Wednesday, April 13, 2016

What really is a Football Club?

One thing I've heard a lot this season is something along the lines of "Brighton are having a really good year because they do analytics." Last year it was Brentford and Midtjylland people were saying this about, who knows which teams it will be next year.

Which brings me to the question what the hell does "doing analytics" actually mean? Does it mean using data? Well, every club in the world uses data. Does it mean using data well? Well, what does using data well mean? Who is using the data? What are they using it for? Recruitment? Opposition analysis?

It's a meaningless statement to say a football club "does" anything. Football clubs don't do things. Football clubs are the output of the work of sometimes hundreds of different people all of whom from the academy coaches to the first team players have different ideas about what they'd like the club to be in an ideal world.

Think of a football club like a movie. A movie doesn't do things, it is the final product of the work of the many individuals who were involved in putting it together. A movie can be shitty because the lead actor is terrible. Now whose fault is that? The casting director? The director? The actor himself? The screenwriter for giving him poor material to work with? It's hard to say and like a football club the final product is the result of many different people's opinions, work and effort.

A year ago I really had no idea how football clubs worked. Having worked with Analytics FC for the past six months or so now I've had a lot of really cool opportunities and although I'm far from a voice of authority on this matter I feel I have a much better idea of what football clubs are and how they operate.

The first thing I think is important to say is that I've spoken with people at just about every level at a club from Directors of Football to Academy Coaches to Performance Analysts to 'Analytics' staff and none of them are stupid. I don't say this to be deferential or anything, it's just that these people watch tons of football, think about the sport every second they are at work and all bring valuable skills and experience to the club.

So when people say "x club is dumb" it's not only a simplistic way of thinking about things but it is wrong. There are bound to be plenty of smart people at that club and smart people in important positions. So why is the club unsuccessful? It could be something to do with the process that is wrong, it could be that people are in roles to make decisions that they really shouldn't be given their specific skill set, it could just be a matter of bad luck. The world isn't divided into smart and dumb clubs, because again clubs aren't single-entities they are the joint output of many different members of staff. Sometimes the output is good, sometimes it isn't.

Many of the same ideas are true with respect to analytics. There aren't clubs that do analytics and clubs that don't do analytics, because doing analytics isn't a thing. There are people at every club who use data to varying degrees and with varying efficiency. That being said every single club in the world could improve how they use data, and how they incorporate the use of data in their decision making process.

I think about my personal skillset and I honestly believe I could offer something to every club out there. That isn't to be arrogant, this sentiment probably applies to most of the people reading this as well. At some clubs like Arsenal who already have a full time analytics company working for them my role would just be to assist people smarter than me in continuing to do what they already do and allowing them to watch more games or whatever else it might be. At other clubs it would be to try and incorporate new ideas that would be considered low hanging fruit to many in the online analytics community.

The way analytics works its way into a club isn't to turn a dumb club into a smart club, but it's the idea of improving the process and increasing the number of ideas heard by people in important decision making roles. That's why people say again and again communication is the most important part of analytics, because it isn't something we do after the analysis, it is part of analysis itself because without it none of those things happen.

One thing I've heard from everyone who has worked at a club in whatever role is that they know when to push an idea and when to just accept decisions they might disagree with, because a club is not one person making decisions it's a massive team. This may sound obvious, but I've found it really helpful to think about all these moving parts when we talk about clubs. It helps to move past useless debates about "smart" and "dumb" clubs and actually address what it is that makes certain clubs more successful than others, because there are smart people everywhere in football. Finding what these people are good at and what they should and shouldn't be responsible for is much more challenging and really a more interesting question to ask.

No comments:

Post a Comment