Five thoughts coming off a weekend spent in Boston at the 6th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference:
1. You don't need data to appreciate Clint Dempsey. It's now becoming almost routine this season for U.S. fans following the fortunes of Fulham's Clint Dempsey. After scoring the winner for the U.S. in a historic friendly win over Italy a few days earlier, Dempsey collected a brace in Fulham's 5-0 drubbing of Wolves. Dempsey now has 12 Premier League goals this season (a personal best and American record) and 18 in all competitions. With his versatility (during his career he's played across the entire midfield and as a striker) and phenomenal improvement in finishing, it's apparent that Dempsey has outgrown Fulham. Dempsey himself has long cited a desire to play in the Champions League -- something which, with all due respect to Fulham, he's unlikely to achieve if he stays at Craven Cottage. The question of course is should Dempsey move? Or is he in fact better off being a key player for a midtier team or the 13th/14th guy on a "big team."
There's a couple of factors to consider that might hinder his move to a top PL club. The two most likely candidates that could use Dempsey's talents are Liverpool and Arsenal and both have club philosophies that would generally preclude spending the type of money that Fulham would want on a (soon-to-be) 29 year old player. Were Dempsey 24 or 25, then it's very likely the story would be different. The other members of the "Big 6" -- Spurs, Chelsea, Man City and Man United -- are already well stocked at the positions Dempsey plays and in the case of the latter three, any big expenditure on a 29-year-old attacking player would likely be earmarked more toward a marquee household name (let's face it, there's still some bias against American players out there in the industry). Having said that, you can't really begrudge any player the opportunity to move to a club that has a better prospect of winning trophies (while also vastly increasing his salary). The same burning ambition that has fueled Dempsey's remarkable growth as a player also presumably fuels his desire to test himself against the world's elite, something he'll only get on a regular basis in the Champions League. True, he'd likely find it hard to be a regular starter at certain PL teams, but there are top quality teams in Europe that are in the Champions League (or will be) where Dempsey could certainly crack the starting lineup e.g. the Schalkes, Lilles, Lazios of the world. Granted there's always a danger when a player leaves his comfort zone that he could stagnate on his new team's bench, but in Dempsey's case, I believe his game can still move to another level and to do that, it'd help to be surrounded by better quality teammates and playing in the highest level club games.
2. David Gill provides an interesting footnote. Manchester United CEO Gill was one of the participants in the "Business of Sports: Winning Off the Field" panel. One thing he mentioned which caught the attention of those in attendance was that there were new owners of a PL team who didn't know about relegation. "Not sure what the due diligence was there," stated Gill of said owners. I later spoke to Gill directly to clarify erroneous rumors spreading on Twitter that Gill was in fact alluding to Fenway Sports Group's purchase of Liverpool. Gill categorically denied that he had been referencing or inferring that it was FSG in any form and said that he held Liverpool's owners in the highest regard. "I would never say anything negative about John W Henry, ever." However, when I put it to Gill that the party he was in fact referring to was Venky's (it's long been believed in some quarters of the industry that the mechanics of relegation was just one among various things Venky's were unaware of when acquiring Blackburn), Gill said nothing but gave a broad smile.
3. Soccer Analytics 101. In terms of stats usage in soccer, the speakers at the soccer analytics panel at the SSAC divided it into three broad groups: Match analysis, player recruitment and sports science. While not yet as advanced as data in other sports (particularly baseball and basketball), there's been an increased focus as of late among clubs in bringing in analytical staff, particularly in the area of player recruitment. Scott McLachlan, Head of International Scouts at Chelsea noted that "there's a core group in the EPL, Fulham, Everton, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham [who] are the drivers, while abroad teams such as Dortmund and Hamburg lead the way." Data has become increasingly important as a filter in determining which players are worth closer examination by scouts. ""Ninety-nine percent of scouting is who you don't sign," said Steven Houston, Head of Technical Scouting at Hamburg. However, Houston notes that as currently construed, no decision is ever going to be a majority stat-based decision, and ultimately scouts give the final say. With growth in soccer analytics still slow, Houston thinks part of the problem is that as data is largely not public, "superfans aren't able to develop their own models" as in other sports -- hence there's a need for stats analysis to evolve in complexity and add deeper layers.
Houston pointed out that it's not just data clubs wanted, but good data. For example, it's simply not enough to know how just many shots were taken, but rather where the shots were taken from. StatDNA is one company that attempts to add some depth. "Rather than simply counting events such as passes, key passes and coming up with stats such as completion percentage," said Fran Taylor, director of StatDNA. "We look at the actual effect of those passes, whether they are continuously positive and setting up chances, to create a value that differs." The key driver of success for clubs going forward are those that are able to combine new-age data mining along with the traditional scouting eye for talent. Although as Drew Carey, part-owner of the Seattle Sounders quipped, there are always other intangible factors to consider outside of sophisticated number-crunching. "We kind of have a no-asshole rule at our club," said Carey.
4. Performance Analytics 101. While usage of analytics in clubs is growing, it's largely concentrated on player recruitment at present. Everton's Steve Brown notes that it's "still in the infancy on the performance side." Brown heads a team at Everton that assesses match data to help Everton prepare for its opponents. For example, for the 2009 FA Cup final Everton used performance analytics to help devise a game plan for attacking and defending Chelsea on corners. U.S. international Landon Donovan was one player who was keener than most to take advantage of the metrics and benefitted from Everton's approach on his most recent loan spell. "Landon was quite interactive, always looking for the next step and the next advantage he could get on his opposition," said Brown. "He'd ask for a breakdown on his opposition winger and who he'd have to double up on for our fullbacks and on his opposition fullback that he'd be up against. He'd want to know the trends and traits of what that player was doing and what their strengths and weaknesses were."
5. Who's next for Chelsea? Andre Villas-Boas' demise at Chelsea after yet another poor result (a 1-0 defeat by West Brom) was hardly a surprise, coming after conflict between Villas Boas and Chelsea veterans who disagreed with his tactics and reports indicating Villas Boas would be fired if Chelsea failed to overcome Napoli in the Champions League. Villas-Boas' departure (and subsequent sums due him) means that Chelsea have now spent around $100M alone in the past 4 years on compensating fired managers. It seems more than a little strange to me that one would hire a manager and authorize him to begin a process of transition without allowing him adequate time to bring that change to fruition. To fire Villas-Boas before the end of his first season, while judging him on the performances of players who were either unwilling or unsuited to adapt to his tactics appears remarkably shortsighted. However, it has to be said, no matter how brilliant a tactician one is, the moment you've lost the support of a majority of the players, it typically spells doom for any manager. Perhaps Chelsea players will respond more enthusiastically to the next man, as yet unknown, but sources close to the club have confirmed to me that Everton's David Moyes is among the leading candidates (with Barcelona's Pep Guardiola the No. 1 target) being considered.