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.

MLS Snapshot: Real Salt Lake 2-1 Houston Dynamo (video)

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando shouts during the second half of an MLS soccer match against the Seattle Sounders Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. Real Salt Lake won 2-0. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Real Salt Lake are tied (with the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas) for the top spot in the Western Conference and in the race for the Supporters’ Shield (with one and two fewer games played, respectively) following 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the bottom-of-the-league Houston Dynamo at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. Jordan Allen and Yura Movsisyan bagged the goals for RSL, not long after Miranda gave the visitors the game’s first lead nine minutes after halftime. The lasting image of Saturday’s game, as seems to have been the case on about 100 prior occasions, was the late heroics of goalkeeper Nick Rimando (below video).

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

15′ — Willis denies Burrito not once, but twice — Joe Willis just would not be beaten by Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez.

54′ — Miranda uses the deflection for the opener — Credit Jamison Olave for the deflection if you must, but failing to deal with the initial ball into the box, followed by Nick Rimando spillage were just as at fault.

62′ — Allen fires past Willis for the equalizer — Likewise, turning the ball over five yards outside your own penalty area is inadvisable. The pass (Justen Glad) and finish (Allen) were clinical.

70′ — Movsisyan turns home the near-post cross — Demar Phillips provided the pinpoint cross, and Movsisyan made no mistake on the finish for a 2-1 lead. This is pretty soccer.

80′ — Rimando’s (double-)Save of the Year candidate — Never retire, Nick . Never, ever, ever, please.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Nick Rimando

Goalscorers: Miranda (54′), Allen (62′), Movsisyan (70′)

MLS Snapshot: New England Revolution 2-2 Orlando City SC (video)

New England Revolution forward Diego Fagundez, right, congratulates forward Juan Agudelo (17) after he scored against Orlando City during the second half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. The Revolution won 3-0. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
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The game in 100 words (or less): The New England Revolution and Orlando City SC love a 2-2 draw with each other, don’t they? Two weeks after a 2-2 stalemate at the Citrus Bowl, the two sides split four more goals between them on Saturday at Gillette Stadium. Juan Agudelo came off the bench with the game tied 1-1, 70 minutes on the clock, and scored what the Revolution believed to be the winning goal, if not for Carlos Rivas’s 90th-minute equalizer. Le Nguyen bagged a pair of assists on the day, and it’s little surprise that just as he’s getting things going for the season, the Revs have picked up at least a point in five of their last six games. The draw moves the Revs (10 points) up two spots in the Eastern Conference, to seventh, while the Lions started the day in seventh and finish in fourth.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

7′ — Fagundez roofs it for the opener — Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez working a one-two inside your penalty area is the last thing you want to see if you’re an opposing goalkeeper. They did it to perfection here, and the Revs had an early lead.

20′ — Revs come up empty in the scramble of all scrambles — How in the world did the ball not find the back of the net here? Unbelievable.

30′ — Molino slots home at the back post for 1-1 — Molino is catching a bit of fire of late, with three goals in his last five games, after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Right place, right time on this one.

71′ — Agudelo slots home from a cross for 2-1 — Agudelo is finally on the board for 2016, about a month and a half later than you’d have hoped. When he’s on, he’s on and he makes it look so easy.

90′ — Rivas pokes it home in the face of goal — Cyle Larin is usually on the other end of crosses into the box, but the big Canadian showed a surprising combination of speed and chance-creating ability in setting Rivas up for the late equalizer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Lee Nguyen

Goalscorers: Fagundez (7′), Molino (30′), Agudelo (71′), Rivas (90′)

Worker dies after falling ill at Qatar World Cup stadium site

In this photo taken during a government organized media tour, workers use heavy machinery at the Al-Wakra Stadium being built for the 2022 World Cup, in Doha, Qatar, Monday, May 4, 2015. Qatar’s inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was “a mistake” the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the country’s top labor official said Monday, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) World Cup organizers say a worker has died after falling ill on the site of one of the stadiums being constructed for the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

[ MORE: The latest FIFA news ]

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said Saturday that 48-year-old Indian national Jaleshwar Prasad died after he “fell ill on-site around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.”

The statement says that Prasad, who was a steel worker employed on the Al Bayt Stadium project, “received first aid treatment until paramedics arrived. He was transferred to Al Khor Hospital but sadly passed away around 11:30 a.m. Al Khor Hospital reported the cause of death as cardiac arrest.”

It adds that “a full investigation is underway.”

[ MORE: FIFA panel to monitor labor conditions in Qatar ]

Qatar is often criticized by rights groups and trade unions for alleged abuses and deaths on a range of construction projects linked to the 2022 World Cup since it won hosting rights in 2010.

Qatar is relying heavily on construction workers from south Asia.

A FIFA-appointed human rights expert from Harvard University recently advised that tournaments should be moved from countries where abuses persisted.

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 2-2 Colorado Rapids (video)

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba celebrates his goal against the Colorado Rapids during first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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The game in 100 words (or less): Dropped points from a winning position are the ones that frustrate and come back to haunt managers more than anything. Twice on Saturday, the Montreal Impact conceded goals from a winning position and were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw with the suddenly rampant Colorado Rapids at Stade Saputo. Didieo Drogba scored another magnificent free kick (video below), but a bit of calamitous set-piece defending on the Rapids’ second goal ultimately meant two points dropped by Mauro Biello’s side, though their hold on the Eastern Conference’s top spot remains intact for one more day (third-place Toronto FC will go top of the East with a win on Sunday). The Rapids, meanwhile, are four games without a defeat and top of the Western Conference for the time being (fourth- and fifth-place LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake could claim the spot as their own with wins on Sunday and Saturday, respectively).

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four moments that mattered

9′ — Drogba’s latest FK beauty makes it 1-0 — If you haven’t loved watching Drogba destroy MLS since his arrival last August, you must be a Toronto FC fan. Or you hate fun, beautiful things, like this free kick.

47′ — Gashi finishes Williams’ cross for 1-1 — Mekeil Williams served the ball across the face of goal, and Gashi made no mistake on the finish, hammering it past Evan Bush to bring the visitors level.

50′ — Tissot hammers home from distance to restore the lead — As they say, this ball stayed hit. Also, it had eyes.

73′ — Burling smashes home from close range — Gashi’s free kick caused all kinds of problems for the Impact defense, leaving Bush unsure of whether to come out and attack the ball or stay on his line. Axel Sjoberg kept the play alive, playing the ball across the face of goal, and Bobby Burling found himself on the right side of his marker.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Shklezen Gashi

Goalscorers: Drogba (9′), Gashi (47′), Tissot (50′), Burling (73′)