BLOG: 2018 OptaPro Analytics Forum – a review of the day

Article by Ryan Bahia

The conversation has well and truly moved on. No longer is there even a debate around whether analytics can inform decision-making and influence performance in professional football. Questions now surround how it can best be applied in a particular environment.

Football clubs differ in how they set-up. There is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. A club with only one full-time analyst cannot be expected to implement the same analytical processes as a club with an entire team of analysts and data scientists.

The next step concerns how analytics is perceived within football. The implementation of analytics should be simply considered an additional stream of information.

To isolate analytics from other sources of information such as traditional scouting, coaching and trusted contacts does it a disservice and instantly creates a position where this field needs to earn credibility. The same happens when an individual is labelled ‘the numbers guy’ within a club. This being seemingly mutually exclusive from being ‘the football guy’ doesn’t help, and puts this field on the backfoot.

What has this got to do with the 2018 OptaPro Analytics Forum?

Along with Voronoi graphics, sample size, and a panic around name badges, it has almost become an OptaPro Forum cliché to state that this year’s event provided the strongest set of presentations.

However, that’s not to say it isn’t true, but it is more important to understand why it is true. Presenters obviously deserve an immense amount of credit. The time, effort, commitment – and skill – that goes into these presentations is something that should not be taken for granted. However, the same could be said for presenters at the first Forum in 2014, who also deserve a huge amount of credit. This group had nobody to learn from.

The football analytics industry is in its infancy. That means it’s an industry that moves quickly, as is often the case in the sport and technology world. That itself means an element of natural progression is likely – learning from others’ work, developing research the field, simple trial and error, bringing new people together, and an ever-developing understanding of this industry.

As emphasised at the 2018 OptaPro Analytics Forum, this progression doesn’t happen in isolation. Progression is optimised when different networks come together – bringing fresh ideas, knowledge and perspectives. This was epitomised at this year’s Forum, and there is a hope that this sets the new benchmark.

Presenters, peers, judges and club analysts – these groups were all involved, to some degree, in bringing these presentations to life and at this stage it is important to demonstrate what this collaboration – the process that resulted in these presentations – looks like.

Presenters: submit their proposals, aiming to showcase how they’d use data to answer a football question. There is then of course the task itself of bringing everything to life.

Judges: with football club experience, are well placed to understand what ideas are likely to be of interest and value. With a high level of data and statistical literacy, judges can also evaluate proposals that are not only feasible, but also credible.

Club analysts: for the second successive year, club analysts (from Premier League, Championship and MLS sides) kindly spoke with presenters, discussing their work from a club perspective. The club analysts were not aiming to assess the work from a statistical perspective, but to help tailor and guide the work so it could be presented to a football audience, and focused on showcasing what was relevant to this group.

Peers: obviously a term that covers a diverse group, but the open approach across this community that allowed presenters to share work and ideas further contributed to the increase in quality in presentations this year.

A more structured process connecting these groups and creating a culture of collaboration, combined with learning from past experiences, contributed to these six presentations and four posters all being relevant, applicable and thought-provoking to those in the room on the day.

Reflecting the industry

However, in a fast-moving industry the OptaPro Forum must evolve in line with the wider industry which it represents. Shared progression demands the involvement of practitioners immersed inside the game.

Devin Pleuler and Luke Bornn, both of whom spoke at the Forum, provided this element of the day and shared insight that will undoubtedly prove valuable to both professional clubs and the wider community (both talks will soon be shared on this website).

After the Forum, Luke shared this thread on both the event and the football analytics industry.

What happens next?

Having identified the fast-paced nature of this industry, it is fundamental that the OptaPro Analytics Forum continues to provide value, insight and innovation to those in attendance.

99% of OptaPro Forum delegates are data advocates, and see it as valuable information that doesn’t conflict with, but complements, other approaches.

Five years ago, the message needed to focus on convincing this group of the value of analytics within professional football. Five years on, it may be a case of preaching to the choir.

The next step at the OptaPro Forum concerns the buy-in of those in a position slightly removed from the analysts, and genuine action around influencing decision-makers (an area frequently brought up by both Luke and Devin).

As an industry, we often discuss reaching this group and what that needs to look like. Arguably, this is the next step at the Forum. Would a guest talk or a panel session with a director of football, head coach or even manager provide that next step? It’s likely it would, and would not only benefit the practitioners, but bring a fresh perspective to a group that has perhaps not experienced anything like this before.

We are even in fact already beginning this process. Marek Kwiatkowski’s talk on the personalisation of expected goals touched on this – how directors of football can apply this to inform their evaluation of managers. Ben Torvaney, who opened the day by analysing player exchange rates across different competitions, demonstrated obvious applications for heads of recruitment. The foundations have been laid to further elevate this industry.

Rounding off, what would be the key message from this year’s OptaPro Analytics Forum? The importance of working in partnership. Combining statistical prowess, ability to present, understanding a manager’s needs, tactical knowledge and access to the right people is not easy for one person. Rely on people’s diverse skills, and that combination will ensure this style of analysis is presented in its best light to those across a football club.


Presentations and posters will be shared on this website over the coming weeks.

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