One of my more embarrassing vices is my addiction to productivity books. Because it’s a genre that, both sadly and predictably, often veers into clap happy insane Tony Robbins territory, I mostly keep my productivity reading off my public list on Goodreads.
Nevertheless, I read one recently that, while cloying in the way these books are, offered some genuinely useful advice: Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge.
The book is essentially an overlong articulation of Annie Dillard’s famous quote:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
Olson writes that progress and productivity are not a matter of herculean willpower, radical change, lofty goals, overnight epiphanies, or instantaneous wealth and happiness. Rather, they come down to the small choices we make everyday, every hour, which in the moment feel tiny and insignificant enough to safely ignore (“I’ll write this post later, I’ll go for a walk tomorrow”), but in aggregate become the building blocks to a successful life, maybe not tomorrow or next week, but one day.
If this sounds familiar to sports analytics nerds, it should: it’s essentially a reframing of the old dictum—focus on process over results. Or, to quote ex-76ers GM Sam Hinkie, “trust the process.”
This sounds all well and good, but what if you’re starting completely from scratch? What if don’t have any process in place beyond the old tried and true “Buy better players, win more games, and if not, sack the manager”?
Some clubs believe that incorporating analytics into their day-to-day business will require a revolutionary overhaul, data tracking, hiring a full time analyst, printing opta event data sheets, etc. etc.
Yet while there has been a lot of talk recently about a more involved, data heavy “new kind of soccer analytics”, a small contingent still holds fast to the idea that there are still some ‘low-hanging fruit’ for clubs eager to find an edge not in some future season once they have their analytics ‘process’ fully up and running, but right now.
There are a few small examples from the past few weeks. Sean Ingle for example wrote about Garry Gelade’s presentation at the OptaPro Forum, which challenged the current wisdom that crossing is ‘inefficient’ as an attacking option. Gelade pointed out that few analysts measure what happens in the first few seconds following a cross, which turn out to be far more fruitful than the initial contact with the ball. But he also went further:
Gelade was able to dive deeper, though, by working with a performance analyst from a leading Premier League club. Together they worked out the numbers could be nudged further in the crosser’s favour – depending on where the cross was made, where it was aimed, the angle of delivery, and whether it was closer to the near or the far post. So a cross from inside the box had a success rate of 7.6% if aimed towards the back post – double that of a cross hit to the near post.
Again, a small detail perhaps, but one that could garner some use, some experimentation. Then there is this piece from 21st Club, which details how teams can affect the likelihood of a particular outcome based on their attacking/defensive strategy. Stronger teams that run up the score are more likely to put results out of doubt, and weaker teams are more likely to earn an upset by keeping scoring low.
This may sound obvious, but few teams consider the fact they may not be in one role each and every match. Here’s Ben Marlow:
This is interesting for clubs who span two competitions of differing opponent strengths. Domestically, Celtic adopt an open approach thus limiting the opportunity for upset, with their matches averaging around 3.1 goals since 2013. This serves them well in the Scottish Premiership where they are comfortably the strongest team, but when out-gunned on paper, as they often are in the Champions League, they struggle to compete.
Again, this may sound like small potatoes stuff, perhaps even obvious (many would say Celtic has tried and failed to shell against superior opposition in the Champions League group stages).
The point here is that teams can act on this very basic, public information, in the form of little bets. Let’s try this, what did we learn, should we try it again etc. Small, actions that, in aggregate, may eventually lead to more experiments, then more questions, than the desire to hire a consultancy to help answer those questions, maybe a full time analyst.
Nervous clubs need not dive into analytics wholesale, but pay more attention to the small, everyday decisions that may lead to more monumental ones down the road.