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.

How Sevilla hope to destroy the Madrid-Barca duopoly in Spain

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 15: Samir Nasri  (2ndR) of Sevilla FC celebrates scoring their second goal with teammates during the La Liga match between CD Leganes and Sevilla FC at Estadio Municipal de Butarque on October 15, 2016 in Leganes, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Sevilla’s ambitious hopes of becoming a La Liga contender are beginning to materialize.

With an inspired team not afraid of confronting the powerhouses, Sevilla has shown it’s ready to take the next step and seriously challenge Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

One game before the halfway mark in the Spanish league, the squad revitalized by coach Jorge Sampaoli is only a point behind leader Madrid, a team it defeated in impressive fashion on Sunday.

The come-from-behind 2-1 win came thanks to another gritty performance by Sampaoli’s team, which has mixed high-intensity defense and a fast-paced attack to impose its style against opponents, no matter how strong they are.

“A victory in a game like this allows us to remain optimistic and believe that this team can continue this run if we maintain this same determination,” Sampaoli said. “Time will tell if we can succeed.”

Sevilla’s win halted Madrid’s 40-game unbeaten streak in all competitions. Sevilla had already come close to a victory midweek in the Copa del Rey, but it conceded two late goals in a 3-3 draw that led to its elimination. It lost the first leg the week before in Madrid 3-0.

“We had three difficult matches against Real Madrid and we were superior in two of them,” Sampaoli said. “We were able to beat a team that was unbeaten.”

[ MORE: PHOTO — Juventus unveil new logo, identity rebrand ]

Sevilla this season also defeated Atletico 1-0, drew at fifth-place Villarreal 0-0, and routed sixth-place Real Sociedad 4-0. It lost 2-1 to Barcelona in an encouraging display.

It has won six of its last seven league games, including four in a row. In front of its diehard fans at Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan Stadium, Sevilla has won eight of its nine games.

It lost the European Super Cup title to Madrid in extra time last year, and this season advanced to the knockout stages of the Champions League, where it will face Leicester City in the Round of 16.

Sevilla has thrived in the lower-tiered Europa League, winning three straight titles, but its last Spanish league trophy was in 1946. The last time it finished second was in 1957.

It hasn’t had this much success in the league since 2007, when a squad that included Dani Alves and Frederic Kanoute fought for the title and eventually finished third behind Barcelona and champion Real Madrid. Sevilla led the competition after 18 matches that season, but with 37 points, two less than it has now.

Sevilla, the Copa del Rey winner in 2007 and 2010, also finished third in the league in 2009.

While Atletico Madrid made its way to the top thanks to the stout defense of coach Diego Simeone, Sampaoli’s Sevilla has been balancing a competitive defense with an effective offense led by players such as Samir Nasri, Victor “Vitolo” Machin, Wissam Ben Yedder, and Luciano Vietto.

[ MORE: PL Playback — One from six; who are the title favorites now? ]

It’s the first time since the winning campaign of 1956-57 that Sevilla has scored 38 goals in its first 18 league matches. Only Barcelona (47) and Madrid (46) have scored more this season.

“This team likes to play, it likes to attack,” said Stevan Jovetic, who scored the injury-time winner against Madrid on Sunday. “There is still a long way to go and we will be fighting against some top teams, but we will keep doing our thing and see where we can end up.”

Sampaoli, the Argentine coach who arrived with high expectations this season, has made a mark by successfully rotating players. Despite not having the same budget as Madrid or Barcelona, he has been able to make the most out of the squad put together by renowned sports director Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez.

But despite the recent success and all the hype surrounding Sevilla, president Jose Castro is trying to keep the club grounded.

“We are excited, we are one point behind Madrid, and one ahead of Barcelona,” Castro said. “We will try to win it all, but the goal is to secure a spot in the Champions (League). The Spanish league is for other teams with a bigger budget.”

Sevilla’s next game is at last-place Osasuna on Sunday.

Courtois: Chelsea can still win title without Costa

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 26:  Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea celebrates his team's second goal during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur at Stamford Bridge on November 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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A week from now, Diego Costa may still be a Chelsea player; he may also very well be off to the Chinese Super League by then.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The beauty insanity of the transfer market — and a volatile figure like Costa, in particular — is that no one knows which path he’ll take. After being made to train on his own on Monday, the best anyone can tell you is, “It’s 50-50.”

There aren’t many sides in the world that could stand to lose the league’s top goal-scorer (14 goals in 19 appearances this season; Chelsea have played 21 games) and still win the league title, but Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois believes that the current Blues squad is one that could hold onto its seven-point lead with 17 games remaining — quotes from FourFourTwo:

“Of course we have enough quality to replace Diego. Diego is important for us, but if he’s not there for one game, we know we can handle it as well.

“Was this a message to our rivals? Yes, just to see Chelsea won 3-0 and that loss at Spurs didn’t affect us and we can play without Diego if need be. I think everybody hoped for us to drop points and we didn’t so that was very good.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Eden Hazard has chipped in with nine goals of his own this season — his performances have been bordering on brilliance at points — while Pedro and Willian each have five league goals to their name. 19 goals from three secondary-type scorers is what champions are made of, until you consider the only other true striker currently in the squad, 23-year-old Premier League newcomer Michy Batshuayi, has 1) made just 13 PL appearances (all as a substitute); 2) scored just once, all the way back in August.

Louis van Gone: Ex-Man United, Barca boss LvG retires from coaching

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 21:  Louis van Gaal Manager of Manchester United celebrates after winning The Emirates FA Cup Final match between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Wembley Stadium on May 21, 2016 in London, England. Man Utd won 2-1 after extra time.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Louis Van Gaal.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

In his mind, he probably imagine himself manager Manchester United for the duration of his three-year contract before riding off into the sunset after restoring the Red Devils as Premier League champions four months from now. At the very least, he’d agree to stay on one more season to complete a bit of unfinished business after narrowly missing out on the title in his third season in charge at Old Trafford.

Instead, he was fired last May, two days after lifting the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium, and has been out of a job ever since. Van Gaal’s unemployment will now continue for the rest of his days, as the 65-year-old announced on Monday that he has retired from coaching after 26 years at Ajax, Barcelona (twice), AZ Alkmaar, Netherlands (twice), Bayern Munich and Manchester United — quote from the BBC:

“I thought maybe I would stop, then I thought it would be a sabbatical, but now I do not think I will return to coaching.”

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

After the stress put upon his shoulders while at Man United, the last eight months must have felt like heaven to Van Gaal. Why on earth would anyone ever go back?

AFCON: DR Congo go top of Group C with win; Ivory Coast, Togo draw

Congo's Lomalisa Mutambala, right, with Morocco's Faycal Fajr, left, during their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Morocco at the Stade de Oyem in Oyem, Gabon, Monday Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
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A roundup of all of Monday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ivory Coast 0-0 Togo

OYEM, Gabon (AP) Ivory Coast’s Europe-based stars stumbled in the heat of northern Gabon in their African Cup of Nations opener, with the defending champion held by Togo to 0-0 on Monday in another twist to start the tournament.

Ivory Coast’s title-winning coach fared worse as Congo beat Herve Renard’s Morocco 1-0 in the day’s second game.

Congo, a team that was on strike and refusing to train two days ago, finished with nine men on the field and on top of Group D.

Ivory Coast created few clear chances against Togo, with Wilfried Zaha‘s blocked shot in the second half after a clever run probably its best. Zaha was substituted two minutes later and, although Ivory Coast pressed hard in stages, it never broke open Togo’s well-drilled defense in the first game in Group C in the northern jungle town of Oyem.

Togo was competitive in the first half and had two good openings with around 10 minutes to go, when Kodjo Laba missed with a header from in front of goal and Mathieu Dossevi’s deflected shot dropped onto the roof of the net.

Four of the first six games at the African Cup have been draws, with Ivory Coast’s fellow title challenger, Algeria, held to 2-2 by Zimbabwe, a team that hasn’t qualified for the African Cup in over a decade. Also, host Gabon couldn’t beat outsider and tournament debutant Guinea-Bissau in the opening game.

“After Algeria-Zimbabwe and Gabon-Guinea-Bissau, we were very careful,” Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer said. “But we still have two (group) matches so we are still confident.”

Togo even started better, and Dossevi was clear on goal in the 29th minute only for Ivorian goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo to smother the chance.

Zaha was at the heart of Ivory Coast’s two best attacks, first in the first half when he sped down the right wing and sent across a dangerous low cross that was scrambled away. Then, in the 68th minute, he tricked his marker with a clever turn, cut inside, and hit a low shot that was headed to goal before two Togo defenders managed to get in the way.

Senegal and Congo are the only teams to win at the tournament.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

DR Congo 1-0 Morocco

Junior Kabananga got the winner for Congo in the 55th minute after a mistake from Morocco `keeper Monir el-Kajoui. Congo’s Lomalisa Mutambala was sent off for a wild tackle in the 81st and played the last six minutes of normal time plus six minutes of injury time with nine men when captain Gabriel Zakuani went off injured with all their substitutes used up.

Still, victory was a major mood-changer for Congo, whose players refused to train on Friday and Saturday, claiming they hadn’t been paid tournament bonuses. They also posted a video on social media during their strike, where they complained about their treatment.

On Monday, Morocco was the one frustrated: Midfielder M’Bark Boussoufa hit the crossbar in the second minute. Goalkeeper El-Kajoui tried to block a cross with his feet and managed only to divert the ball to Kabananga to score the winning goal. Then, substitutes Youssef En Nesyri and Youssef el-Arabi missed late chances.

Although Ivory Coast and later Renard failed their first tests at the tournament, the Stade d’Oyem held up despite a desperate race to be ready in time, which saw workers scrambling around the venue finishing all sorts of jobs on the day of the game. Television viewers won’t have seen the construction debris that surrounds the outside of the stadium, which juts out of dense jungle canopy around 15 kilometers outside of Oyem.

Even organizers couldn’t do anything about the heat during the opening match, though, with Togo coach Claude le Roy’s shirt covered in dark sweat patches after urging his team on to a promising draw against the defending champion Ivorians.

“It was very hot. We were sweating so much,” Le Roy said. “We did what it takes. We are satisfied with the draw.”

Tuesday’s AFCON schedule

Ghana vs. Uganda — 11 a.m. ET
Mali vs. Egypt — 2 p.m. ET