Discussions surrounding football data and analytics often cover the topic of what it actually looks like inside professional clubs. This lack of knowledge from the outside has often led to a stream of misguided analysis without genuine application; the simple result of a lack of information. (We have also seen the more unhelpful misguided reporting of these processes over the past week or so, but it’s probably best to leave that there…)
To help bridge this gap and connect these networks, there is an element of responsibility on both sides. Are the right questions being asked by those on the outside? Could (or should) football clubs be more open about what they are doing?
To help illustrate what is happening within professional clubs, I spent the day with Peter Clark, first team performance analyst at Leicester City Football Club. Pete was kind enough to share his time with me ahead of the side’s 2-1 victory at Norwich City in early October, where we discussed the club’s data processes, what works, what doesn’t and how it all aims to contribute towards a successful Premier League campaign.
Data analysis at Leicester City
We frequently hear (often without evidence) that data analysis acts as the Christmas present nobody wanted; left alone and only brought out on occasions to show it is actually being used. Having seen and discussed much of the work prepared by both Pete and his colleague Andy Blake (senior first team analyst), we can safely say this is not the situation here.
The two performance analysts work together, with the match-day unsurprisingly acting as the nucleus for all working processes. Andy’s work will focus on the pre-game preparation, while Pete will manage the debrief and evaluation.
Within this article, I’ll outline and discuss the particular methods and processes used by Leicester’s analysis department. However, a common theme throughout both Andy and Pete’s work was the way in which they considered their audience.
In data-led analysis within football, there can be a difficult balance to strike in generating a sophisticated piece of analysis and condensing it into something that appears, to the audience at least, as if it is simpler than it actually is. This is something also touched on recently by Rory Smith in a recent ESPNFC article. Striking that balance and acknowledgement is by no means black and white.
Pete was keen to emphasise how the audience plays a role in his and Andy’s work.
“The coaches, along with the players, are our primary audiences, so sharing an office with them makes a huge difference. It means with just the turn of a shoulder we can discuss ideas and talk things through. And it’s the same with the recruitment team.
“We know that different players learn in different ways, so the reports try to cater for that. Over the past three seasons, we have increased the emphasis of the players’ learning through their interaction with our iPad content. Both our pre and post match interactive reports that combine statistics, subjective comments and match footage have proved particularly popular.”
Leicester's analysts share an office with the coaches.
Acknowledging their audiences are perhaps less ‘data literate’ than them, the plethora of reports that Pete and Andy produce condense information on the next or previous match, outlining key statistics and patterns at team, unit and individual level. This top-level information, despite including a range of engaging visualisations, charts, key bullets and videos, will not look to integrate some of the more advanced metrics that have become commonplace in analytical networks outside of professional clubs.
Perhaps this is a result of the fast-paced nature of professional football, and that an education process around the values of these metrics is something that can take a back seat during the season, especially for a club that is still consolidating its place in the Premier League.
The working week
In order to gain a truer understanding of the processes specific to Leicester City and the challenges Pete and Andy face, Pete outlined the working week in the lead up to a match.
Andy will watch the opposition’s last three matches, followed by producing an interactive report uploaded to iBooks (integrating data, subjective reports and video) fed to the manager and coaches that includes a team overview, current form, potential line-ups and reports on playing style and tactics. Getting the report to the coaches as early as possible will help influence training for the week, reinforcing the importance of analysis being produced in a form that can be digested by the coaching staff.
“Within his reports, Andy will break the opposition’s style down into four game moments: how they build up with the ball, what they are like in transition, their defensive organisation and set pieces.”
Why are these particular elements chosen?
“Pressing is an important part of how we play, so analysing how our opponent looks to build up and the moments pressing will have the most impact is important. It is then also important we look at how the opposition will act in transition, this being particularly important with one of our key strengths being our threat from counter attacks. Set pieces, we know how dangerous these can be, and it’s just another area that we can prepare for on the training ground.”
With every session filmed, aspects of training, along with match footage, are embedded into reports and presentations. The easy access to video means players can review final details right up until the last minute.
“With the training ground camera system we have in place, we can include examples from sessions as well as previous games, just to make things not too heavily focused on the opposition. They’ll identify well with themselves doing it so we try to support that.
“The manager also now takes it upon himself to watch opposition games and will identify aspects for us to explore further. He’ll come to us to look deeper into certain things like which of the full-backs cross more, which central midfielder is the more dangerous passer and so on.
“He’ll also request reports on previous fixtures against the same opposition, and these can act as a reminder of key incidents, and what we did particularly well or where we can improve.”
Working with a tactical analyst, Andy will present the report to the coaching staff at the beginning of week, with the manager presenting a more specific presentation to the playing squad on the Friday before a game before a more condensed reinforcement on the Saturday morning.
Live match analysis
Home matches unsurprisingly offer Leicester more control in terms of what they can access. At the King Power, not only do the analysts have a connected desk in view of the pitch, but last year they built a specialist analysis room (followers of Pete’s Twitter account may already be familiar with this) directly connected to the changing room, allowing the team to access data from the Pro Portal at half-time.
Former manager Nigel Pearson's interaction with Pete and the analysis team was noticed by the media on serveral occasions last season.
Using data in a live environment of course brings challenges; there is only 15 minutes for everything (including rest, stretching, hydration, etc) to happen. How does the analysis team know where to begin in identifying their key input to the manager?
“There’ll be three ways to how we’d operate in terms of live analysis. There’s no point bombarding the manager with too much information here, we’ll pinpoint raised items – either something the guys in the dugout have flagged, anything picked up by the coaches who are in the stands and we’ll also be looking through ourselves, identifying anything of note.
“We can pick out key points, if a player is losing individual battles and aerial duels we can help provide the evidence for the manager. Or if the opposition’s chances are being created from similar situations, we can help bring that to the manager’s attention as well.”
The process begins almost as soon as the final whistle goes. The game is coded using live Opta data along with additional metrics and benchmarks key to Leicester’s playing approach. These include coding how the team press the opposition when out of possession and penetrate between the lines when attacking. Coding aspects of the game live soon after the final whistle means it is ready for management to analyse on the Sunday and highlight any specifics that should be included within Monday morning’s debrief.
With the next game often only seven days away, the tight turnaround time and time limitations (a recurring theme faced by Leicester’s analysis department) reinforce the need to focus these reports and clearly identify particular highlights for the manager and coaches that will support future performance. While this may sound simple and quite obvious, this does reinforce the importance of Pete’s relationship with the coaches, and being able to anticipate what they will want to see and use out on the training pitch.
These time limitations also help to further illustrate the challenges faced by club analysts, particularly when it comes to implementing new ideas and metrics within existing set-ups. To embed new analytical concepts within these operations, there will need to be a clear benefit that can be instantly understood by the audience. Achieving this within a playing season is certainly no easy task, but if implemented, the additional benefits may offer a new outlook for those at the club.
“I’ll spend Sunday and Monday looking at the debrief process, initially at a team level (replicating Andy’s processes). Then we’ll look at any further unit or individual work.”
Pete’s major report – sent to coaches and the manager – will dissect key elements from the game, much of which will be related to what Andy identified as key areas earlier in the week. Breakdown of attempts (created and conceded), responses to goals conceded, transition work and set plays will also be included.
“There is a set structure to these reports, and we’ll monitor what we include each week to help us identify if the same problems keep occurring, or if we notice we keep doing certain things well. However, if the manager notices something, or has a specific request, that’ll also be included. A recent example would be looking further into our first half and second half performances to try to better understand our recent form as we kept having to come from behind in matches.”
A more recent addition to the post-match analysis surrounds team units. For example, Leicester’s central midfield pairing can review their performance directly against their opposition, allowing them to also breakdown key moments within the game, duels and where they performed well or not so well. This ties in with more and more sides looking to develop analysis across units, with it being reported that Vincent Kompany leads video analysis sessions amongst Manchester City’s back four.
Although not to the level of the Manchester City captain, there is still a player involvement within the analysis at Leicester City.
“All players are engaged with it (data analysis), but of course these levels vary. I think we’ve done well here to recruit players and educate players on this side of the game, and because of that all take a healthy interest.
“A few years ago we did consult with players on these reports – Danny Drinkwater was particularly interested in the distribution stats. It’s good to have their buy-in, and definitely helps with their engagement.”
Individual player post-match feedback (initiated by the previous manager) took two seasons to get to its current phase, and this has been further added to by the current manager, who requested additional data to support the video; something which has been well received by players who will look to use these statistics to help benchmark performances.
A newly designed player feedback report combines match footage with key data points, and as the season progresses, the report will benchmark performances against a season average. Presented digitally, this means players can consume this information at a time that works for them. Bespoke data is integrated within these reports that help determine the extent to which tactics and instructions have been followed. Players with attacking responsibilities will have their chance creation statistics included within their reports, for example.
Statistical analysis has to be presented in a format that works for the players.
The analysis culture within the club
Walking through the training ground with Pete helped showcase the club’s ethos regarding data analysis and its importance for not only the analysts, but also recruitment staff, coaches, sports scientists, the manager and of course the players.
“Our daily morning meetings bring all our departments together, and although a small thing, it definitely makes a difference. We all help the manager make an informed decision – that’s why it’s key to have the information ready for as early as possible. The debrief window is small as there is always a match within a few days.”
In establishing whether there was a hierarchical nature to this, Pete was clear that all departments held equal weighting.
“We try to be proactive and take what we think will be useful as opposed to being directed all the time. It’s important that we contribute in this way and find things that might make an impact on performance. We’ll work closely with the coaches and manager to adapt and take their feedback rather than them dictating to us.”
The sports science department is also heavily involved and is a major aspect of the club’s data culture, posting daily reports on the players’ training performance. These are posted in the changing room, allowing all players access to the squad’s training performance.
“It’s part of the culture within the club and by exposing players to data, they are becoming familiar with it and the insights it can bring.”
Through the sports science work, pre-match preparation and post-match evaluation, there is a constant flow of data to the players. Providing this additional context – comparisons with team-mates or opposition, benchmarks against averages and supporting concise bullet points on matchdays, has allowed the players to embrace this analysis, and use to help positively influence their performance.
Leicester City's match feedback analysis packs have progressed over recent seasons.
Implementation of analytics
We are regularly exposed to analytical articles that demonstrate a longer-term benefit or tool for evaluation and data analysis. Looking into the repeatability of finishing is just one example, and Johannes Harkins’ goalkeeper analysis took multiple seasons of data into account.
However, as has often been raised, it comes back to how this style of analysis can be implemented within a professional club’s environment. Could Leicester take time, perhaps in the summer, to explore these opportunities further, and educate the staff on these more advanced metrics and what they can contribute? Or perhaps they are ready and wanting to use them, but the lack of resource is what is proving the stumbling block.
If this style of analysis were to be integrated into the club’s analysis, I suspect it would almost certainly be the case that Pete and Andy would initiate and lead this; a challenge I’m sure they’d relish.
Leicester aren’t the only club to implement data-led analysis, but they are an excellent case study of what a progressive, forward thinking club will look like. Through their cross-departmental relationships, a willingness to embrace new style of working and constant evaluation process, data analysis is certainly part of the furniture here at the King Power.