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.

FA bans Leeds owner Massimo Cellino 18 months

LEEDS, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Massimo Cellino President and Director of Leeds United during the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Fulham at Elland Road on December 13, 2014 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)
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Leeds United may be making a push to return to the Premier League, but they’ll have to do so without their owner.

Massimo Cellino, who took over Leeds in February of 2014, has been banned for 18 months by the English FA for his involvement in the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham later that summer. He was also fined $315,000 and required to complete a course outlining the duties and restrictions for owners in the English league.

During McCormack’s sale, a significant payment was apparently paid to unlicensed agent Barry Hughes, facilitated by McCormack’s official licensed agent Derek Day, who was also banned for 18 months, although 11 of those are suspended, leaving him sidelined for seven months should no other infractions arise.

This likely will only serve to accelerate the current potential sale of Leeds to Andrea Radrizzani, with both sides having publicly acknowledged discussions are ongoing.

Leeds is currently in fourth in the Championship table, having won five of their last six matches. McCormack, meanwhile, scoring a whopping 42 goals in 100 appearances over two years before making a big-money move to Aston Villa this past summer, where he has slumped at Villa Park, owning just two goals over 13 Championship appearances this season and losing his place in the team. To be fair, he struggled in his early days at Fulham as well, scoring just twice in his first 15 matches before exploding in his second season at Craven Cottage with 21 league goals.

Europa League roundup: Manchester United through, Southampton bounced

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08:  Josh Sims of Southampton is chased by Shir Tzedek of Hapoel Be'er Sheva during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and Hapoel Be'er-Sheva FC at St Mary's Stadium on December 8, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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The Europa League group stage finished up Thursday and a pair of Premier League teams are through, along with other big-name clubs.

Manchester United secured its spot in the knockout stage by beating Ukranian side Zorya 2-0 on goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Paul Pogba looked incisive as well, feeding Zlatan on the second goal. They finish second in Group A after Fenerbahce beat Feyenoord on a wonderful overhead kick from bike specialist Moussa Sow, giving the Turkish club the group’s top spot.

Southampton, however, suffered a double blow as they needed a win or a 0-0 draw against Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva, but were dumped from the competition with a wild 1-1 draw after Maor Bar Buzaglo scored with 11 minutes remaining to send the Israeli club through. In addition, the Saints may have lost striker Charlie Austin for some time after he went down with what looked to be a dislocated shoulder, as trainers appeared to pop it back in as Austin lay on the pitch, before he came off in clear pain.

[ RECAP: Southampton dumped out of Europa League with draw ]

Group B finished with a tight margin. Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia defeated bigger brothers Olympiacos 2-0 with one early and one late. That sent Apoel clean through at the top of the club, while the Greeks took second. Olympiacos finished level with Young Boys on eight points, but the Greek club went through thanks to a win and a draw against their Swiss groupmates.

Group C ended even tighter as St. Etienne completed a stunning comeback, down 2-0 in the first half on the road at Anderlecht before coming from behind to win 3-2 with all three goals coming in a 12-minute span in the second half. That gave the French side the group win with 12 points, while the Belgians came in second with 11. FC Mainz won 2-0 over Qabala but finished third with nine points.

AZ Alkmaar’s wire to wire 3-2 win over Group D winners Zenit St. Petersburg saw them advance despite Maccabi Tel Aviv’s victory, while Celta Vigo overtook Standard Liege to move on through Group G thanks to a 2-0 win over Panathanaikos. The Spaniards came into the day tied with Standard Liege on points, and the three points saw them through, while the Belgians were bounced after managing just a draw against group leaders Ajax.

Group F is the only question mark, as Genk and Sassuolo were meant to play, but the match was postponed due to signifncant fog cutting sight to essentially nothing at Mapei Stadium in Italy. Athletic Bilbao, meanwhile, sits atop the group, but a 1-1 draw Thursday with Rapid Wien means Genk is still able to take over the top spot from the Spaniards with a draw or win.

Red Bull Salzburg caught FC Krasnodar on points thanks to a win over group leaders Schalke plus a Krasnodar loss to Nice, but it wasn’t enough thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker, so Schalke and Krasnodar move through in Group I.

Finally, Villarreal secured a place in the knockout stages thanks to a late 2-1 win over 10-man Steaua Bucharesti. Manu Trigueros scored the winner in the 88th minute, pushing them clean into second behind Turkish club Osmanlispor who won the group with a 2-0 win over FC Zurich thanks to two late goals.

SCORELINES

Zorya 0-2 Manchester United
Southampton 1-1 Hapoel Be’er Sheva
Feyenoord 0-1 Fenerbahce
Astra Giurgiu 0-0 Roma
AZ Alkmaar 3-2 Zenit St. Petersburg
Standard Liege 1-1 Ajax
Inter Milan 2-1 Sparta Prague
Red Bull Salzburg 2-0 Schalke
Villareal 2-1 Steaua Bucharesti
Qarabag 1-2 Fiorentina
Sporting Braga 2-4 Shakhtar Donetsk
Anderlecht 2-3 Saint Etienne
Mainz 2-0 Gabala
Panathinaikos 0-2 Celta Vigo
Viktoria Plzen 3-2 Austria Wien
Konyaspor 0-1 Gent
PAOK 2-0 Liberec
Apoel Nicosia 2-0 Olympiacos
Young Boys 3-0 Astana
Osmanlispor 2-0 FC Zurich
Nice 2-1 Krasnodar
Sassuolo vs. Genk (postponed until Friday)

The draw for the Round of 32 will take place on Monday, December 12th.

ROUND OF 32:

Group winners: Fenerbahce, Apoel Nicosia, St. Etienne, Zenit St. Petersburg, Roma, Athletic Bilbao/Genk, Ajax, Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke, Fiorentina, Sparta Prague, Osmanlispor.

Runners Up: Manchester United, Olympiacos, Anderlecht, Anderlecht, Astra Giurgiu, Athletic Bilbao/Genk, Celta Vigo, KAA Gent, Krasnodar, PAOK, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Villareal.

Dropping down from Champions League: Ludogorets, Besiktas, Borussia Monchengladbach, FC Rostov, Tottenham Hotspur, Legia Warsaw, FC Copenhagen, Lyon.

Southampton 1-1 Hapoel Be’er Sheva: Saints dumped out of Europe

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 08:  Virgil van Dijk of Southampton outjumps goalkeeper David Goresh of Hapoel Be'er Sheva during the UEFA Europa League Group K match between Southampton FC and Hapoel Be'er-Sheva FC at St Mary's Stadium on December 8, 2016 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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SOUTHAMPTON — In their final Group K game, all Southampton needed was a win or a 0-0 draw to advance to the UEFA Europa League knockout stage.

[ MORE: Europa League standings

They got neither as Maor Buzaglo’s goal 12 minutes from time put Be’er Sheva 1-0 up and despite Virgil can Dijk’s stoppage time equalizer Saints were dumped out of Europe.

Claude Puel‘s side were distraught at the final whistle as they had not qualified from Group K on virtue of the total number of away goals scored between the teams in question.

The European dream was over for the Saints, as Maya Yoshida put a header just wide in the 93rd minute which would’ve sent them through. Instead, the Saints go marching out of Europe.

[ MORE: Austin suffers bad injury ] 

Early on Saints won a corner on the left and a looping ball was met by Charlie Austin but his tame header was straight at David Goresh in Be’er Sheva’s goal. Be’er Sheva had a good chance early on as Mihaly Korhut got the better of Josh Sims and drilled a low shot in which Fraser Forster parried away.

Be’er Sheva continued to look the more comfortable and former Portsmouth player Ben Sahar ran at goal and had to be stopped by Cedric Soares before getting his shot away.

Sims had a header saved by Goresh but on the break the Israeli champions always looked dangerous.

At the other end Nathan Redmon forced Goresh into a fine diving save but from the resulting corner Austin headed wide at the back post and is he fell he injured himself. The English striker was in agony in the floor as it looked like he dislocated his shoulder.

Be’er Sheva had a good chance at the start of the second half as a bad giveaway in midfield let in Sahar but his effort was blocked by last man Maya Yoshida. At the other end Virgil can Dijk was found from a set piece but his shot was deflected over and then Ryan Bertrand‘s cross was cleared wide by Shir Tzedek as substitute Shane Long was about to tap home.

With the Israeli side taking more risks as the game wore on, Saints continued to get chances on the break with substitute Dusan Tadic having a goalbound shot headed off the line.

As the game wore on the nerves hit Saints hard and Romeu gave the ball away in the 79th minute and Be’er Sheva dealt the hammer blow.

Substitute Yuvai Shavtai played it in to Buzaglo and he struck a low shot in off the far post and in to make it 1-0 and Saints now needing two goals to advance. You could hear a pin drop among the home fans at St Mary’s as the Be’er Sheva fans went wild.

Late on Van Dijk scored a deflected effort right at the start of injury time to make it 1-1 and Saints needed just one more goal to advance at Be’er Sheva’s expense. However, their big chance came and went as James Ward-Prowse‘s perfect cross to the back post which Yoshida somehow headed inches wide.

Game. Set. Match.

Report: Argentinian national team flew same plane as Chapecoense crash

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: A detailed view of the Chapecoense badge during a minutes silence ahead of the EFL Cup quarter final match between Arsenal and Southampton at the Emirates Stadium on November 30, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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According to a report by Brazilian Folha de São Paulo, a flight bearing the Argentinian national team was dangerously close to crashing in the same manner that saw much of the Brazilian club team Chapecoense tragically perish just a week ago.

The report states that the national team, including Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, and other star players on November 11th, was traveling on its way home from the 3-0 loss to Brazil aboard the exact same plane that crashed on November 28th, and was 18 minutes from running out of fuel before landing in Buenos Aires.

The British Aerospace 146 aircraft has a maximum fuel capacity for a flight of four hours and 22 minutes, and the trip from Belo Horizonte to Buenos Aires took four hours and four minutes, according to the report citing flight logs.

Information disemminating from the November 28th crash shows the aircraft did not reach its destination due to a loss of fuel.

According to an editorial written by Airways Magazine editor in chief Enrique Perrella following the Chapecoense crash, it is a common occurrence in South America for pilots to routinely stretch the maximum flight distances for aircrafts, and to take fuel amounts dangerously close to actual flight time without much pushback.

Many flight governing bodies around the world state minimum fuel requirements to be enough fuel for flight time plus distance to an alternate landing location plus an extra 45 minutes.

The Airways editorial states, citing the flight plan for the November 28th crash, that the pilot for the plane carrying Chapecoense was also the owner of the airline, causing a blatant conflict of interest. In the hope of stretching his aircraft to save on fuel costs, he apparently registered enough fuel on his flight plan for the exact amount of flight time from Santa Cruz to Medellin – four hours and 22 minutes.

When the plane was asked to sit in a holding pattern above the airport to allow another flight with mechanical problems to land, they ran out of fuel and crashed just a few miles from the destination.

Should all this information prove to be accurate, not only was the accident clearly preventable, but it could have happened more than once, and clearly a change in culture is needed.