The search to find the next Wayne Rooney is on – and data analysts are leading the charge.
Although talk of the Manchester United player’s demise may be premature, there’s no denying that the quest to unearth the next Rooney, Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo has never been greater, given the vast sums of money in the game.
As well as traditional scouting structures and football academies, clubs are increasingly relying on data and technology to flag up the potential stars of the future.
That’s the message from Sam Gregory of the world’s leading sports data provider Opta, who spoke at BusinessCloud’s ‘Technology in sport’ breakfast, held in conjunction with Pro-Manchester, this week.
Opta compiles data from a range of sports, including rugby union, rugby league, cricket and most prominently in football. It scrutinises more than 50 leagues around the world: in the last 12 months, for example, it has analysed 139,297 goals.
Canadian-born football data scientist Gregory gave an insight into the work the analysts do with Sky Sports, the BBC and many top Premier League teams.
“We have a lot of clients. Often a club comes looking at a £30million signing, and they just want a tick to make sure what their scouts are saying matches up with our data,” he said.
“That’s a common-enough request, for us to essentially do the due diligence and make sure this player is the right fit.
“Data’s a really good way to look at the bigger picture from a bunch of games across different leagues.
“[You can] approach the problem at a much higher level than just a coach’s intuition, watching the game through his eyes.
“We’re not going to know how to take a group of players and turn them into a team that’s going to win matches. But in terms of just helping the manager get there, I think that’s where we step in.”
The majority of big teams now have a huge network of tech-savvy scouts scouring Europe for its brightest talents.
Manchester City, for example, have at least 11. In 2012, Arsenal bought US-based football data analytics company StatDNA for £2.165m.
Opta’s Gregory stressed that only a handful of sides have millions to splash out on the next John Stones or Luis Suarez, and this is where his company’s gigantic database can prove invaluable.
He said: “If you’re looking at a new centre-back, and you say we don’t have the money to look at every single centre-back in the world, or don’t have that scouting money, we’ll ask what type of player you’re looking for and find the statistical profile of players that match up to it exactly.
“And that’s what’s most common, to use that at the lower level. If you’re signing a player for £500,000, then these are the players that we would suggest you look at.
“It’s quite common to have a specific player in mind, a specific style in mind that managers want.
“Not just a good centre-back, they want some guy who fits exactly, with a lot of characteristics and qualities.
“For example, for a John Stones, we look at ball-playing centre-backs and try finding a good fit for that specific player and that specific manager.”
Chasing data exploded into the minds of the public with the statistics-driven approach of cash-strapped Californian baseball side Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane.
Their record-breaking 20-game winning streak of 2002 inspired the book Moneyball, and later the Brad Pitt film of the same name.
Gregory says the UK is still playing catch-up with US sports like baseball or basketball when it comes to data farming – but won’t be for long.
“Baseball has a statistics database that goes back to the early 1900s. They have stats from every player, every game of the modern era.
“At Opta we have data going back in the Premier League to about 2003, or 2004.
“It’s something that is still developing, but because there’s so much money in football it’s developing quite quickly.
“In baseball, things move slowly over a long period of time. We don’t quite have the headstart they did, but we can move a lot quicker as there is so much money in the game right now, and there’s that drive towards high quality data.
“But from our perspective, it is becoming really good, because now we’re seeing the career paths of what footballers like Wayne Rooney looked like when he was 18, versus today.
“So we can look for who are the players today that look like Wayne Rooney at that time.”
Gregory admitted that teams may already know who the ‘next Rooney’ is, and may be best recruiting Opta in searches a little further from home.
“The next Wayne Rooney, most of the scouts and managers in this county will have seen.
“Who looks like Wayne Rooney? A lot of that will come from people who have watched players from when they were 10 years old.
“But one thing we might be able to do is for teams from this country asking who the next Luis Suarez is.
“For example at Ajax, they have this young kid named Kasper Dolberg right now who’s had a great season – it’s looking for players like that, who you might not have watched from 10 years old, but who line up statistically on the same path.”