A glimpse of the future of football analytics

Analytics in football is a boom industry, with a significantly increased understanding and appreciation for the role it can play in improving players, teams, and clubs leading to the development of new roles, organizations, and industries.

In this context, it was interesting to hear the talk of Raul Palaez at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference 2018, where he shared the ongoing evolution of the club’s analytics department, the creation of their Innovation Hub and the new ideas and understandings that have emerged as a result.

What was very interesting was that Palaez started his presentation by physically holding a ball, to signify the starting point from which Barcelona built their analytics department – “always about the ball”. This is tied back to Barcelona’s football philosophy, which is built around the idea that you can only score with the ball, and thus, teams and players should always seek to have possession of the ball and deny the opposition from having possession as much as possible.

Centering a club philosophy around a simple idea – the ball – gives all involved a guiding framework for their day-to-day activity, and it was illuminating to see how the philosophy of the club runs through every department, from coaching to analytics.

As Barcelona built their data collection around the ball, and the player/team interaction with the ball, they have collected a staggering amount of data. There were eight different factors given, shown in the image below, that are considered for a single player. A large chunk of those factors comes from ‘ultra-wide band tracker’, an alternative to the traditional GPS unit that is used to collect biometrics and locational data from each training session and game. This tracker alone collects 2 billion records per session.

With so much data, Barcelona had to build a platform to store it all. This stores over 6 billion records. The centralization of all these records is significant. Many sports teams collect data from a variety of sources – GPS, Opta, heart rate monitors and Sportscode, to name a few – but many of these work independently from each other and do not integrate.

In the age of deep learning, denying the data the ability to speak to each other would seem to be a missed opportunity for these clubs. Additionally, having to access multiple platforms to see data on the one player can be slow and cumbersome. As such, the development of projects like Microsoft’s Sports Performance Platform seems the way forward – an integrated, all-in-one solution for multiple sources of data, supported by artificial intelligence software to create genuine, valuable insights. Barcelona’s unified platform, as described by Palaez, appears to be a major advantage over their competitors.

Where Barcelona also seemed to have gained an advantage is in the development of unique analytics relating to player positional and body orientation data. Using XYZ tracking at a rate of 25 x 1sec, they have been able to develop models and algorithms to improve their understanding of what creates success in football.

Whilst Palaez remained understandably tight-lipped on the exact nature of these discoveries, the sheer existence of such substantive data points towards cutting-edge research in the analytical understanding of the game.

Significantly, as elaborated in the presentation, the automatism of these data tracking and collection processes frees up match analysts from being ‘descriptors’ to becoming ‘value adders’. This is a particularly pertinent point. Due to the proliferation of analytics, there has been a large increase in the number of jobs available for analysts.

However, as the industry grew at a larger rate than the data was collected, many of these analysts work in collecting roles, asked to code and tag endless football matches, without ever having the time to actually deliver insights based on this data. Barcelona is enabling greater utilization of their analysts’ skills by developing systems that allow them to collect data automatically.

That may become Barcelona’s great strength. They have taken a simple philosophy – everything about the ball – and applied it universally to a fledging yet flowering Innovation Hub.

By integrating their analytics platforms, and giving their analysts the tools and time to use these platforms effectively, they can begin to discover insights about the ball they can deliver to their club. Ultimately, it all comes back to the ball.

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