Moneyball for Soccer

I can’t remember the number of times I heard people describe Germany’s world championship soccer team described as a machine: a perfectly coordinated, efficient, state of the art machine. Many people in Latin America and elsewhere attributed their clockwork efficiency to their German-ness. Those perfectly punctual, rational Germans. Well, it turns out that there may be much more to this story. It turns out that this perfectly human-looking team was actually part machine. What exactly am I referring to? Big Data.
The team partnered up with German tech giant SAP AG to analyze real-time player data to improve team performance. Using data collection tools, they realized that the players were holding the ball for an average of 3.4 seconds. The coaches set out to bring that number down to 1.1 seconds, which may explain why their passing looked so coordinated and aggressive. All players knew that SAP would tell their coach exactly how many seconds they held the ball each time and therefore were both, passing and ready to receive a pass much quicker than old-fashioned teams playing it by ear. This is how Brazil lost to them 7-1 despite possessing the ball 52% of the time. 
While FIFA stubbornly refuses to get with the times and embrace technology, you can be smarter. SAP uses a team of very skillful gamers/human soccer encyclopedias as well as sophisticated video tools to capture the data in real time. You do not need to be that advanced to use data. If you are a youth soccer league coach, for example, you can easily recruit volunteers to take down stats from your team’s games. They could be parents or your former waterboys or girls. Ask them to take down more than standard stats like goals, assists, saves, and possession time. Ask them to record how often a player veers left or right, how often they decide to pass forward versus backward, or how often they pass versus shoot. Do as Germany did as well, record individual player possession time and aim to reduce it. You may need a team of five volunteers at first, but as they become more skillful, you could manage with two or three consistent ones.
If you are a scout, you should look into this as well! Long gone are the times when the best scouts were the ones with the most trustworthy guts. Today, there are companies like Opta, recently acquired by Perform Group, that works with over 200 teams and organizations like Adidas or ESPN to provide on the ball action analysis. These analytics focus on professional players, but why not use these principles to your advantage? Wouldn’t it be great if you were able to scout a player with 90% pass accuracy, 75% shot accuracy, and 80% defensive success instead of convincing others you have found “a really, really good player”?
And players, you are not off the hook! If you team does not collect statistics, why not do it yourself? If you are a young player, you could ask your friends or family to provide this information for you. You ould ask them to record you and record the information yourself. Find out your own patterns, your relationships with teammates on the field, and try to improve on them. Better yet, show them to your coach so she or he can give you feedback and hopefully encourage your teammates to do the same as you. ESP provides you with a free online tool to organize your stats quickly and easily. Don’t waste time, create your account today!
If this sounds like a lot of work, I invite you to change your mindset. When you truly love the sport, these things can become fun. I remember my then five year old cousin (now a 30 year old grown man) reciting the names of the full roster of his favorite soccer team by heart. He knew all their stats and all their stories. I am sure you can think of somebody like this in your life. If you are really in love with soccer, this will be fun, I promise. Success in sport takes grit, talent, and yes, a bit of luck. But in today’s world, there is no success without smarts, even in sports. Players, coaches, and scouts must take advantage of technology if they are serious about competition. But above all, I am advocating for soccer stats as a way to extend your on-the-field fun to off the field as well.

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