Opta HQ in London

How Opta altered the Premier League, and soccer, forever

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The first in a two-part series on Opta, a company that collects, packages, analyzes and distributes live data for the Premier League.

Hanging in the sky high above Central London in the afternoon sun, Opta’s headquarters offer a glorious panoramic view over England’s capital city.

It’s fitting that the company working to transform England’s national sport is overlooking the sprawling heart of the UK around the clock, above the bustling chaos below to crunch the numbers that are making people view the world’s game in a completely different manner.

This season, for the first-time ever, Opta are the Premier League’s official data provider. Over time, the English company has helped transform the way in which people analyze, objectify and discuss the beautiful game and other sports. But their work in soccer is only just beginning. According to some of their top analysts, they’ve merely scratched the surface.

As we delve into the world of soccer stats, and how they are remodeling the game many thought couldn’t be ‘Americanized,’ you’ll realize Opta is leading the charge. First in the UK, and in Part II we will see how they’ve had a huge impact on US Soccer in MLS.

A new beginning is on the horizon this season for Opta, after both their acquisition by Perform in July and new Premier League deal (which sees them provide live stats for NBC Sports), the only way is up.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Given their vast popularity around the globe today, it’s hard to believe Opta has only been in operation for 17 years. When they began in 1996, they focused on one league: the Premier League. Providing basic ‘manager reports’, they helped clubs begin to think about the power of analytics.

But none of their analysis was completed live. PL games from the weekend used to arrive early Monday morning: cue the pain staking labor-intensive analysis of six hours per game. Now, with their new high-tech computer systems it can be collected live, with up to five analysts working on each game. For fans more familiar with US sport, think of Opta as Stats Inc’s British equivalent.

The work of both companies is pretty nifty.

Rob Bateman, Opta’s Content Director, known around the office as the ‘Opta Don,’ explains how it all began at Opta and evolved back in the mid-90s.

“I joined in 1998,” Bateman said, looking towards the ceiling nostalgically as he recalled Opta’s early beginnings. “There was a cricket rating system used in the 70s and 80s and a few of the directors broke away from that company and formed Opta consultants and they were all big Rugby fans, so they thought it would be good to use it in Rugby Union. But the Premier League had just been formed and football was booming.”

And so, from a group of accountants who wanted to spread a concept used in cricket to rugby union, the leading soccer data company in the globe was born. Weird, huh?

RISE OF ACCEPTANCE

Despite their current status at the top of soccer statistics, Opta has had to overcome plenty of dismissive evaluations from soccer’s older-generation.

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Media outlets, betting companies and pro clubs make up the majority of Opta’s clients.

Slowly but surely, they’ve turned the screw.

Now, they pump out plenty of editorial content to massive media outlets. But when they began, editors on Fleet Street didn’t want to know. Opta were laughed out of meetings with newspapers after suggesting people wanted more stats in soccer.

The answer they always received… ‘stop Americanizing the game.’

Undeterred, Bateman and Opta kept burrowing on and realized that small bite-sized stats were the way to go.

“We changed the tact a little bit,” Bateman said. “We condensed them into what we now call Opta facts, which sum things up for normal football fans. For Opta to succeed we need to go beyond pumping out data. It has changed quite a bit in the last 17 years.”

When Opta arrived on the scene they developed the Opta Index, a rating system that ranked players across 70 categories to determine who the best in each position was. People began to ask… ‘How did you work that out?’ It got the average soccer fan in England thinking about stats and numbers soccer.

Now they were on to something.

Today the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga all have centralized contracts with Opta. That’s three of the world’s biggest leagues relying on Opta’s live data. The OptaJoe Twitter handle, which Bateman, Matt Furniss and their UK editorial team are the brains behind, has over 444,000 followers on Twitter and feeds out live stats in tiny chunks, causing great debate amongst the Twitterati. And Opta’s live stats have even made it into NBC Sports’ soccer studio, as analysts Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe use the fancy info to help break things down for viewers of NBC’s Premier League coverage. Between you and me, the Opta guys are very impressed with NBC’s use of their stats. Lovely stuff.

Currently, the company has 16 different Twitter handles in multiple languages and the growth of media has kept Opta busier than ever. As of 2013, Opta have nine offices across the globe in London, Sydney, Bassano, Milan, Madrid, Paris, Munich, New York and now Montevideo.

MATCHDAY ANALYSIS

My focus was on the HQ in London, and in every organization there are unsung heroes who keep the cogs churning while multimillion dollar deals are signed. Hats off to you, Opta Analysts.

Without the live data collection happening, Opta wouldn’t be around. Known as ‘Ops,’ these guys are young soccer ‘nerds’ that analyze copious amounts of games, have impeccable hand-eye co-ordination and come from the ‘gamer’ generation.

I met a former Op, Andrew Barafutti, who showed me how a typical game is collected by Opta. My word, I’ve never seen a mouse used so ferociously in such a short space time, as Barafutti carried out his duties whilst chatting. This seems like a long way from the six or seven hours of hand-written analysis in Opta’s early days.

“On average you can get to 800 or 900 events, per team,” Barrafutti said nonchalantly. “It’s intense for the whole game, especially if you’re covering teams like Barcelona… you’re always putting in passes.”

I was worried about the general welfare of these Ops after a busy day of soccer. Barrafutti laid down the usual demands.

“They only have two or three games in one day, because it fries your brain,” he laughed. “We need people with a combination of football knowledge and that are quick enough to actually put all the events in. So normally, anyone over the age of 30 can’t pick it up. Gamers are good.”

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Collecting data on these guys isn’t as easy as you might think…

At this point in my trip to Opta’s HQ, I’m sitting in the hub of live collection. Computers screens are packed into four rows of desks, and after seeing this operation carried out in Opta’s offices in New York, it’s quite a sight to see the Ops in full flow.

“There are three analysts per game, one acts as a checker to make sure the other two are inputting the correct information,” Barrafutti explains. “And they can shout to him if they want something double checked. I did a game a few years ago, with Lars and Sven Bender, twins, both playing central midfield together… checker was doing a lot of work that game.”

Opta’s live matchday analysis really sets them apart from competitors, and every season clubs get together to requests new categories that Ops can enter, hence why the ‘pull back’ and ‘defending corners’ categories are now included.

Furniss, Senior UK football editor, brought me in a cup of tea (in an Opta mug with stats from OptaJoe emblazoned on the mug) during my Opta Ops lesson, and chimed in about how the process is carried out to pick the Ops.

“Every summer, we get a couple of hundred applicants for Opta Opts, maybe two or three get through,” Furniss said. “It’s that hard to do, I couldn’t do it. The same person will do the same team throughout the season to pick up on player traits and become familiar with each player.”

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This represents the average amount of time, per possession, that each PL team has the ball and allows their opponents the ball. Notice Southampton’s high-pressure approach.

SECRETIVE CLUBS GETTING THE HANG OF IT, FAST

Speaking of clubs, so far, we’ve seen how Opta collects raw data and works with media outlets… but here is the biggest, and perhaps most interesting area of growth in their client base; the professional clubs wanted in.

Hence the birth of OptaPro.

John Coulson, Opta’s head of professional football services, is a quiet and reserved type of character who has overseen the creation of OptaPro in the last 18-months. He spent his formative years working as an analyst for both Middlesbrough and Norwich City and currently liaises with 14 Premier League teams, six Championship sides and over 100 clubs worldwide.

Coulson explains that the ‘Performance Analyst’ began in the early 2000s, as Premier League clubs realized the potential gains of having a fully-fledged analytics team.

“If you go back to the late 90s only three of four clubs were using data to analyze,” Coulson said, raising his eyebrows as we both know that’s not the case today. “And software companies would send stuff [pointing to OptaPro’s expensive software] to football coaches who don’t know how to use a mouse. At most Premier League clubs now you probably have a team of 10-12 analysts. It has exploded very quickly.”

But what do clubs look for when using this data? Numerical values for each position. E.g. a holding midfielder must make x number of forward passes, interceptions per game. Stats are now replacing traditional positions.

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Opta have analyzed every single World Cup game since 1966, so now you can analyze Pele vs. Maradona… for real.

However, the information Opta provides is often frowned upon by many of the older generation of coaches and scouts.

“Scouts are terrified that we’re trying to replace them,” Coulson said. “We’re not. We have got all this data on a player in the last five or six years and we can compare him against any other player in any league. So it helps with scouting across the globe.”

Yet the secretive nature in which many Premier League clubs are operating is intriguing. For this piece, PL teams didn’t want to be interviewed or reveal the way they use data analysis, I get that.

But I wonder… does that suggest something is working pretty well in their analytical approach?

“The problem we have is that every club wants to remain anonymous,” Coulson said. “They want to retain an edge, and most of them would rather us not know what they’re doing. There are lots of clubs that are doing things badly, and the clubs that do things well, they have an edge. Every year there are two or three more PL teams taking a more active approach to this.”

Rumor has it that Liverpool and Manchester United are building huge stores of data in special labs. Given Liverpool’s attempt at recreating ‘Moneyball’ with Damien Comolli at the helm and signing the likes of Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll… they’re obviously trying new things all the time.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS

After almost having my brain fried with information — I still worry about those young Ops — I posed a wide-ranging and slightly intrusive question to finish with.

‘What next for Opta? What’s the next big thing in soccer analytics?’

“I think one of the plans is to see people’s careers,” Bateman said, with Furniss nodding in agreement. “You can get Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and see where they were at the age of 19, 23 and 30, and map out other players with similar careers and say ‘these two players are very similar to Gerrard’… but they’re playing for Cardiff and Scunthorpe. So let’s pick them out. They’re cheap.”

It seems as though the way in which Premier League teams, hell, any team under Opta’s umbrella, can use this data best, is to tie it in with player recruitment and reduce the numbers of risks they’re taking when signing a player. Opta provides the due diligence for clubs to spend money wisely, does that mean the ‘Moneyball moment’ will arrive in soccer?

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One of the walls in Opta’s London HQ, which breaks down England’s 4-2 World Cup final win over Germany in 1966.

Certain clubs seems to have reached that point already. What will happen over the next five or six years excites me, just look at how far Opta have come in the last 17 years. There’s now a need for stats in soccer, they proved all the doubters wrong. Now, more than ever, stats can be the key to help stabilize soccer’s future development across the board.

Remember, Part II of my exclusive inside look at how Opta operates is coming out on Thursday, where we look at how Opta is playing a key role in Major League Soccer’s development.

Messi’s tax fraud case begins with player avoiding court

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 17:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on  during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at Camp Nou on April 17, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Lionel Messi’s tax trial began Tuesday with the player deciding not to appear in court for early proceedings.

Messi is facing a prison sentence of nearly two years on charges he failed to properly pay taxes for part of his earnings from Barcelona from 2007-09.

[ FOLLOW: All of PSTS’s Copa coverage ]

The Argentina playmaker is not obligated to appear in the Barcelona court until Thursday, when he is scheduled to testify before a judge. Sentencing is not expected until next week.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud for allegedly defrauding Spain’s tax office of 4.1 million euros ($4.5 million).

Because of the trial, Messi is missing Argentina’s preparation for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Saturday in the United States. He is expected to fly straight to the U.S. to join his teammates after the trial ends. Argentina debuts in the tournament on Monday against defending champion Chile.

Even if found guilty, it is highly unlikely that Messi or his father will face any jail time. They have denied wrongdoing.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

“Everything is good. Everybody is calm,” said Messi’s lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo, as he arrived at the Barcelona court on Tuesday.

The trial is centered on alleged unlawful activities of Messi’s father, but authorities said the player knew enough to also be named in the case. Officials said that although Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

In addition to each facing a prison sentence of 22 months and 15 days, Messi and his father could also be fined in the amount defrauded and ordered to pay all legal proceedings and the loss of any possible tax benefits for a year and a half.

Messi is just the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain’s tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.

[ MORE: Marcelo giving away UCL winners’ medal…on Facebook ]

Mascherano, Messi’s teammate with Argentina and Barcelona, earlier this year was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence for not paying nearly 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in taxes for 2011 and 2012. Brazil striker Neymar recently had to testify before a judge because of alleged irregularities involving his transfer to Barcelona. He and the club were accused of withholding the real amount of the transfer fee, in part to avoid paying the full amount of taxes.

Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts, known as the Panama Papers, although he was not charged for those allegations.

VIDEO: Bayern’s David Alaba scores brutal own goal for Austria

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David Alaba is going to want this one back…

While playing in a friendly for Austria, the Bayern Munich left-back scored a cringe-worthy own-goal that his teammates will surely never let him forget.

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With Austria leading Malta 2-0, goalkeeper Ramazan Ozcan played out of the back to Alaba. As pressure come from Malta’s strikers, Alaba turned and played a blind pass back to his keeper.

The only problem is, his keeper wasn’t there.

Ozcan did the right thing and moved outside of his goal to give Alaba support, only the defender never picked up his head to realize. Austria would hold on to win the match 2-1.

[ MORE: Klinsmann treating USMNT’s Copa opener vs. Colombia like a final ]

After winning their EURO qualification group with nine wins from ten matches, Austria has high hopes of making a run in the tournament. They will play in Group F with Portugal, Iceland, and Hungary.

Host nation France names superstar-filled EURO squad

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 29:  Paul Pogba of France in action during the International Friendly match between France and Russia held at Stade de France on March 29, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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France has high expectations heading into EURO 2016, as the host nation is currently the bookies’ favorite to lift the trophy on July 10.

With manager Didier Deschamps announcing his final 23-man roster on Tuesday, you can see why the French are excited to get the tournament underway.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s EURO coverage ]

This team is overflowing with talent at every position and will cause nightmare matchup problems for the opposition, while also feeding off of their home crowd.

Eleven players from the Premier League have made the French side, from Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who leads the team as captain with 72 caps, to Leicester’s midfield workhorse N'Golo Kante, who has just three appearances for Les Bleus. Manchester United’s Morgan Schneiderlin was a late inclusion as Lassana Diarra was forced to withdraw through injury just hours after being selected to the final squad.

[ MORE: Rashford, Sturridge headed to EURO 2016 with England ]

Lyon’s 22-year-old defender Samuel Umtiti makes the side despite never being capped with the senior team, replacing the injured Jeremy Mathieu. Adil Rami also makes the cut in place of Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, who is out with a thigh problem.

Final 23-man roster

Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Benoit Costil (Stade Rennais)

Defenders: Samuel Umtiti (Lyon), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Eliaquim Mangala (Manchester City), Adil Rami (Sevilla), Patrice Evra (Juventus), Bacary Sagna (Manchester City), Lucas Digne (Roma), Christophe Jallet (Lyon)

Midfielders: Paul Pogba (Juventus), Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint-Germain), Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United), N’Golo Kante (Leicester City), Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace), Moussa Sissoko (Newcastle United), Dimitri Payet (West Ham United)

Forwards: Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Anthony Martial (Manchester United), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Andre-Pierre Gignac (UANL Tigres)

Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas will miss Copa America through injury

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 28:  Keylor Navas of Real Madrid signals during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Real Madrid and Club Atletico de Madrid at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Keylor Navas will not play for Costa Rica in the upcoming Copa America tournament while nursing an achilles injury.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Copa coverage ]

Diagnosed with chronic Achilles tendinopathy, the Real Madrid goalkeeper has been bothered by discomfort throughout the season.

However, he did play the full 120 minutes in the Champions League final for last weekend, helping Real to a record 11th European title.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | B | C | D ]

The loss is a big one for Costa Rica, whose three goalkeepers now on the squad have a combined 34 caps for the national team. Navas alone has 66.

Navas tied the Champions League record with nine clean sheets in the competition this season, and has quietly been one of the best keepers in the world over the past few seasons. His absence could be beneficial for the United States though, who will face Costa Rica in Group A play.