In the Future: no one will talk about football analytics
In the future, few, if any, journalists, fans or club officials will speak any more about the burgeoning field of football analytics. Gone will be the anguished op-eds over the false dichotomy between “traditional” and “statistical” methods of player, team and tactical analyses, as the vast majority of leading football clubs will have reconciled the two.
The most influential voices in statistical analysis in football will have gone silent, their blogs shut down, as they will have been hired by leading clubs to work offline and behind closed doors. There will be no more editorials calling for smarter, long-term planning in player recruitment as these practices will already be the industry standard.
Almost all clubs, even those in the lowest levels of the domestic league pyramid, will have put detailed succession plans in place. The transfer window will have continued to lose its lustre as last minute deals become increasingly rare occurrences. The use of analytics in injury prevention will no longer be a novelty, but accepted medical practice.
Only a small holdout of tabloid pundits will continue to pine for the old days, while the rest of the football-loving universe will have noted that the same things that have always made the game great remain intact, despite a radical shift in thinking in the boardroom and the training ground.
If football’s inherent conservatism leaves you skeptical about this rosy vision of the future, consider baseball, a sport synonymous with tradition, insularity, and resistance to change. It took a mere decade-and-a-half since the Oakland Athletics’ GM Billy Beane hired sabermetrics enthusiast Paul DePodesta in 1999 for the vast majority of clubs–even the most ‘conservative–in Major League Baseball to have at least one stats analyst on the club payroll. Jacob Pomrenke, the influential editor of the SABR website, was asked in December of 2013 about the fight between stats analysis and traditional scouting and coaching methods in baseball. He answered boldly, “I don’t think that sabermetrics really needs to fight that fight, because the fight is over and sabermetrics has won.”
Even ice hockey, a sport in which vague ideals like “grit” and “effort” can still earn certain players enormously inflated contracts in the National Hockey League despite underwhelming predictive numbers, may be coming around. NHL club the Edmonton Oilers recently hired Tyler Dellow as a consultant in hockey operations, an independent analyst in the mould of Bill James or Tom Tango whose work repeatedly demonstrated the principles of statistical analysis can be effective even in a sport as chaotic and complex as hockey. He joins a hockey league where even long-time holdout teams like the cash-flush but trophy-light Toronto Maple Leafs are beginning to look at the advantages provided in advanced stats in player recruitment.
Football is perhaps last to join the party in earnest, but the trend appears to be irreversible. As pundits with lots of column space but little expertise fulminate over how stats will never reveal the soul of football, top flight European clubs continue to attend sports statistics conferences and hire qualified quants to fill stats analysis departments to make sense of reams of expensive player and team data. They are using advanced succession planning software like Evolution and using fitness tracking technology to help keep their best players fit and injury-free.
That means football clubs will have to make a decision: do they wait until their competitors have already integrated best practices in planning, analytics, and intelligent, targeted use of technology? Do they begin looking to transform their operations years after all the best talent has been hired by their competitors? Do they look for ways to overcome the spending restrictions of Financial Fair Play to identify and recruit hugely undervalued talent? Do they hedge their bets over the future in the name of some vague, nostalgic idea of “tradition,” or do they make bold experiments in order to compete with vastly more financially powerful clubs, here, right now, today?
Because the reality is, in ten years’ time, the conversation will be over. Football will have already moved on. For the laggards, it will be too late. The time to make inroads, to reap the rewards of exclusive to early adopters in a host of areas in professional football discussed over the last ten months in the Future Series, is today. The talent and the technology to help clubs make that future a reality is already out there. It’s up to the clubs to take the first step…
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