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.

PL Sunday Preview: Man City hosts Hammers, Boro visits West Brom

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - AUGUST 21: Middlesborough manager Aitor Karanka looks on during the Premier League match between Sunderland FC and Middlesbrough FC at Stadium of Light on August 21, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
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These four clubs have a combined two losses so far in Premier League competition. Unfortunately for Middlesbrough and West Ham, outside league play was not so kind over the past four days.

Those two clubs were both ousted from cup competitions by inferior clubs, and must regroup to maintain their unbeaten league status on the road.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

West Brom vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

A Sunday morning road trip for Middlesbrough was good to them last weekend, so why not again? Boro remains unbeaten in the league, having dispatched Sunderland last time out for their first win of the season, but Aitor Karanka will need to put a midweek loss to Fulham in the League Cup in the rear-view mirror.

[ MORE: Late Rashford strike lifts Manchester United ]

It’s been a mixed bag for West Brom thus far, with the high of their opening day win over Crystal Palace erased with a home Premier League loss to Everton and an even more disappointing result against League One minnows Northampton in the League Cup. Tony Pulis and the rest of the West Brom executives are under fire for not improving the squad with just days left in the transfer window.

INJURIES: West Brom OUT: Chris Brunt (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Brendan Galloway (hamstring), Jonny Evans (hip). | Middlesbrough OUT: Victor Valdes (hamstring), Marten De Roon (hamstring), George Friend (calf), Fabio (knee). QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Ayala (fitness), Bernardo Espinosa (fitness).

Manchester City vs. West Ham United — 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Like Middlesbrough, West Ham is in good league form, but their midweek result in another competition will place a damper on this weekend’s events. The Hammers were ousted from the Europa League before the group stage for the second season in a row, falling to Romanian champions Astra Girugiu…for the second season in a row.

Last year, Slaven Bilic turned things around in three days, beating Arsenal at the Emirates just after Europa League elimination. This year, the road test is just as difficult, and with injuries to a number of key attackers, the Hammers will need to dig deep to turn things around.

[ MORE: Petr Cech says Arsenal is aiming for Premier League title ]

Manchester City fell to West Ham at home last season, and Pep Guardiola will be sure to make them remember. Willy Caballero is likely to continue in goal with Claudio Bravo having just arrived, and while it seems Manchester City has yet to be seriously tested in league play, the Argentinian and his back line have yet to keep a clean sheet.

INJURIES: Manchester City  OUT: Ilkay Gundogan (knee), Vincent Kompany (thigh), Claudio Bravo (preparation). QUESTIONABLE: Leroy Sane (fitness). West Ham  OUT: Sofiane Feghouli (hamstring), Andre Ayew (thigh), Andy Carroll (), Cresswell (knee), Henry (knee) QUESTIONABLE: Dimitri Payet (fitness), Manuel Lanzini (fitness), Havard Nordtveit (foot), Mark Noble (wrist).

MLS Snapshot: Toronto FC 0-1 Montreal Impact

MONTREAL, QC - MARCH 12:  Ignacio Piatti #10 of the Montreal Impact controls the ball during the MLS game against the New York Red Bulls at the Olympic Stadium on March 12, 2016 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Montreal Impact defeated the New York Red Bulls 3-0.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): A passionate but sloppy rivalry match saw Toronto stunned by 10-man Montreal at BMO Field. The Impact held strong against a toothless Toronto 2nd-half push, and they pinged a goal against the run of play inside the final 20 minutes to end Toronto’s seven-match unbeaten run. With Montreal’s Callum Mallace seeing red just before halftime, the hosts had little to offer Evan Bush’s goal, and Ignacio Piatti worked a goal out of nothing to earn the Impact three points. At least Toronto had a cool tifo:

Three moments that mattered:

44′ – A spotty first half came boiling over just before the break when Marco Delgado clipped Dominic Osorio on a breakaway. Steven Beitashour came trotting back towards the incident and was decked by Callum Mallace. A brawl developed and after the scuffle, Mallace was sent off. While the extra-curricular activity definitely warranted punishment, it’s controversial to conclude that Mallace’s actions warranted a straight red card.

65′ – Toronto poured pressure forward, and looked to the referee twice, who was unmoved. First Sebastian Giovinco went down under a clip from Laurent Ciman, who appeared to stick his leg out behind him and trip the Italian. Then, Jozy Altidore went to ground on a body check from Hassoun Camara, but again the referee shook his head. The US international looked to have toppled to the floor easily under pressure from . This double moment was pivotal in the match anyways, but became even more significant after Seba came off limping heavily, holding his inner thigh, substituted for Tsubasa Endoh.

73′ – Out of nothing, Montreal had a stunning lead. Evan Bush booted a goal kick to midfield, and the ball falls to Oduro who works hard to divert play to Piatti on the left edge of the box. The 31-year-old collected with a few expert touches, then suddenly one-on-one with Steven Bieteshour, Piatti deposited his 14th goal of the season inside the far post, leaving Alex Bono no chance.

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

Man of the match: Ignacio Piatti

Goalscorers: Piatti 73′

MLS Snapshot: Philadelphia Union 2-0 Sporting KC

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Fabinho #33 of the Philadelphia Union controls the ball against the Columbus Crew SC on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words or lessPhiladelphia wasted an energetic start to the match, but the hosts found themselves with a man advantage shortly into the second half, and they’d take advantage, winning 1-0 at Talen Energy Stadium behind a goal from Roland Alberg, who had entered the field just two minutes before scoring. The Union were overall the better side, but the hosts weren’t without chances of their own, most notably watching Dom Dwyer miss moments before Alberg’s goal. It was all over for KC when Roger Espinoza was also sent off for a second yellow late in the match, seeing Philly bag a second with ticks on the clock.

Three moments that mattered

17′ – A whopping four missed chances plagued the otherwise positive start for the home side. First, Tranquillo Barnetta curled in a gorgeous effort that was acrobatically parried away by a leaping Alec Kann. Then, in the 11th and 14th minutes, a pair of low crosses from Fabinho along the face of goal fell just out of reach of a sliding C.J. Sapong. Finally, the 17th minute saw Chris Pontius fire just wide with a header on a free-kick.

59′ – Philadelphia was given an advantage the rest of the way when Jimmy Medranda was given his second yellow card for hauling down Keegan Rosenberry on the edge of the box. Mandranda had been cautioned earlier for dissent when he laid into the referee following a first-half foul call.

67′ – Just moments after Dwyer missed wide right on a breakaway, Philadelphia capitalized on their man advantage. Fabinho connected with substitute Roland Alberg, and the 26-year-old Dutchman let loose a curler into the top right for a 1-0 lead. There was no looking back.

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

Man of the match: Fabinho

Goalscorers: Alberg 67′, Barnetta 90+2′

Manuel Pellegrini hired to manage Chinese club Hebei China Fortune

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 15:  Manuel Pellegrini, manager of Manchester City looks on after the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on May 15, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Former Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has been hired by Chinese club Hebei China Fortune as the Chinese top flight adds another big name manager. He joins just three months after stepping down as manager of Manchester City in favor of Pep Guardiola.

The Chilean will match up with former Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who currently heads current league leaders Guangzhou Evergrande, in his first game in charge on September 10. Evergrande sits 15 points adrift of Hebei in the table. Sven-Göran Eriksson also manages in the league, in charge of Guangzhou R&F.

Pellegrini inherits a squad that includes Ezequiel Lavezzi plus former Premier Leaguers Stephane M’bia, Gervinho, and Gael Kakuta. The club currently sits in fifth in the league table out of 16 teams, with seven matches remaining in the season.

Following Pellegrini’s departure from City, the 62-year-old said he wished to remain in the Premier League, but also that he would retire if he did not receive an offer that interested him.

Pellegrini replaces former Everton midfielder Li Tie, who worked previously under Marcelo Lippi at Evergrande before being hired as Hebei manager a year ago. Tie was in hot water after criticizing the Chinese national team selection process and travel planning in early July.