Because of the threat of the competition, much data analysis remains unseen and undisclosed in the football industry. But data analytics’ best story may not be very thinly veiled after all. If Gabriel Marcotti is correct in his informal study about managers who apply their data analytics teams work in the Premier League, then Claudio Ranieri (or his predecessor, Nigel Pearson) has (or had) to be one of those two men. How else does a man fired from the Greek national team for losing 0-1 at home to the Faroe Islands in the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying win the Premier League with a team who Stefan Szymanski (co-author of Soccernomics) estimated, ‘the wage budget for Leicester in the current season [2015-2016] would have ranked them about 12th in the Premier League’?
To what level did Ranieri use information from the data analytics team at Leicester? At the very least, ceding some control to Leicester’s staff over tactical systems, and at the most being simply a well-liked figurehead and spokesperson for the side during their remarkable year. There is a strong amount of evidence that the 2015-2016 title victory for Leicester City owes a huge amount of credit to their data analysis team, and as yet this has been largely unmentioned. The term Moneyball is on the tip of our tongues. So many things went right for Leicester in the 2015-2016 season, but their striking tactical set-up really illustrated that their departure from conventional football could have been led by data analytics.
Leicester City appear at the more extreme end of many simple tables on whoscored.com for the 2015/2016 season. For instance, they have the third lowest average possession in the league, the second lowest average pass success rate, the joint highest amount of counter attacking goals (five), the third lowest amount of short passes, and so on. In these rudimentary lists, Leicester City are surrounded by teams at the lower end of the table, the likes of Sunderland A.F.C and West Bromwich Albion. As they had very different seasons to their bedfellows, it suggests design, rather than accident.
Such a surface analysis of their style of play provides only a suggestion that Leicester City owe enormous credit to their data analysis team for their ridiculous title victory, given the extremes. Leicester City can lay a claim to be the team most successful team in England at implementing data analysis into their club. Not quite as far along as FC Midtjylland, but perhaps the English equivalent.
If we look further at Leicester’s on-field activities we see, (click here to view) with credit to Twitter’s @11tegen11 (at 11tegen11.net – a fan of the ExG), the verticality of the side, with almost no interaction between the back four at all, as shown in four separate Premier League encounters by @11tegen11’s graphics. Contrast is offered by looking at a side like Everton F.C. (with average, more common interaction between the back four) and Barcelona (with loads). It’s a pretty unique system, and avoids Guardiola’s dreaded U-shape, and the idea the Catalan manager instilled on Europe that control of possession equates success, that many larger teams are shifting toward. Even our friends Atlético Madrid moved towards control of possession at the beginning of the season 2015/2016 La Liga (then Simeone thought better of it – and they really improved)
David Sumpter, who made his debut as an author recently with ‘Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game’, says: ‘it is this combination of well-defined roles and direct counter-attacking that makes Leicester so effective. Shown below are the pass distances up and across the pitch during the 30 seconds leading up to a dangerous shot during for all Premier League teams this season. The size of each circle is proportional to the number of chances created.’ This is reference to the below graphic. Proof, if it were needed, of Leicester’s unique tactics. They are really on their own here.
This style of play, a feature of their season, is more than likely as a result of some form of data analysis. We can see Leicester City move the ball very quickly, and very directly up to their forward players, preferably in a counter-attack, with little care of need for possession. Indeed, whoscored.com shows they are fifth in most long balls played in the 2015-2016 season. Sumpter continues: ‘Leicester don’t make the longest passes in the Premier League … but their passes take the ball nearly 3m further up the pitch than any other team. The ball moves rapidly from their defensive territory to their attacking territory’.
How much of this simple summary of their style of play was born in the data analysis department? Sky sports gave credit to Leicester City’s team of analysts as one of their ‘Five unsung heroes in Leicester’s Premier League title challenge’ in a Buzzfeed-inspired post on their website. With insight in stark contrast with the click-bait title, and the bulk of the piece, Sky Sports state: ‘Blake and Clark, alongside tactical analyst Adam Sadler, are… in position at the King Power Stadium, providing the very best analysis of opponents, tactical feedback, post-match analysis and stats. Analysis at Leicester is not just constricted to a match day either, with technical scout Ollie Waldron providing analytical insights into the performances of prospective transfer targets.’
As Sky Sports suggest, Leicester City’s data analytics will extend further than just on-field actions, as clearly their player recruitment has been great too, for a club of their size. So much so, that the aforementioned departure of Ben Wigglesworth and the expected departure of Steven Walsh at the time of writing this, both to Arsenal F.C, shows their analytics and scouting staff are in demand. The Blake and Clark mentioned by Sky Sports are Andy Blake, who is the Head of Performance Analysis, and Peter Clark, who is one of Andy’s Performance Analysts, and they remain at the club.
Roger Bennett seems to agree that Leicester’s insight and data analytics helped them win the Premier League, particularly in regards to player recruitment. Roger Bennett, a journalist with an American podcast called Men in Blazers, focusing on the English Premier League for American audiences, spoke on the Freakonomics podcast covering Leicester’s famous title win. He stated: ‘[Leicester] have scouted unbelievably well. They realised they didn’t have the money. They were willing to look at certain statistics in a slight Moneyball variation that the big teams just didn’t value.’ Moneyball – there’s that word again.
Other questions with Leicester go unanswered, like how did they keep more-or-less their entire team fit throughout the whole campaign? Admittedly not a first, but it’s proving harder and harder, although they didn’t have Europe to contend with.
Read the rest of this article on Outside of the Boot.