The Proliferation of Data-Driven Analysis in Football (Part Three: The Scientists)

In this four-part series, we’re covering the burgeoning field of data science in football, with each part looking at one specific player in this ever-expanding market.

We’ve looked at the scout and the coach in previous segments, so let’s dive straight into part three and give the football scientist his due.

We can start with this summary of Arsene Wenger’s time in England and how he’s played a major part in bringing English football up to speed and into the 21st century, and also recall the coverage we’ve paid to both Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers (who, if you’ve followed the series, have shared a few common principles and key figures along the way).

In doing so, we can reflect that football science and its contributions towards a football club are intricately tied in to the big data revolution in football, and came into the sport together with all the statistical and data-driven analyses that we’ve heard about (hence their inclusion in this series).

In Part Three we’ll change focus and give ample coverage to AC Milan and Liverpool and how they’ve incorporated science to help players not only in terms of tactical knowledge and pre-game preparations, but also to maximize their physical potential—and how this is also a way for the clubs themselves to mitigate any unnecessary risks.

milanlab2

Medical Tests

Let’s start with the famous and ubiquitous (during transfer season) medical.

We can turn to renowned resource PhysioRoom.com for a brief explanation of a pre-signing medical, but more insightful is this outstanding piece of football journalism from the Daily Mail’s Matt Fortune, who went through the process of an actual footballer’s medical and wrote a fascinating insider’s tale about it.

We’ll leave it to the experts to tell us what actually goes into a medical, what club doctors actually look for and what kinds of problems they’re keen to avoid—and they vary from club to club—but what’s become increasingly clear over the past few seasons is that the medical has become arguably the most important part of the signing process of a player.

There can be lots of work going into the scouting of a player (as we discussed in Part Two), his strengths and weaknesses, and his potential as a player for a specific football club, but it is the medical department that has to give the final green light before a coach can even start working with the player in a full-time capacity.

It’s in this context that we bring Italian powerhouse AC Milan into the discussion. Their Milan Lab project, which has attracted lots of attention and was a high-profile feature in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics, was one of the major players and pioneers in European football in terms of its meticulous approach towards football science.

With a state-of-the-art research headquarters at the Milanello sports center, Milan Lab served both the first team and the youth setup, and was in charge of assessing players in all capacities, whether it be in the pre-signing stage, over the course of the season, or in case of injury problems. Its success in applying scientific research and unique methods allowed veterans like Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta to play into their forties.

Milan Lab also told David Beckham, upon his first loan move from the LA Galaxy in 2009, that he’d be able to play under he was 38, according to this feature in FourFourTwo. Evidently Beckham had taken that advice fully on board: He retired at the end of the 2012/13 season, aged 38.

You may have noticed that we’ve talked about Milan Lab in the past tense. Sadly, this pioneering venture was closed in 2010 after presiding over a period of unprecedented medical success at AC Milan (yes, we’re asking the same question you are). But fans of English football, fear not: As of February 2013, Milan Lab founder Jean-Pierre Meersseman has been involved with the Premier League and its clubs in a consultancy role to advise on football science.

Let’s turn our attentions to Liverpool, who in recent years have leapt into the modern era with their advents in data analysis and sports science. Incidentally, they have also been the subject of an “Inside Liverpool” series on Bleacher Report, and their first feature was with Chris Morgan, the Reds’ head of physiotherapy.

Throughout the interview Morgan sheds light on his role and involvement at the club, and his working relationship with the coaching staff. In the context of this discussion, what stands out interestingly is his summary of the two main aims of physiotherapists: “to ensure that the player is rehabilitated as quickly and safely as possible,” and “to learn from the injury.”

Nutrition and Diets

Science’s involvement in football naturally extends beyond physiotherapy and medicine. Before we continue with Liverpool, let’s hear again from Arsene Wenger.

He speaks here on the importance of how the players themselves prepare for matches and view their own careers, with eating and sleeping patterns factoring into this “non-visible,” “outside of training” part. Naturally, diet control has been a hallmark of Wenger’s regime at the Gunners, and it’s a trend that has spread throughout football.

Back to Liverpool. Dr. James Morton speaks in a feature on nutrition in Bleacher Report’s “Inside Liverpool” series, where he reveals the role he plays as a consultant for the club’s nutrition program.

This involves planning both team menus and individualized dietary plans, as well as education programs to staff and players on the importance of nutrition and how it affects their performances and preparation. Players “asking for advice on what to put in their shopping trolley” is a far cry from those days where they would go out for a pint at the local bar after a Saturday match. Sometimes the modern game does away with time-honored traditions for the sake of improvement. Or maybe it’s just the game improving and becoming more professional.

Another football club that has embraced sports science and nutrition is Manchester City, which we’ve already covered at length in previous segments. It turns out that City also employ a nutrition specialist to look at dietary habits and design appropriate nutritional and recovery strategies.

In this BBC Sport report on City’s industry-leading work in the football science sector, we see the benefits of a well-planned diet and also recall the importance of meticulous fitness planning and assessment.

Football Science and Conferences

There are a host of other high-profile football clubs to look at in this discussion, but let’s bring Part Three to a close by considering the possibilities of sports science and its potential to keep expanding its influence in football and look at the resources that are now available to clubs and sports scientists.

In other areas of sports and football, there are high-profile conferences such as the world-renowned MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and football’s own Soccerex Global Convention. Football science is increasingly getting its own due and coverage, with the Science and Football Conference and the World Conference on Science and Soccer, which are attracting high-profile participants both as speakers and as attendees.

And slowly but surely, academia is getting involved as well. The University of Liverpool offers a Football Industries MBA, while institutions like the Sports Business Institute of Barcelona and the Johan Cruyff Institute of Amsterdam provide a selection of football-specific courses and degrees to obtain.

The most interesting (and relevant to the topic at hand) of all, though, has to be the Bachelor of Science degree in Science and Football at Liverpool John Moores University (incidentally a key partner for Liverpool Football Club), which covers physiology, psychology, performance analysis, applied science and nutrition.

As we see more and more examples of football science (and opportunities for people interested in these areas), so we witness the continued growth and evolution of the beautiful game itself into a more data-driven business and sophisticated, learned industry.

But the driving force behind all these changes isn’t club management or any industry regulator; it’s the fans. It’s because of the fans that football has become the high-profile sport that it is, and will probably become the highest-earning sport in the world in the future.

So while the coach, the scout and the scientist are all inevitable components of the proliferation of data-driven analysis in football, we’ll return to that key player at the heart of it all in our fourth and final part in this series: the fan.

Stay tuned.

This piece first appeared on BusinessofSoccer.com, where I cover business and marketing strategy, globalization and technology in football.

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