Thursday, 21. December 2017

Show me your stats and Iʼll tell you if you score goals

The sports department will remain at the heart of professional soccer clubs. Although the professional clubs still frequently scout and sign players based on personal relationships and gut feelings, in the future a “Moneyball” approach will have broadly established itself.

Moneyball refers to a technique used by Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. At the end of the 1990s, he formed a new baseball team with significant resistance from his own scouts, based on Sabermetrics, a system much derided in baseball at the time. He signed players who had fallen through the cracks based on the statistics in use at the time and were therefore offered at bargain basement prices on the transfer market. The magic of this new development in statistics was that it not only took into account particular performance aspects, but also playersʼ overall performance, at the same time looking at factors such as season and stadium influences. Despite clear financial inferiority over the competition the Oakland Athletics succeeded in making it to the North American play-offs seven times between 2000–2013 – with the lowest possible average cost per victory in Major League Baseball (MLB).


The Moneyball principles obviously cannot be applied directly to soccer, it being far more dynamic and complex than baseball, which generally consists of a few recurring standard situations. Nevertheless, in 2015 the Dutch division league team Twente Enschede engaged Billy Bean (picture) to help it find new approaches to soccer. However, it was not a Dutch professional club or one of the leading teams from Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester or Munich that made a committed effort to employ the Moneyball principles. Rather it was FC Midtjylland, a division league team in rural Denmark that was the first professional club to assemble its professional team exclusively according to mathematical models and algorithms and evaluate club performance independently of its current standing in the charts using its own rating model. Thanks to its radical implementation of the Moneyball principal, FC Midtjylland became the Danish champions in 2015, and compared with the competition, they did so with a relatively low budget for players.

Against this background itʼs easy to imagine that in the future Moneyball practices will have broad-based support and that new technologies will have fundamentally changed scouting. The use of online video platforms with individual performance data will make on-site observation of players by scouts the exception rather than the rule. Players, consultants, agencies and scouts will use such online platforms as networking opportunities to pave the way for transfers. In this way, game and player analyses could become the standard basis for decision making in professional soccer. As such, professional clubs will have to take the lead in information based on holistic evaluations of players. The days are over when incognito retirees acting as scouts for Bundesliga teams visit the youth leagues and offer up – hot dog in hand – well informed expert tips like, “Thereʼs one for us,” to the teamʼs management. Data analysis tools of the digital age will have largely replaced gut feelings.

Assuming that players can be contacted by other clubs, tested, and involved in contract negotiations regardless of their existing contractual obligations, the recruitment of professional soccer players will become more and more systematic. It is likely that with the help of intelligent ball-throwing robots, scouting will be able to test and store information not only about the individual quality of ball reception, ball passing, passing and shooting technique, as well as the cognitive abilities of a transfer candidate, such as speed of action, concentration and stress resistance. Sensors will collect the candidateʼs biometric values and then provide insights into the state of stress and physical capacity under laboratory conditions. The first ball-throwing robot of this kind came into the world in 2013 in Dortmund and was presented to the public as the “Footbonaut” or “Wondermachine”. In the future the machine could become a fixture of scouting in the leading professional clubs throughout Europe. Based on available individual data, soccer laboratories will even be able to determine whether a potential rookie is a good fit for the team and able to strengthen individual team blocks. After all, a standardized personality profile provides information about how well a player, based on personality, fits into the framework of a team or is able to fill specific gaps in the current team.

In the near future transfer committees with officials from the sports division and representatives of the financial, marketing, legal and human resources departments, will be responsible for feasibility studies and implementation of player and coach transfers. Playersʼ contracts will be increasingly linked to individually measurable performance parameters (e.g. marketing success in merchandising, image values in social media) and drafted by experts in the fields of human resources and legal & compliance. The necessary figures will be made available by the sports and marketing departments. Financial analysts will generate scenarios for potential revenue and loss profiles and propose contract terms and specific contractual clauses. They will also determine the impact on assets in the balance sheet and consider implications for compliance with financial fair play.

To integrate new players as quickly as possible and make them productive, leading professional clubs will have their own “integration teams” in their ranks. Experts trained in psychology and pedagogy will be in charge of personal counseling and the “hand-holding” for stars. In addition to individual care for players, group-dynamic processes and team interactions will be analyzed and evaluated. Intelligent machines networked with mobile devices in the “internet of things” will handle the organization of day-to-day life. For instance, on his way home, a player’s refrigerator will send a message to his smartphone informing him which performance-enhancing foods or drinks are lacking at home and then lead his GPS or autopilot to the nearest supermarket or suggest a delivery service.

Also, it will be more important than ever for players to develop their individual potential through targeted exercise units, recovery measures, and dietary plans. Thus, different areas of player development will be assigned to different trainers focusing on issues such as athletics, tactics, prevention, soccer technique, etc. Based on genetic testing and through targeted muscle biopsies training programs will be tailored to the individual physiology of players. Electronic clothing, implanted sensors or thin films over the skin will monitor bodily functions and determine performance and fitness levels of the players to design custom training programs and adjust them as needed. This will make it possible, for instance, to pull Arjen Robbenʼs son off the field before he tears a stomach muscle.

The use of new technologies and the employment and further development of soccer laboratories will be in the hands of dedicated research & development teams. Experts will work closely with universities and research institutes to explore how new technologies can help to tap athletic performance potential and expand technological core competencies in soccer. Thus begins the race between professional clubs to the efficient discovery and effective utilization of innovations.

By Prof. Sascha L. Schmidt