After packing away laptops, banners, posters and name badges from the fourth OptaPro Analytics Forum, the time came to reflect on the event and gain insight and feedback from the wider football analytics industry; looking not only on the event itself but also considering the wider context and progression of applied football analytics.
I maintain that the Forum can act as a barometer for assessing the relationship between professional clubs and the wider analytics community. Has the understanding of the value of this style of work progressed? Has the work itself progressed? Has the work evolved in regards to whether it can be used within a club?
The six presentations and five poster presentations at the Forum all addressed these issues to a certain degree (these will be posted online over the coming weeks). The work on show offered a mixture of genuinely cutting edge analysis, the introduction of new concepts, a data-driven review of tactical approaches and work that had direct recruitment applications.
The shifting opinions of professional teams
Despite its incremental nature, there has been progression in how this style of analysis is perceived within the professional game. Simply put, there is a place for it inside professional football and it holds influence in informing decision making. Of course this varies across different teams, but the interest this event from teams (over 50 teams were represented at the Forum, made up of technical scouts, heads of recruitment, chief scouts and heads of performance analysis – at both first team and academy level), the make-up of analysis staff and the engagement with the wider community (the enthusiasm of the ‘analyst mentors’ to support presenters this year was particularly pleasing) all demonstrate a clear shift in opinion.
Application of the work presented at the Forum is of course a core aspect to the day and is regularly discussed not only by OptaPro, but across the entire industry, most frequently by practitioners. “How will it help us win?” is the common question in this space.
That’s what the issue of ‘application’ really means in the eyes of professional teams. From the work on display last week, all will help but whether it will help in time for the next game is perhaps the more relevant addition to this question.
Some of the work presented hadn’t been seen or tried before elsewhere, therefore introducing these new concepts is unsurprisingly challenging. The processes behind it, how the presenter sees it best used – this is something that may even differ compared with how club analysts view its most effective application.
It is entirely reasonable that a new concept presented for 20 minutes will need further work or tweaking before it is ready for a specific club to embed it in their processes. A presenter of course has to try to tailor to all audiences, which last Wednesday included teams in the Champions League to teams in League 2, as well as clubs being represented at first team and academy level.
The logical, but perhaps not so obvious, next step may rely on the proactive nature of teams. Like the presentation? The next step should be to reach out to the presenter, discuss the challenges of application, and work together to coordinate how this analysis can be best implemented.
We know this has happened previously at Forums, and should of course continue to happen in order to maximise the impact – and longevity – of the work showcased.
It should also be acknowledged that some clubs won’t have the resource (yet) to implement what they’ve just seen. Does this mean that the work isn’t applicable? Or can we look to flip this, and suggest the concept and idea is there, but it now falls on the club (and presenting analyst) to work out how to best use this, or to further explore how this might be useful in the future?
The progression of analytics
The overarching feedback regarding presentations and posters from this year’s Forum explicitly suggest quality has never been higher. This extends from the initial proposal, the construction of the analysis right through to presentation delivery.
While we of course want to celebrate the success of this work, we should also be asking how these (and future) presentations can evolve. A challenge of the Forum remains in ensuring this work remains relevant beyond the event.
Perhaps I’m alone in my thinking, but I often wonder if presentations would have a greater impact if results and applications were presented first? Understandably, there’ll be those who think this is a good idea, and those who disagree.
The issue being addressed here is looking at how this work can even further resonate with the audience, yet won’t lose any of the technical aspects that underpin the analysis. To lose this side of the work wouldn’t enhance the quality of the presentation, so to suggest that all technical information is left to one side would be a disservice to the presenter.
The Forum audience also has a role to play here. Inside and outside of the game we preach how qualitative and quantitative approaches can complement each other, yet this felt like the area arguably needing most work at the Forum, particularly when it came to the Q&A sessions post presentations.
To continue evolving this work, should the structure of these sessions be reviewed? Should this become the opportunity to bring these qualitative and quantitative approaches together, with discussion focusing on coaching implementation, team strategy and style and recruitment application?
The analytical work has been done, so perhaps the focus should move on to how a human would use this, rather than further interrogation of methodology. In his guest talk, Dennis Lock reinforced this by referencing how within the Miami Dolphins, analytics was seen as a tool to support decision-makers. It wasn’t a solution in isolation. Can it bring more information that can be used to make a footballing decision?
If it can, then it’s working effectively.
What happens next?
A lot of work went into the presentations showcased on 8th February. What can be done to make sure this wasn’t just a flash in the pan, a one-off that – like most other conferences – gets people writing a lot of notes and thinking about implementing said notes but ultimately gets left behind to more urgent matters?
One option is to give analysts and presenters a structured platform to further develop their work, allowing Forum delegates to see a ‘one year on’ progression at a future Forum. With the method established and already shared, this would set the foundations for 20 minutes centred on the genuine football applications.
However, the Forum is also the place to see new ideas presented for the first time. With up to seven presentation slots available, that’s not to say that a hybrid approach is not possible, allowing the event to effectively combine innovation alongside application.
Understandably, different people attend the Forum for different reasons, but it’s important to make sure those initial key objectives of ensuring cross-learning opportunities, sharing new ideas and answering football questions using data are met at the event
Feedback from those involved with the most recent Forum has generally been positive, which is of course always pleasing to hear. Whether it’s meeting new people, learning from the presentations and Dennis Lock or to catch up with industry colleagues, the OptaPro Analytics Forum remains something tangible in regards to the progression of football analytics. As this industry grows, and more scrutiny is placed on it, it’ll be fundamental to ensure the initial aims and objectives underpinning this event remain at the core in the future.
We’re open to all thoughts and feedback on the Forum, both the event itself and its future. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.