Around the world the use of data analysis to influence soccer decisions is a rapidly evolving science. Clubs are using statistics to assess talent, develop tactical strategy and track player fitness, all in an effort to get the slightest edge on the field. In a global and highly competitive industry, every advantage counts. We caught up with the analytics staff with the Philadelphia Union and asked how they use data to influence decisions within the organization. The topics ranged from organizational structure to the recruitment of Aristeguieta to the future of GPS tracking inside soccer balls.
Our conversation was with BJ Callaghan, Assistant Coach who leads analytics for the first team, and Garrison Draper, Director of Sports Science for the Philadelphia Union Academy teams.
tBG: The analytical tools used and their role in the organization
BJ: We spend a lot of time on video analysis and we use Opta data as well. It's a combination of both. We're trying to use the information that we're getting with Opta and we're able to link it through our video platform. Our two main responsibilities are the on the field coaching, and then analytics is what we spending the rest of the time doing, whether it be breaking down the opponent or breaking down our game.
Garrison: The major role of the sports science department is to objectify everything. My job is to report the data that is coming out of training. When we come back from a training session, I'll bring the data to Jim, BJ and Mike [Sorber] saying "This session we did X amount of work." And then we can start planning the next training session based on that information.
tBG: What performance data is collected and how it's used
BJ: We use a combination of Sportstec and Opta. Opta is live tagging every on the ball instance that happens. It's somewhere close to 2,000 data points per game. Within 15 to 20 minutes after a game we're receiving that file. That file works directly in sync with the Sportstec SportsCode Elite video editing system that we have. From there we're able to provide the staff and players with customizable reports. We can have a report for Andrew Wenger, and we can have a report for Ethan White that are different because they're obviously at different positions. Those reports are all linked to the video. You can just click on the data points and through the video you can see all of those actions that happened. Also within the video editing system we can go in and manually edit the game to look at things that are specific to us. I spend a lot of time manual editing plays that Opta may not pick up. Those new points can still go into the player reports. So it's two things that happen. We get the report from Opta and then we go in and manually edit the game looking for additional things that we want to get across to the players.
Every player has an iPad so we're able to push that video to those guys, both team related video and individual. And there's a specific group segment, so maybe we're pushing specific video to the defenders or forwards. They are able to access that video 24 hours a day. That video system is called TeamXstream. It's just a cloud platform that allows us to push video to the guys on their iPads.
We also get all the data points for the opponents. So all the data points we get for our game, we'll also get for every game in MLS. We use the 2,000 points from Opta as well as our own manual editing to create reports on the opponents. And we show these to the players on top of our team presentation.
tBG: Does MLS provide this?
BJ: No, this is a club purchased thing. This is something, as a staff, that we prioritized and the club was behind it and we purchased it.
We are one of the few that are using SportsCode Elite in MLS which is very big and popular in the EPL. I wouldn't say a lot of teams are using it here. I'm sure a lot of teams are subscribing to Opta.
tBG: What training data is collected and how is it used?
Garrison: This relationship I have working for both the Union and the Academy is probably an ideal set up for a club. Through a GPS system, we track every single player in the youth academy in every match and training session. So we're starting to see what an athlete looks like at age 14, age 16 and age 18. And now with my deep involvement with the first team - I am able to say this is what we need these athletes to become.
The focus that we have with the first team is a little bit different. How are we keeping these guys healthy? How are we managing workloads?
With the academy we're saying what can this athlete do on a daily basis? What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? And how are we going to make him better?
tBG: Performance analysis within the Academy
BJ: We are doing the same things that Garrison is doing but on the soccer side. What are the important aspects of the game that we think translate from the Academy all the way through to the professional level? Then we're giving the players metrics that we think are important. And we're working to share all of that information of that single platform.
So the 14 year old coach, if he's got a good left back who's performing at a certain level then he's able to share this and all the video components with everyone on the staff - on a single platform that is tagged consistently. We can go in and see that individual player and you can find see the statistics for all of the left footed final third entries and everyone can see each pass on video as well.
tBG: Benchmarks through the Union organization
Garrison: In the next two months, every player in our academy will have a profile which is going to have metrics that we pulled from the video, from the physical performances and from the testing, and they can say, "This is where I am now." Then six weeks later we'll publish the same report so we can track the progress.
The staff can then start saying these are the weaknesses and these are strengths and it's not coming from a subjective point of view. These are numbers that we really feel strongly about. If you are a center midfielder then you need to cover this amount of distance, or you need to make this many forward passes, and we're able to see it and have it objectively presented to them.
tBG: Analytics as a strategic focus
BJ: From our standpoint, with Jim being a first year coach, we're confident that this is the right direction. Things are changing at a rapid pace. We're not only trying to create clear pictures for the players, but we're trying to keep tabs on where things are going.
On recruiting we're working through the information and trying to find the data that we find that's important and then researching and finding players that fit that mold.
tBG: The process of finding Fernando Aristeguieta
BJ: We looked at him three different ways. We pulled Opta reports on Fernando. And also video. We were able to obtain every touch in every game he's played in. We combed through that and put together a video package for the staff. We also went and watched him play and watched him train, and we met with him. You don't want to lose that human aspect either. Your staff and technical director travel to meet him. So you are getting the Opta data, you're getting the video and the live in game scouting. It's really doing all three and coming to the decision.
tBG: How did Aristeguieta initially become a loan target?
BJ: Through our internal network of scouts we trust. We find out about different players who might be interested in a move. We then set up some criteria. There is obviously the budget. Then what type of player are you looking for? Is he a back to the goal target #9 or a guy who would be a false 9 type of player? Age narrows it down. We don't want someone who is 32 with just a few years left. From there you are combing through the video and the games to a point where each coach is going through three or four games and then we'll all come back with reports. Then it comes to a point where you've identified three or four targets and then you go out and watch each one.
With Opta we're able to pull individual reports as well and comparative reports. If you have five prospects then you can compare them all with the same data.
tBG: Is the analysis community an open one?
BJ: You obviously have closer relationships with some coaches than other coaches and some staffs than other staffs. So those conversations tend to go a bit more in depth. Even when you are talking about those things they only get so far so that you're not stepping over the bounds of competitive interest.
Garrison: It's funny. When the schedule comes out in January or February, you start circling dates when you know you're playing your former bosses or your friends. There's usually a good chance about two weeks before the game you'll start hearing from them wanting to set up a call to catch up.
There is a ton of sharing in the sports science world but a lot of it is theory based. We're discussing ideas we have but we're never giving out how long the team ran or how much high speed running they are doing. Discussions are typically about the ideas or theories we are working on.
tBG: Data availability for soccer
BJ: I think at this point we're getting to a stage in the world where everything is available anyway. There are no real secrets. If you want to find all the data for team X you just go to a website that has all the information. I think there is value in the analytics, but it's still a human sport and you can't put a value on how much a guy wants to win and how hard the guy wants to try. You still have to go out and play the game. You can give them as much information as you want. We collect it. We discuss it. We keep it internal but it's still a hard sport to execute at a high level and that`s why you have to play every weekend.
tBG: How the engagement between analysis staff and coaching staff works
BJ: If it's important enough to myself or Mike or Garrison we bring it to Jim. There is no reservation the way this staff works on approaching Jim. He`s completely approachable. Jim will absolutely ask if we can look at this issue or that. For example, when looking at an upcoming opponents he's going to want to see how they getting behind the defense. And after the game he's going to want to know how they got behind us. Jim is driving what we're doing here and we're very much in support of it, but if I see something I'll go right up to him and point out what we're looking at. It's definitely a two way street, but he clearly is in control. He just trusts people to do their jobs.
Garrison: From our side we produce a report that goes straight to each of the coaches. Let's say we were tracking a training session, the report would tell the coaches how hard the session was. This is the type of exercise it was. Did they do high speed running? Was there a lot of acceleration deceleration? And there will be more actions that will come out of the report. This guy didn't hit a certain number, so should he do a little extra today or maybe we'll have him work with Kevin in the weight room? So the next training session is set up by the reporting.
BJ: All the coaches have the same editing system. If Mike goes in and edits some things and I go in and edit some things and Jim goes in and edits some things, it's all inter-connected. So we're seeing it as it's happening. Then we come together and we meet as a staff and we decide the major things we're going to work on during the week. Things we're review with the team. Then things we'll work on in regard to the opponents and things we're going to work on that are opponent based.
tBG: Jim's valuing of the analysis
BJ: Jim values his coaches. He trust the people that are in place to do their job. Of course he has final say. But at the same time he trusts the players and gives them this information. If we don't give it they are going to go get it anyway. They are tech savvy. They are into it. They read it. They want more. We just can't have a 2 hour video session. So how do we get them the information that they want in the format that they like? The days of reading books of scouting reports are done. They better be in an iBook format or a Keynote format or in a video format. This is what this generation does. And I think Jim has been very in tune with that and this is how he can convey his message.
tBG: Emphasis on analysis in the past compared to now
BJ: When Jim took over it was the middle of the season. I can't speak to what was done before because I wasn't here before. I don't know what was done. Jim brought me up from the Academy level. At the Academy level we were using Sportscode Elite and the GPS system that Garrison uses. They've been using that since the beginning. Within the club there is a focus on it. There is an importance to it. We've just been able to adopt new things when a clean slate was brought in. It's always been in the clubs mind for sure. In terms of this staff using the video editing system and Opta, that was just something that happened when the new season started.
You evaluate yourself at the end of every season, especially when you don't make the playoffs and that's our goal. So people ask what can you do better? What are the little things that you can do? You know six points here, three points there. If sports science can get your three or six points and analytics can get you three or six points then we're in the playoffs instead of out.
tBG: Physical location of the GPS tracking device
Garrison: We use a system called Catapult. We have a great relationship with the company. The units are in a sports bra and the units sit on the upper part of the player's back. So they'd be right up their spine almost on their neck. These units have progressed greatly since I have entered the league. The units I worked on when I was new, you would look at a guy and think "He's a hunchback - oh wait, that's a GPS unit." Now they are quite a bit smaller. They are not as obnoxious to wear and so unless you are standing right next to a guy, you're probably not aware he's wearing it.
tBG: The future of GPS tracking in the soccer ball
Catapult is actually an Australian company and they've just started in the last couple of years putting one inside an Aussie rules football. They are seeing great results from that. And so now it's how can they do it in a soccer ball which has to be struck thousands of times per game, and make sure it doesn't affect the aerodynamics of the ball or the feel of the ball. It's on its way. It's going to happen in the next five years. But it's going to take some time to make sure the technology catches up to the idea.
tBG: Comments on the learning process
Garrison: It's so young that the information is so new and we're still trying to figure out in this program what really works for us. We get 2,000 data points per game. The data is flying in at us. With that and all the work that's being put in by BJ, Mike and myself the insight and change is going to be increasing as we learn.
The Union staff was very passionate about the progress being made internally in the fields of performance analysis and sports science. From this account the Union are committed to using video and statistics as a competitive advantage and have had this philosophy since the origin of the club. That said, there appears to be an acceleration of the learning process with Curtin at the helm with the addition of Opta data.
There is still a long way to go, and coaches stressed this in our conversation. The area of scouting appears to still use old fashioned networks to identify potential prospects, but that is probably still the norm in the industry. They are also, for the first season, drowning in Opta data. The learnings from working through all that data will take time to assimilate into the coaching process.
The Union are clearly committed to player fitness and using the latest analytical tools to help improve the players and the coaches. It's not something that will fix any issues overnight, but over time these new insights could be used to improve the overall performance of the club.