A history of opposition analysis

Posted 23rd January 2019

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We take a look at how opposition analysis has evolved over time

Several commentators expressed surprise last week at the level of thoroughness shown in Marcelo Bielsa’s approach to opposition analysis, revealed during his presentation at Leeds United’s Thorp Arch training ground. Bielsa stated that his team spent 300 hours researching their opposition ahead of every game, which, although it sounds like a high number, reflects the reality of modern-day professional football, where coaches and analysts will spend several days preparing to face their next opponents. Here we explore the history of this analysis, from the 1950s to the modern day and beyond.

Charles Reep

Acknowledged as the founder of football data collection and analysis, numbers were nothing new to trained accountant and former RAF man Charles Reep, who applied his numerical skills to the world of English football in the 1950s and ‘60s. After watching a disappointing first half at Swindon, he started to collect data himself at matches, creating vast tables of figures focusing on ‘attacking moves’. Having studied his findings, Reep recommended a direct playing style as the best way forward, stating that ‘there is no indication that skill in passing the ball has much, if any, bearing on winning matches’. Although data collection and analysis have come a long way since, Reep pioneered data collection and its application to football.

See Reep's table in full size

A table showing shots, passing moves and more by Charles Reep.



Report from 1979 for Crewe Alexandra vs Stockport County, something more typical of the time than one of Revie's longer dossiers.

Don Revie’s dossiers

Jumping forward a few years we reach one of Bielsa’s predecessors at Leeds United, Don Revie, whose detailed dossiers led to accusations of cheating in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The information he and his coaching team collated – including passes completed, tackles, favoured foot and dribbling ability - provided players with guidance on how to counter their opposition. The Leeds staff tasked with watching opponents often found themselves unwelcome at grounds, something today’s backroom staff can probably relate to.

See the Crewe vs Stockport match report in full size



The digital age

The next big step forward came in the mid-1990s, thanks to the arrival of Opta, as we brought consistent, detailed and accurate performance data to the footballing world, providing coaching staff with greater insights than ever before, providing the foundations for further analysis that extended beyond what their eyes could tell them. While today sees analysts analysing data in real-time , the early to mid-2000s saw some Premier League clubs receiving information via post or fax machine, as Opta sent them detailed tables and graphics covering every on-ball event, although many teams did receive these reports online. This ability to have information and reports stored digitally also helped with knowledge retention in an industry known for its high rate of staff turnover.

Alongside data, footage became more accessible, from tape to online. This tweet comes from George Murray, Munster Rugby Analyst.



Data analytics go mainstream

In the mid 2000s, the application of statistical analysis to sport began to enter the mainstream. With time, the utilisation of data by backroom staff to assess players became en vogue throughout the game. The age of the data analyst had dawned.

Professional teams also began to integrate scouting, data and video analysis to inform tactics ahead of an upcoming fixture – whilst video and live scouting can help identify recent performances, data can instantly provide context that may be missing.

For example, if we take a team’s last three games that have been watched live. Were they at home, and does their approach differ when they were away? Was there a sending off that changed the game? Did one player score twice and assist twice, and if he did, does he do that every week or was it a one-off performance? The application of data can help answer these questions, providing a sample that extends beyond the team’s most recent three matches.



Luke Bornn of the Sacremento Kings OptaPro Forum presentation.

Advanced analytics

Expected goals. Defensive coverage. Playing Styles. Today these and other analytical frameworks allow analysts, coaches and players to understand football in ways not previously possible. There’s no doubt that preparing for the next fixture is still a time-consuming process (PowerPoint creation aside), but through technologies which integrate an almost endless video archive with vast, detailed databases, it is now less of a case of ‘what you have’ but more ‘what you do with it’.



The future

Although a world of robotic supercoaches seems unlikely, the use of data and analytics to prepare for fixtures will continue to expand, as more data-literate people enter management, technologies continue to develop and the application of machine learning becomes the norm. Data will increasingly be augmented and smarter analytical models will provide greater insight, through a single output. These could allow for backroom staff to establish the opposition dangermen who can best control space or predict managerial substitutions and their impact, before they happen.

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