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BLOG The Future of Sports Data: ‘It’s about telling better stories’

This is the sixth instalment of a series of blog written for Opta, this time by Mike Dale, former Sports Journalist at the Press Association. This monthly series is designed to provide further information on our thoughts on what the future of sports data might be.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to use the comments box below, or email info@optasports.com.

Swansea City’s Ki Sung-Yueng recorded the highest pass completion rate in the Premier League last season (90.9%). N’Golo Kante made most interceptions (4.2 on average). Sergio Aguero was dispossessed more than any other player (3.4 times per game). 

This sort of statistical insight shows why Opta’s output is in demand in so many countries around the globe, and is pored over by pundits, fans, betting companies, coaches and analysts.

Skysports Comparison
SkySports using Opta data to compare Chelsea's new signing N'Golo Kante.

Whilst they’re always striving to provide higher volumes of information across more leagues and competitions, their vision for the future of sports data is to take the depth of their analysis to new levels.

The stats above offer persuasive clues or indicators about each player’s ability to decisively influence a match.

But what if Ki’s pass completion percentage is so high because his passes were all over two yards, in his own half, under no pressure from an opponent? How accurate were the passes that Kante intercepted? Maybe the ball was taken from Aguero so often because the runs he made were bold and ambitious?

Ozilcapoue3Etienne Capoue's distance stats used by SkySports.

At the moment, the only way to factually answer these questions is to painstakingly combine several different data sources, which takes time and manpower. But Opta’s aim over the next few years is to fill that gap between the stats themselves and what conclusions we can draw from them.

As Mark Segal, Product Owner for Data, says: “It’s essentially about telling better stories.”

Opta’s legion of live statisticians track every touch of the ball by every player in matches from Chile to China to Chesterfield, but they do not currently record the movements of players off the ball.

It’s through collaboration with organisations specialising in other data types, such as optical tracking, GPS movement and acceleration or RFID data, that they aim to provide a much more rounded picture.

“The idea is to merge the on-ball data we collect [every player’s passes, shots, tackles etc] with  movement tracking data from companies we have worked with for several years now, to create new, live metrics which will take what we do to a new level,” says Mark.

This data fusion will enable them, for example, to examine Ki Sung-Yueng’s pass completion rate more closely. When he plays a pass, is there an opponent within two metres of him? If so, and he still makes a successful pass, that can be recorded as a pass under pressure. Suddenly our understanding of his ability and impact will go a lot deeper.


SkySports using a player comparison looking at Leicester's Jamie Vardy and Tottenham's Harry Kane.

Simon Farrant, Perform Content Marketing Manager adds: “Some broadcasters such as Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football have started to include tracking stats in their analysis which has been a big step forward. However because of the limitations around how this information is currently processed, many of the stories being told are somewhat two-dimensional.

“They show how far a player has run, or how many high-intensity sprints he’s made, but there’s no sense of, ‘Are they useful runs? Is somebody making good and effective decisions about where to run, or are they simply running around like a headless chicken?’”

Defoe Inc Tracking

Jermain Defoe's Opta statistics used by BBC on Match of the Day.

Another example would be to track a goalkeeper’s position at a corner, and whether there are defenders stationed on each post, or how tightly opposition players are being marked and by whom. By joining this with Opta data, we could start to infer which team has the optimum defensive set-ups at corners, or who deals with set pieces most effectively, and how. Its potential usefulness to coaches is enormous, not to mention the insight it could bring to fans and TV viewers.

A picture from the #HackMCFC event.

The application of this ‘data fusion’ has already begun. OptaPro and optical tracking specialists (and official tracking and analysis providers to the Premier League and Bundesliga among others) ChryonHego teamed up with Manchester City for a ‘Player Performance Hack’ weekend in August, inviting creative programmers, designers, visualisers, innovators, analysts and sports scientists to have a play with the vast amounts of data on offer.

“Through this combining of data we can actually start answering the question, ‘How good is this player?’” says Mark. “Rather than providing bald numbers of completed passes and chances created, you can start to evaluate how difficult it’s been for him to execute these things.

“It’s only when you cohesively bring these different data sources together that you are able to get that nuance.

“You get a much more three-dimensional view of what’s happening, and the viewer, or website or app reader, is able to get a much greater sense of what’s actually happening in a game and why.”

This quest to provide deeper understanding and insight doesn’t stop with optical tracking’s fixed pitchside movement sensors.

Before the start of last season, FIFA permitted the use of wearable performance tracking devices during matches (although someone forgot to tell Plymouth boss Derek Adams, and Swansea’s Jordi Amat needed reminding too).

Lionel Messi Viper Pod
Lionel Messi's tracking system in his shirt.

As use of wearable technology during competition grows, so the data it produces will tell us more about each player’s performance, especially when combined with Opta’s existing in-play statistics.

The wearing of heart monitors is already widespread in both rugby codes, and could spread to football in the near future. Does heart rate affect whether a player scores or misses a penalty? Perhaps we’ll be able to find out soon.

“We’d be naïve to think there weren’t organisations trying to match and even improve on what we already offer,” says Mark. “For us, the requirement is there to constantly get better.”

“Opta was built on a desire to provide sports fans with the best possible information that is available. We’re very open and very keen to build and progress. By investing in new technology and in partnerships with reputable companies in this area, our vision is to provide broader understanding and sharper insight into what’s happening in a massive number of sports stadiums across the world.”

Posted by opta at 13:29