the field.

Ten years ago, Sam Allardyce started to experiment with Prozone data at Bolton. A few years later, Performance Analysts started to pop up in clubs all over the country. I remember a university classmate of mine who earned a position at his local club to the amazement of our peers. His job involved some basic video work on set pieces etc. and some very, very simple statistical work on passing percentages and shots. Fast forward ten years and most clubs have at least two full time analysts and a small army of interns who won’t be allowed to be involved in anything genuinely useful for the first team. Then there are the really big clubs, with 10-15 analysts all of whom specialize in one area or another.

Nor are clubs limited when it comes to collecting event data. Today we have OPTA, STATS, Instat, Wyscout, Scout7, Catapult, Ortec, ChyronHego, Metrica and many more. Recruitment analysts are required to complement video with data, and analysts have countless squad management tools at their disposal like Kitman Labs and EDGE10. Specialist video software is everywhere too, from Sportscode to Dartfish and Nacsport for which you must know about Blackmagic vs Canopus boxes and a wide range of camera requirements of course! Meanwhile data analysts must use Python and R at a minimum; Southampton recently hired a training analyst who was required to be proficient in Tableau.

In my relatively short time working in football, I’ve done some work in all of the above, some more than others. Yet when reflecting on this article a few days ago, it struck me just how much I personally have had to evolve just to survive, let alone advance.

I find often find I’m more than a little threatened by the uber-talented 18-21 year olds. When I was this age, the most technically demanding thing I did was playing Football Manager. I look back now and can’t help but wonder where I might be, with the maturity and foresight to see this new world coming.

Somewhere, in a student house with piles of dirty dishes, an even dirtier sofa and empty beer cans there is somebody who is going to make themselves very famous and very rich in football. They probably don’t even know it yet, but while I spend 40 hours a week trying to survive, plus 5 hours trying to learn something new, they are spending 20 hours a week learning the one skill that will make me redundant. They have the one asset that nobody in this world seems to have anymore – time.

Soon, coaches will be doing all the video, some may even be doing their own data analytics. Owners, Directors of Football and Chief Executives will be monitoring key performance indicators and tracking long term trends and there will be more consultants than you could possibly make use of. The time of stupid decision makers is slowly coming to an end. Smart people will do well, while the ignorant, arrogant and old fashioned ‘proper football men’ are on their way to slow extinction.

There may still be a role in there somewhere for someone like me, a sort of old fashioned ‘grease man’ who ‘kind of knows how everything works’, and no doubt it will be called something nice like ‘coach facilitator’, but the math doesn’t quite add up. I may get lucky and make my way in this sport, but many of my friends will be looking for a new line of work.

I’ve spent many hours asking myself “How will I survive this future?” and I think I’ve got a solid plan. I’d love to share it with you, but I too am adapting, I’m evolving and now more than ever I’m looking after #1.

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