FIFA AND FM: HOW ARE STATISTICS CHANGING THE FACE OF 'REAL LIFE' FOOTBALL
Football is the most popular sport in the world and is constantly changing in order to adapt to modern culture. We look at how statistics have become more and more present in the modern game.
If you watch a football match from 20 years ago, on websites like Footballia for example, you will realise how much the sport has transformed. By sitting through the 1999 Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, you will notice neither of the keepers play the ball from the back and like many players on the pitch, just kick the ball up-field hoping for their 6ft striker to control it in an arial dual with the defender. Today, centre-backs and goalkeepers need to play from the back, wingbacks are the evolving into one of the most important positions and VAR incidents are present in every match.
More importantly for this article, the importance of statistics has risen to a whole new level in the last ten years. Before the turn of century, statistics mostly counted goals scored, with top scorers in competitions being just as celebrated today as clean sheets. The latter is now celebrated by the Golden Glove award in the Premier League, which puts in the limelight on the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets. However, the evolution of computers and internet has now democratised far more statistics, for which people use in every football debate now, from television to the playground. Some of the main statistics to have emerged are obviously assists, but also duals won, completed passes, runs made per game and interceptions completed. Lately, we have seen the rise of expected goals, expressed in XG, which has opened in itself a whole new debate around the importance of statistics.
These statistics are not always used the right way and there is a growing concern online that television pundits just throw these stats into the face of the viewer just to prove a point, while the same stat could be used to the advantage of the opposite team or player. Similarly to using complicated words in a political debate, these statistics can be used to an extent to alienate a lesser knowledgeable audience, who will fall for whatever is given to them. Twitter, however, has helped democratise the knowledge needed to understand these numbers, with many profiles and accounts simplifying this maths and helping the general public get a better understanding of the game. Opta for example has been collecting statistics for many years and with very simple tweets, put some complicated numbers very simply for everyone to understand. They will later use these same numbers to prove how much more important Bruno Fernandes is to his team rather than Kevin De Bruyne for example.
These statistics are not simply used in punditry or recreational debates at the bar but are increasingly used by the players and the teams. First of all, like all athletes nowadays, every movement, run or decision is scrutinised. Understanding that such player is extremely efficient on the left wing as he can cut on his right foot but is far from achieving the same numbers on the other flank as he does not have the necessary quality for crosses, that is something crucial for managers and clubs. This is why clubs are investing massively in video analysis teams, who go through every game of the club to understand the players’ weaknesses and strengths to improve the team and then pass it onto the manager and players. Alternatively, they also analyse the oppositions’ games in order to understand how to beat them. Every week, the players get video sessions to have a better understanding of how to win the next game. Managers like Nagelsmann even installed a huge screen at the training ground in order for the players to understand during training how they can improve their positioning for example, with a broader camera view enabling them to see where the space is and so on.
These runs and decisions are also very important for the physios at the club. Studying how the athlete is responding to certain challenges, whether he can repeat the efforts on the long run and whether the player would have to be preserved for the next game as they notice general fatigue. It is not new that physios check the physical condition of players after a game, but there is definitely a shift to more statistics, with small chips being placed in the kits (like in rugby) in order to understand the general condition of the body throughout the match. This will help the physio team get a better understanding of their players to avoid injuries but also help the manager and training team see where the potential is. A player who is still in an excellent condition at the end of a game could maybe be used in a different role in order to maximise his physical potential.
Lastly, we have also seen a shift with the usage of data and analytics when it comes to scouting and recruitment. Many top clubs are using third party companies who have a better understanding of analytics in order to improve their recruitment and avoid mistakes. Obviously, there will always be players who do not meet their potential and others who exceed it, whether analytics are used or not. However, the usage of data limits the risks and enables clubs to quantify the unquantifiable. Untouchable variables such as how the player will fit into the club and system, the player style, the mentality or the chemistry, all these things are studied to maximise the usage of transfer money at the club and limit failures. Many scouts now have the ability to recruit the perfect player for the club, without even leaving their office, with all the games being studied minute by minute with video recordings. While it can be argued that seeing the player in the flesh is irreplaceable, you can easily see that with the pandemic, there is a chance that scouts will travel less and yet can still be very successful. Smaller clubs like Brentford have used the system of analytics to perfection over the last few years, with many successful players being under the radar before they arrived at the club and eventually being huge successes.
It can be argued that internet is one of the main reasons for statistics taking such a huge space in the current football scene, with many stats debates on Twitter for example on a daily basis. However, football tech as a whole has drastically changed. FIFA Ultimate Team by EA Sports and Football Manager by Sport Interactive have certainly democratised statistics. Comparing player ratings on FIFA is a yearly tradition when the game comes out in autumn, while Football Manager is used by more and more scouts to find players for their team. It can also be argued that these two games have really helped analytics develop within the amateur players’ community.
Ultimately, football statistics are taking a real turn with the democratisation of technology and its progress. Fitbits and apps on your phone to help you with your work outs are part of most people’s sport routines nowadays. It is only the start. Mainstream conversations about football, whether that’s between friends or in the media, are starting to integrate statistics, maybe a little too much. However, this can only improve everyone’s understanding of the game, at so many different levels. Grassroot football itself is getting more and more stats, and this will benefit the local amateur players and coaches tremendously. Statistics are here to stay, now it is more a question of how to use them and give players and teams the edge on the pitch.