How stats have changed Premier League football forever

The season has only just started, but has Mourinho already got it won?

The increasing use of stats in the beautiful game has led to inevitable comparisons with the 'Moneyball' revolution in baseball where stats such as a hitter's 'on-base percentage' supplanted traditional performance metrics. Is there a killer stat out there for football that could redefine how we value players and judge their performance?

"No, is the short answer," said Opta's Simon Farrant. "There's massive differences between the two sports. Baseball is all about individual actions. It's pitcher against batter, then the play finishes and you move onto the next one. Football is an 'invasion' sport, there's 11 players on each team moving around independently of each other."


His colleague Simon Banoub, Opta's Marketing Director, agrees: "There are going to be different shortcuts over time to get to a quantifying players contribution, but the killer stat between winning and losing a game, I think football is too fluid for that to be honest. However, a lot of the analyst community are looking into that kind of thing all the time."

Data
Mapping individual player data is key to analysis

The general opinion appears to be that football is home to too many intangibles. Too many things that can happen to offset the individual outcomes of a player's action, for example a winger can't control whether his centre forward nods home that pinpoint cross that leaves the goalkeeper in no-mans land.

The most important things are the hardest to measure.

However, sports analyst Blake Wooster thinks there is a path to statistical nirvana in the beautiful game. "It's harder in football [to quantify performance] given the team dynamic, but not impossible," he said:

"You just need to apply contextual intelligence to the problem, and also accept that there are some things that are inherently hard to measure - the so called 'intangibles'.

"The paradox in football is that some of the most important things are the hardest to measure; creativity, game intelligences, spacial awareness, etc... Hard, but not impossible."

Datatainment

However, while clubs seek any advantage they can on and off the field, it's also worth considering whether there's a desire for fans to turn the beautiful game into a collection of mathematical equation.

Not everyone wants their intangibles quantified. Supporters who wish to seek out data can do so through services like Squawka, which work exceptionally well. For everyone else, increasing the desire on stats may rely on giving them entertainment value and context.

Richard Ayers, former head of digital at Manchester City and CEO of the Seven League digital media firm believes in 'datatainment' – taking cold hard stats and creating entertainment opportunities through apps and games in order to increase engagement.

"Football is such a globally popular game that I think a lot of people involved in it don't see why or how it can be enhanced by the use of data," he told us. "There is a degree of tribalism here. Data is for 'statos,' the thinking goes. Other sports use data as a key to unlock the mysteries of their game, as a way of learning and understanding more.

Our projections are compiled using a vast amount of data.

"Occasionally genuine analysis is achieved using data, but far less often than you'd think when used around football. Much less than NFL, or MLB, or even cricket where data analysis is an accepted complement to the game.

"Partially this is because football relies on 'flow' and what architects call parametric data. For example, the interrelation of all the constituent parts, whereas the other games are broken into plays, moments, individual contribution much more.

Opta
Data is all very well but it needs to come with context

When it comes to the use of data by people communicating about the game, the essential component, context, is usually what is missing. The data itself is useless unless you give it context."

Predicting the winner

The power of stats in the modern game will be put to the test this season thanks to a spot of predictive analysis. Bloomberg Sports, using Opta data and its own analysis tools, have determined that Jose Mourinho's Chelsea have a 35.1 per cent chance of winning the title come May, finishing with 81.7 points.

Bloomberg's Simon Miller says: "Our projections are compiled using a vast amount of data - it is all wrapped into Match Analysis.

Historic performance is a key factor - this goes back through 3 years of data including the very latest action. For each of the 380 matches played in EPL there are between 1000 and 1500 pieces of data to analyze. We're also taking into account the influence of new managers and players signed.

"We have a lot of confidence in our projections. We are using advanced analytical that Bloomberg has developed in the world of finance over the past 30 years. We see the league being very tight between Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs. We give Chelsea the edge - the return of Jose Mourinho and his signings are part of the minor favoritism we give Chelsea."

However, before John Terry quickly changes from suit to kit (shinpads 'n' all) to lift another trophy, here's another stat for you from Squawka: "The Premier League has never been won by a team that finished outside the top three in the last season.

"That's just never happened, so that's a really good jumping off point to begin predictive analysis right there," countered Atwal.

Something's got to give, but it won't be the numbers. They can't get injured, request a transfer, lose form or misplace a pass. Everything else is fallible, well everything except Jose Mourinho.