When the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment rolled into Manchester City in September 2008 it kicked off an era of high spending and high expectations. Brazilian superstar Robinho arrived for £32.5m, James Milner for £26m, Carlos Tevez from arch-rivals Manchester United for about the same and Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli for £24m, and many more.
Despite the millions lavished on players, staff and facilities, success on the pitch has yet to materialise. Manchester City narrowly missed out on qualification for Europe’s elite club competition, The Champions League, at the end of the 2009/10 season.
Throughout this financial upheaval the company has been steadily ramping up its use of analytics to improve not only performance on the pitch and opposition scouting but also other aspects of the club off it, such as player recruitment.
Speaking at an event held by IBM at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium, Gavin Fleig, head of performance analysis at Manchester City went in to more detail about the club’s use of analytics, pointing out that while it’s used right down to the under-9s, it is primarily used with the senior first team for recruitment and profiling.
There are four key areas where Man City uses analytics: profiling, recruitment, game preparation and analysis and data management. "We’ve tried to open our eyes to the world of analytics and how it can help us improve our football performance. It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of a game. You need to detach yourself from that, separate fact from emotion," he said.
Fleig mentioned that British Cycling and Formula 1 have both used analytics with excellent results. "British Cycling is one of the most successful sports teams around and for them it’s all about getting that extra 1%. They have a department for marginal gain – something that would never have happened ten or 15 years ago," he said. "To go down to the finest detail and look at the smallest percentages that can make all the differences is what is taking British sport forward."
The analytics team at Manchester City has 280 unique actions they can measure for each player during a game and how they impact the team as a whole. Problems can be identified and fed back to the management and coaching staff who can then alter training regimes. Eventually, Fleig says, the difference is noticeable on the pitch.
One tangible example of a weakness identified and remedied is set pieces. The team was struggling with free kicks and corners and had scored twice in 21 matches. The analytics team pulled data from the big five leagues in Europe – The Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Serie A in Italy and Ligue 1, the top division in France – for every chance created at set pieces.
"We pulled together some evidence-based research regarding the best type of delivery, movement of players in the box and which runs they should make. We presented it in a format that the players could understand and it was put in to action on the training pitch. In the first six games of the following season we scored four set piece goals," he said.
Another area when the club has used analytics to improve is player recruitment, ensuring the team signs the right player, one that will genuinely benefit the on-pitch performances.
Fleig’s team identified a weakness in the final third of the pitch where the team was giving away possession too cheaply compared to the more successful teams. It identified potential transfer targets – such as David Silva, Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez – that held possession well around the opponent’s penalty area and signed them. Final third ball retention increased by 7.7%, Fleig said.
But how does the club deal with opposition to analytics? Fleig admits that a lot of match preparation at football club revolves around doing whatever the team did the last time it won – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes.
But the money floating around football these days means that simply isn’t the best way to approach training. It’s not based on fact or evidence and is therefore difficult to quantify what impact it is having.
"Football is a game very much steeped in tradition and people’s strong opinions, there is very much an old school mentality. But that’s shifting now with the new generation of coaches coming through and people who have come through a sports science and academic background," he said. "There is a huge focus on the business of football clubs and the management of performance data to guarantee the best chance of success."
So what does all this mean for your business? It’s about measuring the impact of your assets. "Until you can consistently collect and analyse the data it is impossible to gauge what is an effective approach," Fleig said. "When you find out what that is, when you can collect it and measure it and revisit it, you can repeat it in the future."