There are only 37 more shopping days until Christmas. And in case anyone is wondering what to get little old me, let me give you a big hint…
There is a reason why “professional” soccer writers, broadcasters, commentators, and analysts seem smarter than average folks like you and me. And it’s not necessarily because they are smarter, or understand the game on some higher level. The reason is because they have access to Opta.
Opta is a sports data tracking and analysis company created in 1996, and they have already built what is arguably the most comprehensive sports database on the planet. Based in London with offices throughout Europe (and now in Australia and the US, with correspondents in additional countries), Opta’s tracks a number of sports, but their bread and butter is football, what we Americans – the inventors of such gems of humanity as jazz and tater tots – call soccer. The company collects, packages, and distributes information on approximately 60,000 fixtures across 70 countries annually.
This information, packaged in a variety of ways, is then sold to customers ranging from ESPN and Fox to Chelsea and Inter Milan. Data that has been analyzed and is sortable and filterable is extremely useful to customers in the media – from print journalists and sports analysts to the broadcasters who provide live play-by-play commentary or analysis at the breaks. They can also use the data to create products that enhance their coverage and serve as a point of differentiation, like The Guardian’s Chalkboards.
Teams and even leagues are also customers, with information packages tailored specifically for them. This data helps them better understand trends in the game as well as compare various aspects of performance – both in terms of individual players and teams.
Sponsors looking for an informed way to attach themselves to the game can also benefit from Opta’s intelligence. And then there are the sports betting houses. Betting on soccer is extremely popular in Europe, particularly in the UK. Sports betting companies can use Opta’s data to establish odds and set spreads. They don’t just bet on the results of games. They also bet on who will score first, who will get (and take) the first throw-in, and even things as random as how many times a particular player will spit on camera. Using sortable statistics from Opta, it’s even easier for the house to win.
A Series of “Events”
A soccer game is really a series of events. These events all have four things in common: a specific player, a location on the field, the nature of the activity, and the time it occurred. For example, the first event in a Manchester United game might very well be Wayne Rooney at the center spot passing the ball to Javier Hernandez in the first second.
Opta analysts capture and track each of these events throughout the game. Using proprietary software, they can watch the official broadcast of the game on one side of their computer screen and actually mark the spot on the field and link that to the player, activity, and time – all of which are searchable and sortable – on the other half of the screen. Plus, you can instantly review video footage of any given event.
And they do this for every event in every game of the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, French Ligue 1, Portuguese Primera Liga, Dutch Eredivisie, and others. They also track the UEFA Champions and Europa Leagues along with all major international tournaments, like the World Cup and European Championships. And they are starting to branch out into the Americas as well, with the Copa Liberatodores.
That’s quite amazing when you consider that there is an average of 1,500 to 2000 individual “events” per game. Of course there will be more events when a touch-happy team like FC Barcelona are playing.
Data Analysis and Presentation
What’s so great about breaking each match down into these individual events? What does it matter if Rooney passed the ball to Chicharito from the center spot in the first second of a Manchester United match? Well, for starters, Opta can tell you how often Man U have won when Rooney took the first touch. And because they’ve tracked the location of the next event, they can tell you how many times Man U have won when Hernandez received that pass either on the right or left of Rooney.
Opta doesn’t just log statistics like these, they look for patterns and trends. And they package the information in ways that are useful for their clients. For example, if you are a manager facing a team you are unfamiliar with (or even one that you play regularly, for that matter), Opta can provide an in-depth analysis of how that team typically performs. For example, when facing teams with a 4-4-2 formation, how often do they attack up the right flank, and with what result? Yeah, Opta’s got that. And nearly every possible variable of it. It’s pretty amazing.
“Opta enhances our match analysis by continually providing Inter with consistent data and a prompt service for opponents and our own squad,” stated Dave McDonough, a Technical Analyst at FC Internazionale Milano, in a testimonial on Opta’s Web site. “Their wealth of data also enables them to respond quickly to our specific requests for analysis projects.”
More attuned Major League Soccer fans may have noticed that Opta has arrived in the US. Beginning with the 2011 MLS season, Opta began informing the league and numerous broadcasters and journalists as it started tracking the league – along with the US National Team and other Soccer United Marketing properties.
Opta had to ramp up on the league rather quickly. They use practice matches to train their staff on their proprietary software and then provide feedback on the results. The key is for them to achieve uniformity and consistency with the rest of the Opta analysts, as that ensures the data is uniform and comparable across all teams and leagues, regardless of who has tracked it.
Once trackers are generating results consistent with the rest of the analysts, they are assigned a few teams to learn and follow. For example, there is an analyst who specializes in the New York Red Bulls games and typically covers all of their games. This makes it easier for the individual to identify players on the given team, improving the accuracy of their event tracking.
Opta tackles each match with a four-person team. This includes one analyst assigned to each team, plus one to serve as a back-up and check their recording of events in progress. But it’s the fourth person who has the best job. They are on-site, watching the game in the stadium, in case anything should go wrong with the official broadcast feed – or not be caught on camera. Yes, that’s the job I want.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. In addition to understanding the game and knowing the players, analysts have to be computer savvy and quick – really quick. They can easily have to record as many as 20 events per minute. Fortunately, to ensure accuracy, analysts will review the game again after tracking it and make any changes necessary before logging the “official” version.
Impact on MLS
According to James Dennis, CEO of Opta USA, their analysis was a revelation for MLS officials from the first touch. He recounted an experience during the season’s opening match between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders. A number of MLS VIPs had gathered in the MLS Digital office in midtown Manhattan, where Opta has set up its 16-person US operation, to watch the game on a bank of TV monitors blanketing the wall.
During the game, someone remarked that Landon Donovan was being consistently fouled, as if the Sounders had been targeting him. Others agreed. But Opta analysis were able to prove, on the spot, that Donovan wasn’t being fouled more than other plays on the field.
In fact, they were able to tell the execs who was fouled, where, and when. They could even tell you how often Donovan was fouled between the penalty area and the left touchline in the opponent’s half of the field during away matches this season. And what became of the resulting free kicks. That kind of information can be quite powerful, whether you are trying to prepare your team’s defense against Donovan, looking to improve officiating, or set the odds of him being fouled there.
Some MLS clubs have been quick to embrace the value of Opta’s information. The Red Bulls were the first to acquire their own team analyst to grind the data for them. San Jose eventually followed in their footsteps.
MLS Digital has used it to create the Chalkboard feature online (if you have never used this, go play with it…now). And there are more plans to creatively use this data next season, including changes to the MLS site and possibly even something with in-stadium screens.
“Opta provides MLS with cutting edge statistics that allow us to provide our fans unique access into the sport of soccer, noted Chris Schlosser, General Manager of MLS Digital, in another Opta testimonial. “Furthermore, Opta have been great partners working collaboratively with the League to develop new statistics products while meeting our technical, editorial and tactical needs.”
Bringing Stats to Life
Opta has a 35-person editorial team that publishes trends reports and other packaged information of interest to sports leagues, clubs, journalist, oddsmakers, and fans. But they don’t just generate news with this information, they also respond to customer queries and needs.
Clubs use this type of data, and specific reports, to assess the performance of their own teams. What are the team’s strengths and weaknesses in various formations, or against various formations? How do individual players perform in various positions and formations, and against certain types of opponents? Opta’s vast database of statistics – tracking back to 1996 – makes it possible to answer these questions with a reasonable degree of certainty.
Clubs can also use Opta data to prepare for matches, analyzing their opponent’s performance. Inter Milan, for example, could tell Maicon how often Gareth Bale sprints down the flank as opposed to cutting inside. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier for Maicon to catch him, but he can go into the match knowing what the percentages are – what Bale tends to do when he gets the ball in specific areas of the field. That’s very powerful information, and a significant competitive advantage.
The Opta information can also help with recruiting. Looking at the data, a manager can see that his side rarely retains possession on the left flank in their opponent’s half. That, along with other related data, might lead them to pursue a new left midfielder. And they can even use Opta’s data on left midfielders in the top leagues around the world to determine which one is best suited to give them the performance attributes they seek.
Similarly, broadcasters use Opta information to provide more intelligent commentary about the game. Savvy viewers may have noticed that Fox Soccer’s Eoin O’Callaghan has taken to crediting Opta for some of the information he shares during the Fox Soccer Report.
But my favorite Opta package might be the booklets produced for on-air commentators prior to a given match. For example, when the US faced Slovenia in a friendly earlier this week, Ian Darke and John Harkes likely received customized Opta reports on both teams – as well as the match in general – long before kick-off. Opta can even provide them with real-time updates during the match, along with a chat feature that enables them to ask for specific information and dig further into the details provided to intelligently enhance their commentary. And the in-studio commentators – Taylor Twellman, Alexi Lalas, and Steve McManaman - also likely received their own customized reports before the game, as well as updated information on the game prior to the half-time break and post-match review.
The Castrol Index
My September article on the Castrol Index is what sparked my interest in Opta, as they supply the data that makes the Castrol Index possible. I have always been interested in how commentators get the facts that they cite during games and analysis. Interestingly, one of the few things that Opta doesn’t track is how much ground an individual player covers in a given game. Apparently that is done using sophisticated tracking software more commonly used to study crowd movements and other flows of large bodies of people. Opta is more concerned with events that directly impact the game (both Berbatov and Bendtner are notorious for their lack of movement during a game, for example, but one certainly has demonstrated a greater potential impact on results than the other).
Data tracked by Opta was what earned San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski the Castrol MLS Index Player of the Year Award for 2011. You can argue this and that about which MLS player made the greatest contribution this season, but – based on statistical analysis - it was the wonderous Wondo who delivered the most consistent performance based on the set criteria. He was tied with DeRosario for the number of goals scored, and even trailed him on assists, but he scored more goals from open play and had a better passing record.
This is particularly significant because we often think we know which players make the greatest contribution towards the outcome of games. But statistics, assuming we can all agree on what factors have the greatest impact on the outcome of games, paint a clearer picture for us. And this is important not only for analysis and awards, but also in the way we teach the game – helping young players better understand exactly what it takes to get the ball up the field and into the goal.
So when you are tuning in to the 2011 MLS Cup on Sunday, Nov. 20, keep the folks at Opta in mind when you listen to the commentators. And think about them while watching the game. The action may be out in LA, but there will be a small team in New York City logging every event that happens on the field. Their work will have made the pre-game commentary more informed, along with the play-by-play coverage. And the stats cited at halftime and after the match will all be based on information provided by the wizards of Opta. Heck, thanks to the good folks at Castrol, they can even tell you – based on this season’s statistics – who’s more likely to win…and why.