The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was this past weekend. I attended the 2012 conference and was looking forward to seeing how much the soccer analytics community had progressed. Unfortunately, the soccer panel was very similar to the one two years ago. While I'm not quite as pessimistic as Howard Hamilton, I understand where his viewpoint is coming from.
I think the reason for this lack of progress in the soccer analytics community is threefold:
First, it is very hard to get across new ideas and specific developments in a panel. Panels are not conducive to discussions of new research and developments. It was able to give a general view of soccer analytics, a view in which we step back and look at progress from a distance. If you think you've heard this general view repeatedly over the past few years, you're not alone. To learn truly new ideas at SSAC, one has to attend the research paper presentations.
Second, not very much has actually been done with soccer analytics in the past 2 years. You may argue with me, and of course a lot of things have been done. But in comparison to the developments in basketball, the progress is little. Compared with just 2 years ago, the NBA is now largely influenced by analytical findings. Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, talked about how teams are starting to shoot a lot more corner 3's and score a lot more points from high percentage layups and dunks from inside the paint. This realization largely stems from analytical work done in basketball. There has been no such large influence on how soccer is played (at least that I can tell) in the past couple of years.
Third, soccer is genuinely harder to break down analytically than other sports. Baseball can be broken down in to individual at bats; Basketball and football can be broken down in to individual possessions. Soccer, though, is one fluid game with no easy way to break it down. People have been preaching this for as long as I can remember.
The thing is, I'm cheating a little bit here. What value does pointing out problems have if I don't offer any solutions? If soccer wants to come out of its analytical dark age, we need to figure this problem out. I'm not saying its easy. If it was, I'd have some brilliant idea. But I don't. I'm just as stuck as most people seem to be.
A lot of this problem comes from the stigma that statistics somehow degrade soccer. Fans think that analytics takes the beauty out of soccer. At SSAC, the legendary Edward Tufte had a perfect quote: "Analytics doesn't take the beauty out of sports- It takes the stupidity out of it."
If data are going to truly influence the sport of soccer at the professional level, basketball is a brilliant lead to follow. The revolution started with individuals, bloggers and armchair analysts. Eventually people started to see that there were inefficiencies to exploit. These individuals started to figure out how to exploit
Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets, at SSAC 2013
these inefficiencies. Finally, forward thinking team executives caught on, and started to change the way they played based on the analysis. Think Billy Beane, Daryl Morey, Theo Epstein, etc. Once other teams saw that this analysis was working, others started to imitate.
There is no doubt in my mind that inefficiencies exist in soccer that can be exploited with statistics. The most exciting part is that few of these inefficiencies have been found yet. Or if they have been found, they haven't been exploited. These low hanging fruit are waiting to be picked. And once we figure out how to gain a significant enough edge for team executives to notice, they'll catch on and start adapting. This adaptation may be a little slower in countries other than the United States. For whatever reason the US seems to be much more open to statistics in sports.
What soccer needs is an Oakland Athletics. Or a Houston Rockets. I have no idea when this will be. It may already be happening, or it may take 10 years. And even more than that, we need to prove the worth of analytics in soccer. Clubs (understandably so) will not invest in analytics unless they think real value can be gained from it. And this requires us to prove the worth of analytics. I don't think we're there yet, but we're on our way.
But when one club eventually punches well above their weight as a result of the edge they have from analytics, other clubs are going to start to notice. And after that, the dominoes are going to fall in to place and the game will probably start to change, just the way it has in basketball in the past 2 years and in baseball before that. The seeds can be planted by individuals. But nothing will grow until there's an effective adoption by clubs.