Big Data – CDZ021

If Sunday morning is set aside for reviewing the morning papers and watching the Match of the Day re-run, then come Monday; when the cold air that blankets the building site bites through the work wear and high visibility clothing, or when the brightness of the computer screen reminds you you are back at your desk for another week, then come Monday; it is time to see how the fantasy team did.

The last two weeks of pre-season are where the sanity of football fans lies on a knife edge as the first round of games edge closer, and the opening weekend of the Championship simply doesn’t cut it. Fantasy Football, you are the medicine to sooth us in those last weeks of another disappointing British summer.

It’s groundhog day, meandering through the stats is too difficult, and Jamie Vardy has made it in to more squads than he should have even though last year he was as close to making it as Wilfried Bony was. That golden boot just shines too brightly, and there’s nowhere else to turn. No Vardy, no party.

Reviewing the Premier League’s own Fantasy Football stats, it’s interesting to see where fans slosh their dosh; and it is mainly in Manchester. Around 39% of teams have plumped for Sergio Aguero, whilst 37% teams have Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their ranks. Vardy, as it happens, is the fourth most selected forward (17%).

In midfield; Dimitri Payet is expected to replicate last years form, with a third of teams believing he can do the business inside the Olympic Stadium. Even if he does, fans will need binoculars to see him. Hector Bellerin tops the charts for defenders, the Frenchman is just as much preferred as his countryman Payet is.

But how do these numbers compare to the squad Pep Guadiola has inherited and continues to build? Around 7.5% of teams have installed Joe Hart as their number 1. The negative press around Hart’s footwork has cast doubt over his future at the Etihad, and his weakened wrists during performances in France won’t have helped his cause. Everton are his potential suitors with Ter Stagen penciled in as his replacement. Nothing on the UEFA website about that yet though. Hart is the tenth most popular choice, and what’s most disconcerting is he falls behind Victor Valdes of Middlesborough and Hull’s Eldin Jakupovic, both of whom will stand between the sticks for two promoted sides.

In the defensive department, Bacary Sagna is the most popular (13th favoured). Sagna’s frequent selections could be considered an ascent after accumulating the 17th highest points total (116) for a defender, just two behind Aleks Kolorov’s tally.

The back four, based on the evidence of preseason, is giving City fans most concern, despite John Stones signing this week. All four full backs are now over 30, and Vincent Kompany’s plagued injury record and loss of form last year create hesitancy over his selection. But what do the numbers tell us?

It’s not only a question of cleans sheets, where Sagna leads the way, but also contributing with goals and a strong discipline record. Vincent Kompany was the most efficient when it came to keeping the opposition out, but his injuries and high concentration of cautions will make fans dubious about selecting him this time around.

Gael Clichy was perhaps the best value in terms of clean sheet ratio and discipline, but having been displaced as first choice left back by Aleks Kolorov, the highest scoring defender in the team, the Frenchman may not feature in too many fantasy teams. Kolorov may yet be selected in more Fantasy Football teams than Pep Guadiola line-ups, due to his attacking prowess, but the full back area is one City fans would like to see fresh faces.

If Angelino is to be given a chance under the new manager remains to be seen, but his appearances in the EDS, and his stint at New York, always showed promise.

John Stones wasn’t far off ever present for Everton last term, representing the Toffees on 33 occasions. Despite featuring so often, the Barnsley academy graduate didn’t manage to find the back of the net once. With Kompany’s fitness always a doubt, Stones may be the bedrock of the manager’s defence, and City’s 15 clean sheets last year may encourage fans to select him too.

Jason Denayer seems to have given up on his Etihad prospects, whilst Tosin Adarabiyo also seems to have slipped down the pecking order despite featuring heavily in pre-season. City’s last game in preparation for the upcoming campaign saw Guadiola prefer a Fernando and Kolorov as a makeshift centre half pairing.

City were the highest scoring team last year in last year’s Premier League, and whilst the midfield only mustered 13 goals between them, the assists department is where they managed to score points. Kevin De Bruyne lead the way with creating ten of the 71 goals scored. De Bruyne’s signing from Wolfsburg has been backed up by the volume of goals he has been involved with since moving to Manchester. His record of 17 last year (10 assists, 7 goals, 0.7 per game) has slipped since his final campaign in Germany (0.85 goals/assists per game), but he’s still City’s biggest midfield threat.

The Belgian would have scored fans 131 points last term, but there were still twenty players in the Premier League who offered a superior return. Andre Ayew, Marko Arnautovic and Duan Tadic each proved that playing for a club in the division’s higher echelons isn’t paramount to individual form or success.
City fans await the season unfolding with intrigue, especially as the front six evolves. It has been an area the club has managed to successfully recruit players; Leroy Sane, Ilkay Gundogan and Aleks Zinchenko freshen the options with last years squad growing staler as the season wore on. Whether Zichenko stays, remains to be seen. The new signings place pressure on a number of players in the midfield department; Samir Nasri has been excluded from training for not dropping sufficient weight and looks set to make way. Gundogan looks as robust as Sergio Aguero, yet possesses the vision of the David Silva City signed six years ago. The Germany international describes himself “no more attack than defence”.

Gundogan has been hit with injuries, but this shouldn’t concern City fans; his recent back and knee injuries were suffered as a result of high impact tackles rather than a lack of fitness or recurring problems. Jesus Navas may also find chances limited too.

Sane, Gundogan’s countryman, runs at players with more confidence than Raheem Sterling and Navas combined. Predominantly left footed, he has caused a stir in Germany with his move to Manchester. Germany legend Lothar Matthais said, through a mouthful of sour grapes, Sane had gone for the money. It was later confirmed that PSG tabled more than City did or were ever prepared too. It is happening, talent is now being drawn with a headline manager at the helm.

Zichenko was the bright young talent of Kyiv, and despite links with an immediate loan move away, if Guadiola can balance City’s homegrown quota, he may prefer to hold on to the Ukrainian, making way for Fabian Delph, following Stones arrival.

In the attacking third, despite not acquiring an out and out forward to alleviate Aguero of some of the goalscoring burden, the options have been bolstered by the acquisitions of the aforementioned Sane and Spain international Nolito. Bony seems set to depart the Etihad, certainly if City can find another forward, but Kelechi Inheacho has usurped the Ivorian as Aguero’s deputy. Although the starting berth was rarely afforded to Inheacho, his return offered promise for the campaign ahead.

Overall, City’s midfield should have weighed in with more of the goals last year. It demonstrated the reliance the team had on Aguero, and despite Kelechi proving an astute understudy, the onus will be on Nolito, Sane, De Bruyne and Sterling to top up the Argentine’s haul.

The defence is yet to be settled with Joe Hart’s position under threat, and with City expected to play more openly from the back, the new style may enhance the goals scored column, but during the transitional phase where Stones will need to settle in to the team with an array of partners, it may be expected the goals conceded column increases in the interim too.

Corazon De Zaba has a league you can join on the Premier League website. If you’d like to participate the code is 87537-255023.

The Inaugural City Hackathon

Off the field activities have been just as important as developments on it during pre-season at Manchester City, who become the first club to hold a hackathon during the off season. Hackathon sounds like the latest made up word to be jammed in to the English lexicon, but it’s been around a lot longer than you might think.

It’s eventual introduction in to football is no surprise given the wealth of success stories in other sports from the use of ‘Big Data’. The Oakland A’s baseball team had a movie made about their World Series triumph, whilst films about football; ‘When Saturday Comes,’ ‘ Jimmy Grimble,’ ‘Mean Machine,’ remain relatively unknown in the world of Hollywood. The game’s next offering is a biography of Jamie Vardy’s rise from non-league football to Premier League Golden Boot winner.

The inaugural event included 60 guests from all walks of life, who congregated for a weekend at the City Football Academy; data professionals, college students and season card holders just a few examples of the cohort. Their mission; to create something innovate with the most comprehensive set of data in football.

You may recall after City won their first Championship in over four decades they released all their data for that season publicly via the club website. This included player performance not just for their own players, but for every player of every opposition team that year.

The mass collection of such data is nothing new; City have had a team of analysts long before the Sheik Mansour era (in fact before moving from Carrington, the old press conference room wall was knocked through to make way for an expanding team).

The end product in collecting statistics can often lead to a chicken and egg situation. You can only develop ideas based on the quality and quantity of data collected, and you can only select and monitor data based on what your vision is.

The hackers were provided with a spread of numbers that monitored obvious facets of the game such as passing and position play, through to how passages of play evolve, or where the ball travels during the course of a game. The winning idea was ground breaking; technology which monitors and analyses decision making. This ups the stakes of where players run, so what tactics should be deployed to mitigate the threat, to which players intrinsically know how to deal with such threats, based on the data collected from their performances.

It’s perhaps what Catapult offer teams that sports tech data companies like Opta cannot. It’s more than just stats.

Another example of the pivotal role technology has played in football is the meteoric rise of Leicester City from relegation fodder to Premier League Champions in under two years has in part been attributed to the introduction of a new wave of sports science and data, namely their partnership with Catapult, one of the most innovate sporting companies globally. With a smaller squad than many title hopefuls boasted last year, the Tinkerman Claudio Ranieri retained Nigel Pearson’s vision come reality through the hiring of Catapult.

Catapult offered something new; the ability to track muscle tension and fatigue, and for managers to identify risks of injury and remove players from games as a precaution to the benefit of their longer term fitness. The Foxes ended the season champions, with fewer injuries than any other side in the division.

Catapult’s portfolio of clients is nothing short of impressive; dominating grid iron and AFL, whilst being attached to some of the most revered clubs in football, AC Milan, Atletico, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Chelsea.

Arguably Catapult’s technology helped Zlatan Ibrahimovic, aged 34, set a new Ligue 1 record with 38 goals last year. But it’s doubtful the player himself would concede that.

It’s innovate and arguably ahead of it’s time, but Pearson wasn’t the only manager with such foresight. Sam Allardyce, the now England manager, was awarded an honorary doctorate of sport science from the University of Bolton. During Alladyce’s initial foray in to management he spent time with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The period Big Sam spent Stateside revolutionised his way of thinking and approaching football matches. Put plainly, Allardyce’s tactics were so simple, it’s amazing to consider more teams weren’t latching on such methodology already.

If attacking corners were defended successfully by the opposition, Alladyce would map where the loose ball fell most frequently, deploy a player there and maintain pressure on the other team. It’s no surprise his Bolton side often topped the stats for goals scored as a result of set pieces.

One member of Alladyce’s analytics team was Gavin Fleig, who is now the Global Lead for Talent Management at City. Fleig was schooled at the Reebok, followed Allardyce to Newcastle and learned the hard way that implementing ideas overnight is virtually impossible.

Whilst the manager is introducing new tactics, the physio new methods of recovery, the fitness team their new regimes for training and diet, when you add to the mix a whole array of statistical data for players to absorb and carry over the white line, it can be to say the least, overbearing.

Arguably it was information overload that stopped Alladyce ever getting off the ground up on Tyne-side. Nonetheless, it set Fleig in good stead. The MIT graduate (Fleig studied MIT Sloan) joined City in the summer months before Sheik Mansour’s takeover. Whereas most clubs had a team of analysts collectively focusing on various areas of the game, Simon Wilson’s regime, Fleig’s boss,  was somewhat different; each analyst would focus on a specific area of a players game; Fleig’s being around pre-match preparation.

After Sven Goran Eriksson left, Fleig found himself in a position much the same as the Newcastle players he was attempting to forge a relationship with, with upheaval. Fortunately for Fleig and the team, the dawning of the new era lead to investment in the analyst department, who grew from a team of three to ten in less than six years; four focusing on first team football, six on youth groups.

This structural transition enabled coaches in the Academy to understand the philosophy of the first team manager and players and impress it upon their own age groups, and to coin a football cliché, build a conveyor belt of talent from within. Not only would the data improve team performance, but video footage and statistics could help the individual player develop their touch, or body position as they received the ball across their chest.

But a new age dawns for Big Data and its role in football; City’s first ever Hackathon winning idea, identifying the decision making process players go through in various environments, allows the club to scout attributes outside of physical spectrum. The idea is to identify a player, like for example Sergio Aguero, who has placed the ball in the back of the net before he has actually thought about doing so. It just happens, based on instinct and accumulated past experience in those situations.

Such technology would change the face of scouting and player selection forever. Technology in football is arguably in its infancy still, but a week is a long time in football, and at the pace City are moving, it may make it hard for other clubs to catch up.


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