Data analytics and football - the biggest show on Earth

Business Intelligence

by Duncan MacRae| 19 June 2014

Big data analytics is giving soccer teams a competitive edge at World Cup 2014.

The first ball of FIFA World Cup 2014 was kicked in the Arena de Sao Paolo, Brazil on June 12 as Brazil went head to head with Croatia in the competition's opening game.

The qualification process, involving 239 nations, began as far back as 2011, and now just 32 teams remain to battle it out in the finals. World Cup hosts Brazil are hotly tipped to lift the trophy, but when the pressure is on, anything can happen in tournament football.

All 32 teams have spent the past four years building up to this moment - spending hours preparing both physically and tactically, as any extra competitive edge could make all the difference. It's little wonder then that so many football teams are turning to big data analytics to find just that.

As the old saying goes, 'hard work beats talent, but only when talent doesn't work hard'. It used to be the case that you could win by either being naturally gifted, or by working harder than the rest, recalls Alex Philips, senior managing consultant, Business Analytics & Optimisation, IBM.

"Now, talent identification programmes are so strong, and training regimes so finely tuned, that, at the very top level, everyone is talented and everyone works hard," he says. "So to find that extra edge in performance you need to look elsewhere - data analytics can tell you where that extra edge might be, and help you grab it before your opponent."

In situations like the World Cup, 'big data' is so much more than mere business jargon. Here, it could be the difference between winning and losing. And although big data is a term that has been heavily marketed in recent years, it's certainly not new to the world of football, as Chris Anderson, author of The Numbers Game, explained at this year's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference.

"Some people have described what's going on with soccer analytics as a revolution but I think it's a bit of a misnomer," the quantitative football analytics pioneer and former semi-pro footballer commented.

"I think it's been much more of an evolution. Very few people know that soccer is really the original hotbed of analytics."

Anderson was referring to the work of Charles Reep, an accountant and RAF wing commander, who back in 1950 began attending English football matches and making notes about the action that unfolded on the pitch.

"He developed a coding system," Anderson explained. "He sat down at matches for 60 years and noted with his own system all the events on the pitch and collected reams of data that he then put into practice, working with clubs through the 1960s to 1980s in England."

He was the original soccer analyst - an analytics driving force. "That history and Reeves' successes and failures with teams has influenced how all this has evolved and reverberated through clubs over the years," said Anderson.

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