Tag Archives: Arsene Wenger

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.

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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.

English Football Weekly: Week 4 Recap; Arsenal’s Resurgence; The Loan Market

EPL Week 4 Recap: Opposing Fortunes on Tyne-Wear, Villa Stumble, Shelvey Show

As the top six confirmed their status as the Premier League’s elite group with another series of predictable results this weekend (barring Chelsea’s 0-1 reverse at Goodison Park), let’s look at the so-called “mid-table” clubs, where the action is really getting interesting.

Starting with Tyneside and Wearside. Newcastle United were tipped for a chaotic season, especially after their controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as their Director of Football, but barring an opening-day drubbing at the hands of Manchester City, they’ve actually been on the rise. Loic Remy looks like he’ll be a fine addition, while Yohan Cabaye’s return to the first team will be significant in the Magpies’ return to form. Hatem Ben Arfa stands out in what actually is a very decent squad on paper. And with seven points thus far, Newcastle stand proud.

Not so much over at the Stadium of Light though, which has surely seen many a fiery outburst from Paolo Di Canio in the Sunderland dressing room. Can you blame him? A solitary point in four games has condemned the Black Cats to the bottom of the table, but it is the manner of their defeats that should really be concerning. Di Canio’s latest public criticism of midfielder Cabral won’t help much, and their next five fixtures? West Brom, Liverpool, Manchester United, Swansea City, and the Tyne-Wear derby. It’ll be a long month and a half.

Not that Aston Villa have been faring too much better. After an impressive opening-day win at the Emirates Stadium, Paul Lambert’s side have lost their last three fixtures, albeit against tough opposition. Apart from a penalty scored by Antonio Luna on his debut against Arsenal, Christian Benteke has been their only scorer thus far, which means that for the team to climb up the table, the likes of Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor need to start delivering the goods sharpish. A few challenging weeks ahead for Villa will test their mettle.

This wouldn’t be a very good weekly Premier League wrap if we didn’t mention Jonjo Shelvey and his impact on the Monday clash between Swansea City and Liverpool. If Man of the Match awards were really given to players who have an overall impact on a game, there wouldn’t be a finer candidate all weekend—or perhaps even all season—than Shelvey. After all, with a good goal and an exquisite assist, and two horrific passes, Shelvey was solely responsible for all four goals at the Liberty Stadium in an “excellent advert for the Premier League.”

Might Arsene Actually Know?

Four games, nine points, second place in the league. If it weren’t for Liverpool holding out for a point in south Wales on Monday, Arsenal would go into Week 5 as the league leaders, in what has been a quite remarkable turnaround of form and atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium.

We all remember the foul mood at the Emirates after their opening-day capitulation to Aston Villa and Christian Benteke, and Arsene Wenger will have found out that, for all of the technology and investment in a world-class stadium, it can be quite a nasty place to be. But three wins since, all accomplished in a quite comfortable manner—yes, even that one-goal win in the north London derby—and Arsenal are looking pretty good now.

Sure, Mesut Ozil will have been a key factor in turning around the Gunners’ attitudes, but even though he’ll no doubt inspire and win many points for his new club this term, he’s only been around for one of those wins. There are other reasons for Arsenal’s resurgence: the return to form of Aaron Ramsey, the maturing performances of Olivier Giroud, and an overall sense of immaculate teamwork and camaraderie in the dressing room.

Amidst all the hype and frenzy around Ozil—understandably and deservedly so, for he is one of the world’s best players—a quiet achievement by Wenger and his team is that they go to Marseille in the Champions League looking for a tenth straight win, which would be a club record. Confidence is brewing at the Emirates, and as ever, Arsenal just can’t be ruled out as a top-four team, even though they continue to be every season. And who knows? With further strengthening in January, they could become title contenders.

The Proliferation of the Domestic Loan Market

Cameron Jerome, Jason Puncheon, Kevin Phillips, Romelu Lukaku, Gareth Barry, Jake Livermore, Victor Moses, Aly Cissokho, Loic Remy, Johan Elmander, Stephen Ireland, Oussamma Assaidi, Fabio Borini, Ki Sung-Yueng, Morgan Amalfitano, Scott Sinclair, Matej Vydra.

Thus goes the list of first-team loan signings arriving in the Premier League this summer. That’s almost an average of one player on loan in each first-team squad in the top flight, where we know the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea haven’t participated in such a system except in the “loan out” category, and that’s not counting those loanees who might not walk straight into the starting XI.

That the loan system is attractive, as a means for top clubs to farm out talent who need top-level experience and consistent playing time and for lower-ranking clubs to improve their results on the cheap, is well-known. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere, now established Premier League stars, honed their talent on loan at Bolton Wanderers. Out of the 19 names in the above list, only four are from foreign clubs, and even then, two of them (Elmander and Vydra) have had experience in English football (with Bolton and Watford respectively).

But even bigger clubs are playing these days. Liverpool and Everton both have two names each, in the most high-profile representation of the benefits of the loan market to the Premier League as a whole. There have been suggestions that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead from the pack that they can now afford to loan players to the Merseysiders (Moses, Lukaku and Barry), but equally it shows that in an age of relative financial austerity, the loan market can reap its benefits.

We’ll take the coming months to gauge the impact of the loan signings this summer—and as they perform well, more details of their loan arrangements (e.g. whether there is an option to buy, etc.) will come to light—and that could make for an interesting analysis in itself, but as the transfer window slammed shut, the proliferation of the loan market manifested. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.