Technologies are increasingly determining the work of modern football clubs. Suddenly not only top players draw attention, but also employees who previously researched the Higgs particle.
At first glance, the Liverpool football club and the European organization for nuclear research (CERN) in Geneva do not have much in common.
While some accelerate physical particles, the English runners-up inspire with fast-paced offensive football. But what unites them is the change of an employee between the two institutions.
William Spearman no longer deals with tiny particles, but helps to optimize the way coach Jürgen Klopp’s team plays. He analyzes the spaces on the pitch dominated by Liverpool players and gains insights that will help in practice. After receiving his doctorate in particle physics from Harvard, he came to Geneva, where Spearman worked for Cern on the discovery of the Higgs particle. “What I really enjoyed about physics was working on a problem for which there was no established solution,” he says in a club portrait on the Liverpool website.
High regard from Klopp
Problem solving is also part of football – mistakes lead to goals being conceded and make success more difficult. Jürgen Klopp is said to have said shortly after starting as Liverpool coach about research director Ian Graham and the data area: “The department at the back of the building is why I’m here.”
The statement shows how important the topic has become. According to experts, it is so crucial that it significantly influences the success of a club. Especially when buying players, data should prevent financial losses and guarantee high-priced resales. “Data can be extremely helpful in determining a player’s value more precisely,” says Pascal Bauer, mathematician and soccer data analyst for the German national team.
Ex-Bundesliga coach Manuel Baum sees just as much potential in this. “Using this tool in a targeted manner increases the likelihood of training more effectively, winning games, scouting and developing players better,” says the 42-year-old, who coached FC Augsburg.
Two scouting analysts in Wolfsburg
In general, the topic occupies the Bundesliga clubs: VfL Wolfsburg works with two analysts in the scouting area. “But we want to continue to improve in this area. From my point of view, working with data will offer many more possibilities in the future,” says sports director Marcel Schäfer. However, the 38-year-old believes that the technology is not yet fully developed.
He says: Scouting includes search criteria that are currently difficult to present. “For example, it is not recorded what personality someone has. Sometimes you want to hire a leading player, but that’s difficult only with data,” explains Schäfer. “I think football will probably never be like Major League Baseball in the US, where a lot of clubs are only signing players based on data.”
Schäfer alludes to the origins of data work, which are located in US baseball. “In principle, you can imagine baseball as a continuous standard situation,” explains DFB expert Bauer. In US sports, someone keeps throwing the ball in the same place and someone else hits it away. It’s not for nothing that the film “Moneyball” (2011) is based on real events, in which a baseball manager (Brad Pitt) changes the transfer policy due to insufficient budget and only signs unknown or retired players on the basis of computer-generated analyses.
In contrast to baseball, such constant situations are often missing in football because the sport is so unpredictable. “All in all, football is very complex. It will take more time before the game can be fully modeled,” says Bauer. The Liverpool analyst Spearman, who has always been enthusiastic about sports data, puts it like Bauer: “There is an elegance in football that is much more difficult to quantify.”
Daniel Memmert heads the Institute for Training Science and Sports Informatics at the German Sport University in Cologne. The lack of readability of the sport sometimes pushes him to his limits, too. “We don’t yet know what exactly contributes to the success. But we know that when you have peak pressing and space control, you have a higher chance of winning games.”
Great added value: objectivity
The analysts see the great added value in the scientific approach in the objectivity. “The nice thing about data is that you have something objectively measurable over a longer period of time, which, in contrast to emotionally influenced perception, is comparable,” says Bauer.
Data reveals mileage and runs to depth. Clubs want to know what space on the pitch is controlled by a player at any given time. “Large big data studies have shown that the space around thirty meters in front of the goal and in the penalty area is particularly important. If a lot of space is controlled there, then you have a higher probability of winning games, »explains Memmert.
Ultimately, according to DFB analyst Bauer, the data will be a small part of the success. “If we manage to pass on a few insights to the team and improve performance in tournaments by a few percentage points, then we’ll be satisfied,” says Bauer hopefully.
Memmert hopes that soon it won’t be clear at the push of a button who will win a game. “As a scientist, I would answer no to the question that we will ever be able to measure football so accurately and predict the result.” Coincidence also plays a major role: Memmert refers to a study according to which 42 percent of the goals are created by chance. “So I can say that we will still have a lot of excitement in the future – and that’s a good thing.”