EAT Y'SELF FITTER: DATA ANALYSIS IN THE LOWER LEAGUES

EAT Y'SELF FITTER: DATA ANALYSIS IN THE LOWER LEAGUES

Data analysis has slowly made its way to football after gaining prominence in other sports; most notably baseball. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis elevated the prospect of data driven management to the forefront of baseball, with many franchises following suit.

“What we’ve seen is an absolute explosion of baseball data” said Vince Gennaro, an MLB consultant

As a result of its success, the approach quickly spread to other major league sports in North America. American football was quick to attempt an analytical approach, with the Baltimore Ravens one of many franchises to employ a director of football analytics, but it has failed to produce the same success as in baseball.

In association football, the adaptation of a statistical and analytical approach has been slow. Few clubs have adopted the approach, with a preference shown to talent spotting when it comes to recruitment.

In Europe, there are two shining examples of statistical approaches. In Denmark, FC Midtjylland has been one of the leaders in analytical approaches to the game, as Luke Bidwell explained on These Football Times.

“He [owner Matthew Benham] is a student of the game, using analytical sciences from business interests outside of football and implementing them into football, challenging usual convention in favour of ground-breaking new ideas.”

A more famous example, though, is Spanish side Sevilla, who have dominated the Europea League in recent years despite selling many of their top assets. Led by Sporting Director Monchi, Sevilla have used statistics to identify the right replacements for their departing stars. Speaking to Sid Lowe of the Guardian, Monchi explained:

“Sixteen people cover a series of leagues. For the first five months we watch a lot of football but with no particular aim: we’re just accumulating data. Every month we produce an ideal XI for each league. Then in December we start watching players who appeared regularly in different contexts – home, away, international – to build the broadest possible profile.”

In England, Liverpool’s infamous transfer committee have attempted to implement a statistical approach, as have Brentford in the Football League. Neither, though, have had anywhere near the levels of success achieved by baseball, Sevilla or Midtjylland.

Few fans would expect a data analytical approach to football to be taken in the lower leagues of English football - I know I didn’t.

Surprisingly, that is the case at Cheltenham Town. The club, who play some 109 miles outside of London in a town with only just over 100,000 inhabitants, implemented a data analytical approach after being relegated to non-league football in 2015.

The man behind the data and its success is First Team Technical Coach & Performance Analyst Tim Bell, who spoke exclusively to me about his role at the club and the future of data analysis in football.

Bell began his coaching career at the reputable Hartpury College in Gloucestershire, a path he took after injury. “I suffered a serious injury, between 8 and 12; I had something called perthes disease, which set the tone for the next 5 or 6 years of me not playing. When I did get back into it, I was 5 or 6 years behind everyone else.”

Whilst studying both BSc & MSc Sports Coaching Science at the college, he got involved in the senior university teams coaching set-ups. “I got into coaching in my second year, and in my third and fourth years I took the elite development BUCS squad (second and third team squads). I was only 18 at the time, so I was coaching my peers and this was the beginning of my football journey.”  

A door was opened for Tim into Cheltenham Town by Hartpury Director of Football Tom Radcliffe. “It made me realise that I can make a go of this as a career when I sat down with Tom. I said ‘look, I’m 19 now I’ve done a year with you whilst studying at Hartpury, I would like to progress as a coach’.

It was at that point that he called the head of the academy at the time, which was Ken Oram and he said I’ve got a young lad here, who's really ambitious. He’s just completed his B licence; I think you should take a look at him.”

After 2 and a half years coaching full-time at both Hartpury and in the Cheltenham academy, assisting the former Robins hero Russell Milton with the under 18’s, Tim realised the importance of gaining a new experience as a young coach, “being young, you’ve got to keep pushing yourself” he explained.

His connections led him to Africa, where he spent a year as Academy Manager in Ghana. “I had to go and see what Africa had to offer for myself, not just sporting wise but culturally. It became a journey of exploration, not just of the world but yourself. For me there were so many ups and downs, so many challenges that you had to overcome to get the job done” he tells me.

“Africa was good for me. It softened me up, but I still wanted to impose my values, something you can’t just turn up and do in Africa. I learnt a lot of good lessons there.”

The importance of the experience he had, as well as the affect it had on the local community, is not lost on Bell. “We built a 4G pitch, floodlights, recruited all of the kids, funnily enough using data analysis which is where maybe the journey starts a bit with that. I spent 3 months recruiting, saw 3,000 kids and attended over 15 events to recruit these kids.”

Leaving Africa behind, he returned to Cheltenham Town after being recommended for the First Team Technical Coach role under Gary Johnson by Russell Milton, the first team Assistant Manager and Tim’s former academy boss.

“My role is about me getting the manager’s principles of play across to the players using data” Bell explained. “I provide the information on the opposition and to do our performance review” he added.

“We’ll sit down and do a tactical analysis on the opposition, which is shown to everyone in a presentation. We choose the definite detail that we want in it in terms of a trends analysis. It’s kind of like a SWOT analysis, but using video. It’s all grounded by using stats.”

I asked Tim how receptive the players have been towards him and his role after reading an article where a team of baseball players did not accept their new analytical management team as they did not trust them or their modern methods. He reassures me that the Cheltenham players have all bought into the approach.

“From the outset, the manager’s winning formula was spot on and that’s why we won the league by 12 points. The players want to listen and want to get better. If the players see it, they’ll believe it. As a technical coach, I don’t need to sit there and convince you that they play long ball, I’ve just got to show you.

All coaches analyse the game, but in different ways. I’d say I’m a coach first and foremost and an analyst second, which is maybe why I’ve been successful implementing myself into a first-team environment.

From my perspective, it is crucial to have a good understanding of the game to be able to convey the manager’s principles and style of play to the team.  

It’s also about being highly professional and delivering a professional product; our product is football. As a club, we have to produce that week in week out so our fans go home happy.”

He explains that manager Gary Johnson has been instrumental in promoting the approach and for the success it has achieved, something which initially surprised me. At 60-years old, Johnson has been around the block - this modern method of coaching isn’t something you’d usually associated with a manager of his experience.

“You’ve got to be adaptable and have a lot of strings to your bow, ready for what is asked of you. The manager has been absolutely fantastic with me and from day one gave me a framework to work from. He said Tim your job is to help each player improve and prepare them for the next game whether that be via stats or watching and analysing themselves.

I work closely with Russ Milton and the manager to create usable statistics that would help us clearly define whether we had been successful or not in games and what was required to win games.

The manager’s philosophy became my philosophy and as soon as you have that understanding you can work in tandem. You’ve got all this data which is telling a story about how you’re performing and you’re using it to make yourself better.”

Just that day Tim had received a call from Johnson, who told him he had bought a drone to analyse patterns of play from a new position, which I think is testament to the manager’s commitment to forward thinking, analytical approaches.

Financial aspects obviously have implications on what modern approaches can be adopted, particularly in terms of the use of technology, but Bell argues that the Chairman deserves a lot of credit for keeping the club operating as if it was a Football League club despite dropping into non-league football.

We’d already discussed the adaptation of technology in Tim’s role, but I was keen to understand the restrictions budgets set upon it. There’s no doubt that the free-spending teams of the Premier League are able to unload unlimited amounts of money at a data approach.

“It is a strain, in terms of there’s so many things that you want to do, but I think we’ve got our programme spot on, for next year too. We now know after a year of using data what you’re good at, what to avoid and that we’re in a strong position heading into the game.

Clubs at the top level probably have 10 full-time staff in and around analytics, in terms of recruitment, match-day, player development, pre, post and during the game. You’ve got all the guys behind the scene doing the data collection as well. Somehow, I’ve managed to get all of that into a really neat programme where I can micro-manage everything and still get every detail we want out of it.’

With all of those aspects rolled into just Tim’s role, as well as some of the interns who support him, I wondered whether any aspects were left out of his role. I asked him about how his role affects the club’s recruitment strategy.

“It’s no coincidence that we signed the player last year, Dan Holman, who had the most shots on goal in the national league. You’ve got to go and do your homework to know that you’re going to get a player that is delivering. What’s on the top of your list, what’s your KPIs, let’s research the top 5, what are the other benefits. It’s about getting these things right. That’s not to say it’s purely because of the data that we got him, but it’s part of a process that supports the head of recruitment, Pete Johnson, and the manager.”

Does Tim think data will dictate recruitment in the future? “I think at the top of the game it already is, either money is not a barrier to buying proven players or teams are trying to improve their squads with statistically driven recruitment.”

I start to round-up our conversation by asking Tim what he thinks the future of data analysis is. It’s hard to predict the future, of course, but surely if anyone can it’s a data analyst, right? “In 15 years, I think all data will be free” says Tim.  

“You can’t, however, put a stat on hard work or professionalism. These are the things where stats cannot surpass football or any sport.”

We left our chat, which took place in a cafe in the centre of Cheltenham just a day after I initially made contact with Tim, there. Cheltenham’s success last year is testament to the hard-work and intricate approach Tim takes to analysing the data for his side and the importance manager Gary Johnson places upon it.

It will be interesting to see how many more clubs in the lower leagues follow Cheltenham’s lead on data analysis. 

Scott is @ssalter_ftbl. Picture credit to Groundhopping Merseburg.

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