Pick a sport, any sport, take ideas from it

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Mark Thompson

Dec 23 2021

7 mins read

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We're into the festive period. Two years ago, I wrote the silliest things you could do with advanced football tech. If you weren't around back then I recommend it for a good mix of fun and insight into what kinds of data is around.

That's exactly what we're going to do again this year.

The subject line of this newsletter tells you what we're gonna do. From a variety of sports, I'm going to draw out what I reckon football analytics could learn. Some may be more light-hearted than others. Each sport's also going to have a 'novice disclaimer warning', where 5/5 means I barely know the sport exists, let alone its analytics landscape.

Anyway, let's go. If you celebrate, have a great Christmas.


NBA/basketball

Novice disclaimer warning: 3/5

Basketball is probably the primary sport that football analytics currently takes inspiration from. They're conceptually similar sports in that a team of players fights over possession of a ball and tries to score it in a goal at the other end of the field. Zonal and individual defence works in similar ways, and the pace seems more akin to football than ice hockey is. Oh, and crucially, through the NBA it's a rich sport with an analytics heritage (unlike field hockey).

Basketball made use of tracking data in big ways before football did, and if you go back to papers from Sloan analytics conference from, at a guess, 2013, you might still find basketball stuff that's ahead of the game in football. How does attacker movement attract defenders? How can repeated patterns be identified? And, lest I forget my friends at [redacted], how can we insert picks and screens into as many facets of the game as possible? (Has anyone tried running one of these on refs to block their view on potential borderline fouls?)

The good stuff to be mined from basketball is probably already being mined to be honest, so I'll try and pick something sideways here. Star players seem really good at getting shots in tight situations, with trademark step-backs and stuff to give them an extra metre's room to shoot. They presumable practice this all the time. Is this something applicable to forwards?

NFL/American football

Novice disclaimer warning: 3/5

There's probably a smart answer to this based on in-depth knowledge of current NFL analytics. This knowledge is not something I currently possess.

However. The dynamic of wide receivers vs cornerbacks or safeties seems an interesting one to look into, from the point of view of centre-backs vs attackers on long-ball counters. Maybe there could be something to learn from the defender's point of view about how to best hedge your bets on where a pass is going.

Tennis

Novice disclaimer warning: 1/5

An individual sport, played with racquets and a net between competitors: tennis could hardly be more different to football. But, once you get settled into a rally, tennis is just a game of angles and rhythm.

There are a lot of difficult-to-appreciate, difficult-to-quantify skills in football, but one of the most-difficult, I think, is tempo control. At least with most other skills you can see their direct effect. Anticipation might result in something like a higher rate of interceptions or shots from cut-backs. Space perception might be able to be quantified with pitch control models. But tempo?

The impact of tempo can be way down the line of a move. A proper grasp of tempo could help set the structure for an attack, or firm up a team to stop them losing control of things. But that, to my knowledge or imagination, isn't going to directly show up in a possession value model.

Tempo, though, is more of a focus in tennis than football. That sport might make more headway. And if they do, football can steal those insights.

(Also: the effects of equal prize money in helping to develop one of the few sports where men and women are held in equal stardom)


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Golf

Novice disclaimer warning: 4/5

Pitch maintenance.

Netball

Novice disclaimer warning: 4/5

Netball's a fascinating sport in that movement is inherent to it but the player in possession is (apart from one pivoting step) banned from it. From the little I know the sport can be fluid, but, because of its rules, has a sort of hampered motion baked into it.

If no passing options are immediately open to the ball-holder, I imagine that it can be pretty easy for things to get static. Think of a throw-in in football and how, after some initial movement, the taker will either be visibly searching for options or chuck it long in hope. Netball is like a series of 360-degree throw-ins.

While throw-in coaching is beginning to be adopted in football, there's probably some movement schemes that could be inspired by watching some netball. But I also reckon that open-play might get some inspiration too.

Formula One

Novice disclaimer warning: 3/5

If my 'novice disclaimer warning' was solely about the sport, it'd be more of a 2/5, but I simply know nothing about how Formula One teams use their data. However, I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say they have some incredible data warehousing infrastructure work going on. You can't do good data work if the warehouse is made out of the digital equivalent of cardboard.

I'm also intrigued about how drivers deliver feedback to their team, and the interaction between them and their engineers. Could there be a future where players relay something to their bench in a break of play, an analyst checks some data, and insights can be passed to coaches and back to players?

(This actually goes back to what I said about Julian Nagelsmann's earpiece idea)

That idea isn't necessarily one about a use of analytics, but more about the relationships between parties. Drivers are both the competitors, but also seem to be a kind of qualitative data source, sitting alongside (literally) all of the sensors in the cars. They're presumably educated, during their formative careers, in the ways that they can give useful information back to engineers. Maybe football players can be used in the same way.

Cycling

Novice disclaimer warning: 3/5

[redacted for legal reasons]

Athletics

Novice disclaimer warning: 4/5

[redacted for legal re-], nahhh, just kidding.

The thing with athletics (and cycling to a degree) is that it's about pure body mechanics. Strategy too, yes, but no formations, no space creation as such.

The field of kinematics is so foreign to me that I'm not 100% sure that's the right term, but there's got to be an absolute wealth of information and techniques that could be ported over from athletics to football.

For more on this, read this piece on Danny Ings from 2019 by Carl Anka at The Athletic.



Aussie rules football

Novice disclaimer warning: 5/5

Aussie rules football is the only sport I've seen that looks more like chaos than the association (soccer) form of the game. There's surely got to be some collaboration and exchange of ideas possible around 'winning the midfield' and securing possession of second balls/loose balls.

(Field) hockey

Novice disclaimer warning: 4/5

Maybe the most similar sport to football? Same number of players, similar sized pitch, possession of the ball is similarly contestable. Probably means they have the same problems, but if there's any great insights there, pinch 'em.

Baseball

Novice disclaimer warning: 4/5

Look, Billy Beane already has a long-ish history with football. Let's leave baseball's contribution at the phrase 'Moneyball' and be sceptical of anything else they give us.

For a piece on the true meaning of 'Moneyball' (the book), I've got one right here.

Rugby (union)

Novice disclaimer warning: 3/5

Rugby union, to oversimplify, is about two things: booting the ball long, and passing sideways until you either wear the opponent down or make an exciting breakthrough. Definitely things to be learned there.

Rugby (league)

Novice disclaimer warning: 4/5

Being dismissive of rugby union.

Cricket

Novice disclaimer warning: 2/5

Pitch maintenance.


Thanks for reading. Do let me know whether any of this is being put into practice already! Or (fingers crossed this isn't the case) if anything in here is flat-out wrong.

There are also a bunch of other sports I didn't even get to mentioning. Email in or find me on Twitter (here or here) and let me know what I might have missed!

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