Performance Analysis

Yesterday I had a look at the statistical approach both Tottenham and Liverpool take to assist in assessing transfer targets so today I'm going behind the scenes of a Premier League football club.

Gavin Fleig is the Head of Performance Analysis at Manchester City and he gave an interview to Forbes back in 2012. I have used that article as the basis for this piece and a second one tomorrow.

It is an interesting read and gives fans a look behind the running of a football club and how analytics plays it's part. He talked about how San Allardyce incorporated analysis and took that approach to Newcastle where the players didn't buy into it, the result, he ended up being sacked.

That example shows just one reason why some managers don't fit certain clubs that may not be seen from the outside. Club and players have to buy into a managers philosophy, if they don't what he is doing won't work.

Andre Villas-Boas had a similar experience at Tottenham. He was a very statistical manager and at first everyone bought into his philosophy, but in his second year he lost both club and players, the result he was on his way.

Let's get on to Gavin Fleig, a quick background first.

He took his coaching badges when only a teenager and did a lot of coaching around that time.  At university he did an undergraduate degree in Sports Coaching which included sports analysis and analytics. After a year working he landed a job at Bolton Wanderers who, at the time, were the leaders in performance analysis.

He was the first full time appointment in the Bolton academy analysis setup, focusing on youth development. A job with the first team opened up and he took that. He then followed Sam Allardyce to Newcastle and when Allardyce left Newcastle he joined Manchester City in 2008.

Simon Wilson was head of analysis at Man City and he was re-vamping the department at the time to include specialist roles. Instead of having one guy spend 30% of his time doing pre-game, post-game and data analysis, Wilson wanted a specialist in each.

Gavin Fleig became pre-match analyst, focusing exclusively on pre-game preparation for the team and players. Later he then became Head of Performance Analysis.

At Bolton Sam Allardyce and first team coach Phil Brown were open minded and embraced people’s opinions, incorporating their ideas into team development. The analysis department had a big impact on the team. He included it into his game model, and allowed it to contribute towards his development of scouting and recruitment. The department also worked with the sports science and medical departments to track players’ fitness levels and availability.

At Newcastle Fleig found it difficult to bring in new ideas to an environment unused to such an approach. Adding three pieces of work to three different departments meant the players had nine new day-to-day activities and or ways of preparing for a game.

That was too much and naturally problems arose. The manager lost players who hadn't bought into it and a parting of the ways became inevitable. This scepticism of analysis is usually born out of a lack of understanding.

Manchester City already had a department so that barrier didn't exist. The department there is used as an extensive support structure for their coaching curriculum and coaches across all the age groups. They have four full analysts with the first team and six beneath them working on youth development.

They provide age-appropriate learning from Under 9's to 21's. The Head of Performance Analysis oversees all that work and the role has now evolved to include analysis in business decisions as well.

The role of analysis and analytics is to supply additional information to add value to aid the decision making process. The may be for departments within the club, the manager, coaches or players themselves. The more information you have the more informed decision you can make.

If 90% of times an opposition player reacts a certain way in a certain situation then given those circumstances, 9 times out of 10 you know what he is going to do before he does. Benoit Assou-Ekotto springs to mind here when he is trapped near the touchline. How often did we see the ball flicked back and a turn, if you know it's coming you have a greater chance of stealing the ball.

The departments work with the youth is about educating and developing players. Every level, whether it’s nine-to-fourteen, twelve-to-fourteen, fifteen-to-sixteen, or eighteen-to-twenty one, the players go through different transitions and phases of their development.

The role of analysis changes as they progress through the phases. At a young age it's geared towards building enjoyment and enthusiasm. If you can engender a feeling that they are a part of the club then there is a subconscious bond of ownership that becomes more difficult to break over time, therefore you are less likely to lose a talented player to another club.

From the ages of twelve-to-fourteen it's all about decision making. Using 4v4, 8v8 and 11v11 builds spacial awareness and makes them more comfortable in different situations or formations. Then they understand and can take on board better, their role within different systems.

Sir Alex Ferguson used to look for intelligent players who could take on board tactical changes so he could make subtle changes during each game without it impeding performance. It's another factor that separates the good from the top class, football intelligence. 

Youngsters abroad are taught all positions and that has slowly been introduced over here,  building technically better players who are not as lost when they find themselves in a strange area of the field. We can all point to moments when you can say, that was a defenders shot, but if a defender has grown up other roles he is less likely to panic at that important moment.

The role of analysis in all this is to work alongside the coaches and educate the youngsters.

At fifteen-to-sixteen and eighteen-to-twenty then more statistical and analytical information is used. Analytics act as a benchmark to analyse a player against, they then know how they are doing. During this phase it becomes a little more tailored to the individual to improve their specific game.

If you identify an aspect of a players game that needs improving, such as how he receives the ball on his chest while switching play, then you create a database for them and analyse that specific aspect to see how best to improve it.

The Great Britain cycling team used this approach, analysing the minutest detail and using computer programmes to determine every aspect of cycling from bike components, through clothing, posture on a bike to the perfect use of the individuals available energy levels.

At Manchester City the performance analysis department focus on performance analysis, coaching, sports science and medicine, scouting and recruitment, and player care while in the youth system the focus is on player education.

The philosophy of the club and the department is 'Team Evolution' developing towards winning every competition in a sustainable environment.

If you think of Spurs we jump from one playing system to another system to another system, hardly a sustainable approach. The club needs to settle on a style of play, which it now appears to have done with 4-2-3-1, so that the youth groups can also learn how to play within that basic style.

Arsenal are excellent at that, they have youngsters who come in to the first team and they know exactly their role whereas over the years some of our youngsters have looked a little lost when introduced.

Three more areas the department at Man City focus on are developing homegrown players into the first team, maximizing talent value through managing assets [a player is an asset] effectively and integrating business and football. The aim is to make the players more self reflective, smarter players, players who are more responsible for their own actions.

You look at those words and reflect upon the performances some of our players gave last season, and gave by choice, they embarrassed themselves yet our fans want to make excuses for them. Under AVB we got to the last third of the pitch and weren't smart enough to find or create a through ball.

It's clearly an area we haven't mastered. Sport is a mental game and we simply do not do enough work on the mental analysis side. It's an area we should be looking to improve.

Football is after-all, as Johan Cruyff said, a game you play with your brain. 

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