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.

Heath, Smith sidelined with injuries for USWNT

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CHICAGO (AP) Forward Tobin Heath and defender Taylor Smith are sidelined with injuries that will keep them out of the U.S. women’s national team training camp in Louisiana ahead of two upcoming matches against South Korea.

Heath is nursing an ankle injury and Smith her shoulder. Both women were hurt in the NWSL championship match last Saturday, the U.S. Soccer Federation said Monday.

The Americans play Thursday at New Orleans and Sunday in Cary, North Carolina.

Neither player will be replaced on the roster and coach Jill Ellis will have 18 players dressed for each game.

Report: Sam Allardyce, Laurent Blanc want to be next USMNT boss

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Yep, this is true.

Sam Allardyce has thrown his hat into the ring with the U.S. national team searching for a new manager, and so has former Paris Saint-Germain and France boss Laurent Blanc.

[ MORE: Latest USMNT news ]

According to ESPN, sources close to Allardyce say he is up for the USMNT challenge which would “enable him to impose a long-term strategy and secure a legacy in a nation regarded as a growing force.”

A report from France Football states that Blanc is also interested in replacing Bruce Arena, who resigned last week following the USA’s shock defeat at Trinidad and Tobago which saw them miss the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Hmmm. After Jurgen Klinsmann’s time in charge of the USMNT, are the days of big name foreign managers over?

These are two relatively high-profile names with experience of managing national teams (in Allardyce’s case one game with England before The Telegraph sting scandal) but neither have experience of Major League Soccer or the unique challenges of CONCACAF.

Allardyce often talks fondly about his year spent with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL during his playing days and has used many techniques he picked up from the U.S. sporting realm in his lengthy coaching career which has spanned Premier League clubs Bolton, Newcastle, Blackburn, West Ham United, Sunderland and Crystal Palace.

Yet the scandal which cut his ill-fated time in charge of England short will likely raise eyebrows if he is to be considered for the U.S. job and his direct style of play is not to the taste of many purists out there.

When it comes to Blanc, his ultra-defensive style of play may turn off those in charge of U.S. Soccer too but there’s no doubting his record with a title win at Bordeaux in 2009 before he took France to the last eight of EURO 2012, and then led PSG to three-straight French titles from 2012-13, is impressive.

The fact that these two managers have reportedly thrown their hats into the ring suggests just how highly the job is regarded worldwide, even if U.S. Soccer fans believe the program is currently at an all-time low after the embarrassment of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

In his conference call with reporters last week U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) president Sunil Gulati refused to rule out anybody for the USMNT job, stating that no specific profile (American, non-American coaches etc.) is preferred in their search for a new manager.

Many U.S. fans are hoping for a domestic manager to take charge with Peter Vermes, Ben Olsen and Jesse Marsch all mentioned with their vast knowledge of the U.S. national team and MLS setup.

Let’s wait and see what happens but after the Klinsmann era, one would suggest that USSF would be slightly hesitant to go overseas in their search for a new U.S. national team manager.

Champions League score predictions – Week 3

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We are entering the meaty part of the UEFA Champions League group stage with double headers coming up in the next two matchdays.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

The five Premier League teams in the UCL are so far unbeaten with Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham all winning both of their opening two group games. Liverpool has two draw so far but Jurgen Klopp‘s men are still looking likely to make the knockout stage.

Below is a look at the 16 matches across the UCL on Tuesday and Wednesday as we make our score predictions for each game.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

Don’t be afraid to let us know your score picks in the comments section below.


Tuesday’s UCL games

Group E
Spartak Moscow 1-2 Sevilla
Maribor 1-3 Liverpool

Group F
Man City 2-0 Napoli
Feyenoord 1-3 Shakthar Donetsk

Group G
RB Leipzig 2-0 FC Porto
Monaco 2-1 Besiktas

Group H
APOEL 1-3 Borussia Dortmund
Real Madrid 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur

Wednesday’s UCL games

Group A
Benfica 1-2 Manchester United
CSKA Moscow 1-2 Basel

Group B
Anderlecht 1-4 Paris Saint-Germain
Bayern Munich 2-2 Celtic

Group C
Chelsea 1-1 Roma
Qarabag 1-3 Atletico Madrid

Group D
Barcelona 3-1 Olympiacos
Juventus 2-1 Sporting Lisbon

Leicester City fire manager Craig Shakespeare

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Leicester City have pulled the trigger much early than many expected.

Official confirmation arrived on Tuesday that Craig Shakespeare, who only took charge permanently of the Foxes over the summer, had been fired after just eight games of the 2017-18 Premier League season.

Claudio Ranieri‘s former assistant coach has been fired by the ruthless Leicester owners with the Foxes winning just one of their opening eight Premier League games of the season.

In an official statement on the club website, here’s what Leicester had to say as Michael Appleton has been placed in interim charge for their trip to Swansea this Saturday.

Leicester City Vice Chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said: “Craig has been a great servant to Leicester City – during his spells as an Assistant Manager and since taking over as Manager in challenging circumstances in February. His dedication to the Club and to his work has been absolute and the contribution he made to the most successful period in Leicester City history is considerable.

“However, our early promise under Craig’s management has not been consistently evident in the months since and the Board feels that, regrettably, a change is necessary to keep the Club moving forward – consistent with the long-term expectations of our supporters, Board and owners.

“Craig is and will remain a very popular, respected figure at Leicester City and will be welcome back at King Power Stadium in future, both professionally and as a friend of the Club.”

The Foxes sat third from bottom and only on six points. The last three times Leicester have gained six points or less in their opening eight games of a PL season they have been relegated.

Stats like that would have surely alarmed their Thai owners.

The last time Leicester went six PL games without a win Ranieri was fired but this is still a shock considering  Shakespeare, 53, had been in charge for only four months.

Shakespeare was in interim charge at the end of last season after Ranieri was fired in February and led Leicester to seven wins from their final 13 games which saved the then reigning champs from relegation.

However, he never seemed like the long-term man to lead the shock 2015-16 PL champions back to the upper echelons of the Premier League and he is now on his way out of the King Power Stadium.