“It reminds me a lot of basketball in the early 90’s, where there’s a lot of these arguments like ‘Oh, we do this cause that’s what the top coaches do,’” said Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in discussing the role of analytics in soccer during a podcast interview earlier this year. In his growing appreciation for the beautiful game, he described several unorthodox observations from his data focused, disruptive point of view honed during his time in basketball. He added that supporters assume top managers win matches because they’re smarter and more tactical than their opposition, when in reality, they just have “more money and better players” thus cutting directly into their aura of genius. If Morey’s timeline holds true, soccer has at least two decades to reach a level of public acceptance within front offices and supporters. Until then, we’ll still have our narratives of individual brilliance. And we’ll make due with cross-sporting comparisons in lieu of a common soccer analytics language.
Though that’s not to say that analytics are immune from creating their own stories, with the holy grail uncovering hidden gems in plain sight. Finnish defensive midfielder Tim Sparv was an unusual candidate to become a symbol of the modern game, though that is exactly the intrigue. Sparv came to minor acclaim following his 2014 transfer move to FC Midtjylland for just over $330,000. He promptly lead his new side to a domestic title as Midtjylland won more points with him on the field than without him, despite a lack of overtly dominant trait. In furthering the connection with Morey and the Rockets, Sparv was labeled the soccer version of the “No-Stats All-Star” based on a New York Times piece written by Moneyball author Michael Lewis about Battier’s importance to winning despite lacking specific skills.
In describing Battier, Morey said that “he can’t dribble, he’s slow and hasn’t got much body control.” In describing himself, Sparv said that he “will never be the most technically-gifted,” adding that he likes the nickname “because I never score and barely assist” (a YouTube search shows barely two highlight compilations). The similarities move beyond the players and into the perspectives of the executives. Midtjylland director of football Rasmus Ankersen said he uses statistics as the club “can’t outspend our competitors, so we have to outthink them.” Morey added that the Rockets “couldn’t afford another superstar so we went for non-superstars we thought were undervalued.”
The movement of sports analytics starts from resource-strapped sides looking to compete in new ways outside of signing the best players. It evolves its way up the chain as teams with larger budgets who previously papered over cracks by sheer financial muscle adapt to modern times, creating a seemingly unstoppable middle ground of analytics and resources (Liverpool famously employ a coach for throw-ins). And while it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a representation of a manager’s true tactical ability in a game of unevenly distributed resources, we can still debate how successful Pep Guardiola would be if he managed a mid-table side, or whether punching up with limited resources is more impressive than winning titles with an expensive side. Besides, in the disjointed world of soccer, clubs exist outside of just finding the most efficient way to win.
Use cases for soccer analytics evolved from identifying undervalued players to establishing a club’s style of play, and beyond, in the five seasons since Sparv’s mini-moment. It also represented enough time to get used to the fairy-tale “radical experiment” quality of Midtjylland, with the club winning another league title in 2018, though they never made it past the round of 32 in the Europa League. If the Danish club represented soccer analytics 1.0, then the 2.0 era belonged to Championship-club Brentford, who distinguished themselves by getting rid of their youth academy in 2016. The move is counterintuitive to the story of developing youth as the most cost-effective way for a club to build a lineup, and it may be true for sides with larger brands who can poach top-prospects from smaller sides like Brentford.
As such, the club hadn’t developed a first team player from its academy since 2005. Yet most clubs would go through the motions in continuing to run a youth academy, despite its failures and costs, to signal that they are a traditional side. Brentford, owned by Matthew Benham, who also owns a sports data company in Smartodds, chose to focus on building a reserve side for previously overlooked players.
“For David to beat Goliath, he needed to use different weapons. If David had used the same weapon, he would have lost the battle. You’ve got to find your weapons,” added Ankeresen, now the co-director of football at Brentford.
There are sketches of an efficient, data-driven style that resembles a pressing game, a variation of basketball approach eschewing inefficient shots for three-pointers and layups, according to Morey. Wading into the eternal debate of the importance of possession, he added that the weighting between possession and position “feels off” in favor of idolizing teams who play with the ball.
After all, offenses in basketball are built upon taking advantage of mistakes in rotating defenses. Likewise, Morey wants to see teams focus more on taking advantage of defensive mistakes through pressing than figuring out “what’s going to happen when I draw it out on a piece of paper and exactly the right pass is being made.” Those ideas have roots in the current gegenpressing style, though that approach is in contrast to one of the central soccer stories told this past decade in the possession-based dominance of Pep Guardiola, Barcelona, and Spain. Morey turns the screws even harder when saying “I’m very down on teams that create chances through trying to play through the feet of their goalie,” adding that most managers value footskills cause they themselves were outfield players.
In looking at the uniformity of the modern three-point heavy NBA style, one wonders if there is a danger of efficiency creating a sameness within soccer if every side pressed high for 90 minutes in search of one mistake. Then again, top teams have already moved in that direction anyway, as evident by similarities in a pressing approach of Liverpool and Tottenham meeting in the Champions League Final. That familiarity created a largely uneventful match, as did the Europa League Final between Chelsea and Arsenal. Those results were taken as another signal of a return to Premier League dominance within Europe.
In returning to the Rockets, James Harden recently bought a 5% stake in the Houston Dynamo and Dash of MLS and NWSL. He said that the investment represented his love for the city, adding that “I’ve been a fan of the game for several years.” Between Harden and Morey are two symbols representing modernity in the NBA expressing their impact, tangible or in fleeting ideas watching Premier League matches on weekends, in a new sport. It’d be a stretch to expect either to influence soccer like they did basketball. But at least for Harden, he won’t have to travel far to find out.