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New data system hits the market that gets into the real guts of football

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Finally we should see access to some stats that can really enhance understanding of the beautiful game

Football Business Awards 2019 Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Soccer, due to its flowing and low scoring nature, has always been a challenge to produce viable data and statistics on compared to other large professional sports. Current publicly available data barely scratches the surface of what happens at a soccer match and in many cases adds very little insight or understanding to what happen in a match beyond what can be observed with the naked in. For some time now advanced analytics programs like Liverpool’s have been looking into data that is not shared with fans that allows them better ways to assess players and understand matches. Now some of the kind of data is about to become more widely available.

The problem with most of the data fans get access to is described by the talented group at FiveThirtyEight quite elegantly:

Imagine you’re at a soccer game, and just as the opening whistle blows, the power cuts out. The stadium goes black. Eventually someone rigs up a single spotlight and the game goes on, but the light can only follow the ball. You can see who’s making a pass or a tackle, but as for what the other 21 players are up to, you’re in the dark.

That’s basically what most soccer data looks like: clear information about what’s happening on the ball and a total blank everywhere else. For such a big, messy sport, that can be a problem. No less an authority than Johan Cruyff once said the test of a good player is: “What do you do during those 87 minutes when you don’t have the ball?”

The folks at StatsBomb who have already used their freeze frame data to give us enhanced expected goals numbers based on the position of other players when the shot is taken are looking to push the field even further ahead. On Wednesday they released their much anticipated StatsBomb 360 program which includes the freeze frame position of every player at every event, not just shots. This has the potential to greatly enhance our ability to analyze and understand the game.

The system promises to deliver:

StatsBomb 360 is contextual event data. What that means is that we are now collecting a freeze-frame showing all players on camera for every event we collect - approximately 3300 events per match.

360 is also going to allow us to uncover a host of new information about the game that was either difficult to see or completely hidden in basic event data. We will now be able to deliver things like:

Line-breaking passes

Ball receipts in space

Distance to all defenders in the frame

Passing lanes

Defensive Island Events (DIEs) — a new event looking at when teams leave/create 1v1s with defenders by themselves, far from defensive help

Defensive shape around every event

This is finally going to allow coaches, analysts and fans the chance to dig far deeper into what is going on on the pitch and bring real insights into the game.

Even top professionals in the field are excited, with David Pleuler, head of soccer analytics for Toronto FC explaining some of the value, “You can essentially say, ‘Hey, I think this passing lane was open, and this player decided to do this instead. So for the first time, you can make a real, solid guess at player decision-making.”

Javier Fernández, the head of sports analytics for FC Barcelona (who apparently due to budget concerns is now working with a slide rule and abacus) also sees the great potential in this new data. In February, when the program was previewed he tweeted, “The StatsBomb 360 data idea is for sure a remarkable step forward in soccer analytics,” also indicating, “I’m convinced that this will make high-quality analytics more accessible (and way better datasets!).”

With any luck this is going to give publicly available soccer statistics the kick in the ass it needs to bring those tools up to a level that is useful to the knowledgeable fan.