200 delegates from across the football analytics industry gathered at Birkbeck University on 10th February for the third annual OptaPro Analytics Forum.
When we reviewed the second OptaPro Forum 12 months ago, we spoke of a growing trend of teams outside of England beginning to implement data analysis. This trend has continued and progressed over the past year, and a further step was taken last week as teams and federations from across six different countries not only attended the Forum, but actively engaged in debate and discussion throughout the day.
Outside of the professional game, analytical blogging and open debate is constantly progressing. Not only have we seen an increase in amateur analysts contributing to this style of work with an enhanced understanding of its applications, but we are also beginning to see more advanced metrics and statistical analysis receiving more coverage and interest from mainstream media.
The day itself comprised six presentations, four interactive poster displays and one guest talk. Reducing the number of presentations offered delegates, often unable to step away from the day-job during the season, the rare opportunity to connect and catch-up with industry colleagues – frequently cited as a major draw to the event.
A slight tweak on the previous OptaPro Forum, more prominence was given to poster presenters this year in that presenters were able to provide an interactive aspect to their work. These presentations, with their slightly relaxed and more conversational element, provided the foundations for in-depth, focused analytical discussion. Practical examples were shared and presenters were actively encouraged to outline tangible applications of their work.
The skill of how analytical work can be best presented within a football environment is, quite rightly, a frequently raised discussion point at the OptaPro Forum – perhaps most noticeably at the first Forum in 2014. The interactive format of these presentations combined with an open conversation between presenter and delegate certainly aided this, and this style of presenting data-led analysis brought the online community that step closer to fully understanding analysis within professional football.
That is of course not to discredit any of the six speakers. With judges selecting a diverse line-up, delegates were presented with new ideas applicable to genuine data analysis issues including developing a recruitment strategy, goalkeeping analysis (an OptaPro Forum first), tactical build-up play and effectively implementing tracking data to create meaninful insights.
Is the gap being bridged between the online community and the professional game?
Even from the very first OptaPro Analytics Forum in 2014, one of the key aims of the event has been to bridge the gap between analytical bloggers and analysis within the professional game.
Two years on from the 2014 Forum, there is now an open acknowledgement from all sectors within the football analytics industry that the blogging community can certainly contribute to the development of analytics within professional football. The question now concerns how this can be implemented sustainably with buy-in from across the board. This acknowledgement was certainly not a widely held view back in 2014, at the time of the first OptaPro Forum. The gap was shortened 12 months ago and continues to narrow in 2016.
In 2016, event presentations more targeted at the audience with a greater focus on application without doubt showcased that this gap is being bridged, but the extent to which the day’s presentation content will be considered and applied is the real benchmark for measuring just how engrained these two different sides of the same coin are.
Post-presentation questions can act as the instant measurement of the genuine applications and value of the work presented. A room staring blankly back at each presenter would have suggested that the gap is wider than believed, however with each presenter questioned vigorously from all different sectors of the audience (some probed harder than others), it was a clear indication of the progress made by the analytical community and their ability to create, develop and perhaps most importantly, present relevant statistical analysis.
The process of implementing analytics
Should there be an expectation that amateur analysts have a strong enough understanding of a club’s internal processes to be able to clearly explain how their analysis would be used within a club environment?
Understanding that the above is somewhat challenging, should data-led analysis, even the work initially produced outside of professional football, now be looking at the next step of how the top-level takeaways and applications can be presented to a coach?
Should this even become the focus of analytical blogging with discussion around method and additional context providing the support and backdrop to the applications of the analysis?
This was something picked up on by Dean Oliver, the event’s guest speaker. Having experienced front office roles with three different NBA teams, Dean’s note of “never talking to the players” but maintaining excellent relationships with coaches resonated with many in the room.
This reinforces the importance of the relationship between analysts and coaches, something Peter Clark of Leicester City also mentioned earlier this season.
This is arguably the major takeaway from this year’s OptaPro Forum and the next step in ‘bridging the gap’ between the amateur and professional world. What can an analyst offer and contribute in developing a working relationship with different coaching staff?
What happens next?
The OptaPro Analytics Forum provides perhaps the strongest barometer to measure analytics’ progress and place within professional football.
The slight shift in presentation style at this year’s Forum suggested there is an enhanced understanding of these different worlds and where advanced analytics sits in the overlapping middle ground.
A growing list of analytical bloggers who continue to produce work of increasing quality along with a number of professional analysts who have shown a willingness to engage in open discussion and debate lays strong foundations for the next development within this industry.
Presentations from the third OptaPro Analytics Forum will be posted over the coming weeks.
To read Rob Carroll's event review, please click here.
Highlights from the event on Twitter can be found by searching #OptaProForum