Opta Analysis

Opta and MLS – a beautiful game they play

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In Part I we looked at how sports data company Opta functions, and their revolutionary work in global soccer. Now it’s time to look Stateside.

Major League Soccer and soccer in the United States is always looking for an edge. It has always had to.

Competing with traditional American sports for fans, players and sponsorship deals, you could never accuse MLS and it’s executives of not thinking outside the box.

And in 2011 when they realized what Opta had to offer and how it could help the league develop, they grabbed on tight and haven’t let go since.

Matt Drew, Opta’s head of Corporate Marketing, salutes MLS chiefs for becoming a leading light in soccer analytics across the globe.

“Credit to MLS, because they were quick to realize that what we had here was of value,” Drew said.  “Across their media properties, and the performance teams, they’ve been speculative enough to ask us to do bits of research on different areas to find out how to develop and improve the league in a really proactive type of way. They were very much leaders in that.”

(PART I: How Opta altered the Premier League, and soccer, forever)

The stats culture in the USA is more prevalent than in many other countries where soccer is traditionally the number one sport, which has allowed MLS to be an almost semi-experimental ground for how to use new systems and ways of measuring things.

Soccer fans in the U.S. embrace stats in ways fans in other nations wouldn’t. And the league, teams, managers and players are also doing the same.

Opta’s influence in MLS and U.S. soccer culture is growing.

A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN

During my first visit to MLS Digital HQ a few years ago, I noticed a separate side of the office that was empty every day, but lined with computers screens and other expensive looking equipment.

“What the bloody hell goes on over there?” I asked one of my co-workers one Friday afternoon. “Just wait until Saturday night when the Opta guys come in, you’re in for a treat.”

And I was.

If you read Part I of this series, you’ll know all about the ‘Ops’ and their job. These ‘gamer’ types methodically collect all of Opta’s live data by watching games from across the globe. That happens in New York City, too. And as you elevate towards MLS’ office on a Saturday night, you can hear loud shouting and whistles being blown. Cries of ‘oh man, did you see that?’ and almost zombie like quotes of ‘red 23 chipped pass, blocked, by blue 14’ are heard from the Ops. They’re analyzing every single MLS game live, and having a lot of fun doing it.

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An example of how Opta’s Chalkboard is available on MLS’ official website for every single MLS game.

The fact that Opta US operates from within the same confides of MLS’ Digital arm tells its own story. The two entities are now inextricably linked, as both walk hand in hand towards progressing the world’s game on U.S. soil.

James Dennis, who is head of Opta Sports US, has been with the company since 1999.

Dennis leads Opta’s operations from NYC and hails Major League Soccer’s proactive attitude towards becoming a better league.

“Certainly the way we interact with MLS, I believe is pretty unique. Obviously MLS is a different ownership structure,” Dennis said. “The league are very open to involving us, not only at a digital level, but we are now involved on the player recruitment side, on the player relations side and the competitions department.”

And perhaps one of biggest factors MLS wants to gain from being so closely linked with Opta is how they’re performing, on the field, compared with other soccer leagues around the world.

“They are always very interested to see where they sit and compare with other global leagues,” Dennis said. “They’ve been very open minded in allowing us in and allowing us to help in that. Obviously with the Premier League and other leagues, they’re established, so it’s a different mindset. But MLS are trying to develop their product. We get a pretty unique insight into the league.”

We will find out more on that, very shortly.

ASSIST… WE HARDLY KNEW YE

If you ask any soccer fan in England over a certain age about an assist, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.

Now, go and ask any soccer fan in the world under the age of 25 about who’s the leading assist man in European soccer now, and they’ll probably spout out about 10 different names, with Mesut Ozil usually near the top.

The advent of recording the assist in English soccer, crazy as it seems, is just over 10 years old. I visited Opta’s offices with NBC Sports’ national columnist Joe Posnanski back in August, and my colleague was flabbergasted that assists had only just become relevant in the PL.

In part, you have Opta to thank for that.

“We’ve had them since 2001, but a couple of our guys got footage of every game and we now have assists, all-time, in the Premier League,” Matt Furniss, Opta’s Senior UK Football Editor said. “We have goal types as well, headers, set pieces, penalties. So we also have in-depth data about each goal. And we can see who has the most assists in Premier League history.”

For American sports fans, the assist is a key component of recording a player’s productivity. But in England and other soccer nations, a player was never historically categorized by the number of assists he made, he was just known as “the creative one.”

source: Reuters
Back in the day Mesut Ozil would have been classed as “that tricky chap” and his assists wouldn’t have been counted… now they’re categorized.

Rob Bateman, Opta’s Director of Content, breaks down the assist category as it’s evolved over the past few years.

“The assist is an interesting one,” Bateman said. “We used to collect it and if someone had eight assists and somebody else has two, then immediately you’d make the assumption that the former is a more creative player. But we have got a little bit subjective with this thing we call ‘big chances’ where we class that as chances where the striker should score. So you can kind of look at players who are creating much better chances.”

Big chances are becoming more widely used in soccer circles, and the players who created the most ‘big chances,’ the Mesut Ozil’s and Xavi’s of this world, are worth their weight in gold.

Opta’s stats are helping to pick out not only the most creative players, but the players who are the best at being the most creative… have a think about that.

USA’S THRIVING STATS CULTURE

For me, one of the most telling moments of my investigation into how Opta works with Major League Soccer came when speaking with Dennis about exactly how they help MLS to improve the league.

“On the recruitment side we provide statistical reports to the league and the clubs to assist in the decision making process for potential transfers,” Dennis said. “That’s something that is obviously not really done in any other league. That’s been good. The big challenge in the US is to get clubs to compete with other global leagues, while adhering to the strict financial limitations and improving the quality.”

So, Opta’s role in MLS is now so prominent that they’re advising the league on which players to buy and which markets to look to. And with MLS’ centralized model of player recruitment, a la Clint Dempsey in Seattle, Opta seems to be the main scouting resource behind many of the players heading to MLS.

That’s huge.

Asking a stats company to help with transfers is something none of Opta’s other league partners do, MLS trusts the stats, and in turn Opta want to try and help raise the level of Major League Soccer. It’s a win, win.

source: AP
Get use to seeing more South American players heading to MLS, as Opta’s office in Uruguay will help to unearth Latin American gems (see, Diego Valeri) on the cheap.

“The sport is a different sport here,” Dennis continues. “They’re constrained by the cap, massively. So, the big challenge in the US is to try and improve the sport. You could argue it’s the fourth sport, but really it’s the fifth in the minds of most American sports fans.”

And to try and help MLS thrive, Opta has looked at new markets within the global game where the league can buy cheaply from. Hence one of the reasons why an office was set up in Montevideo, Uruguay, last year.

“There’s a recruitment reason for doing it,” Dennis said. “Because leagues like the Premier League and MLS are interested in those players. So it opens up a brand new market. I think a lot of MLS teams look to that area, because the players are cheaper. That’s a market they can go and do business in, whereas if you look at Europe, they can’t shop there apart from a DP. Historically they’ve looked in Europe a bit, but there’s certainly a push in the South American leagues.”

With Latin America Opta’s next big project, you can already see the fruits of their labor benefiting MLS, recently the league released info on where each of it’s 549 players are from. The U.S. (304) and Canada (19) lead the way, but Colombia (19), Brazil (18) and Argentina (17) round out the top five. In the last 12 months Argentinians Diego Valeri, Matias Laba and Max Urruti have arrived, while 8.4 percent of MLS players are now from South America. Expect that number to grow.

To raise its’ profile amongst American sports fans, many believe MLS has to keep improving it’s product on the field, which it has clearly done over the past few years. Opta have been with them every step of the way.

“I think some of the work we do supports that,” Dennis said. “I wouldn’t say what we’re doing it on our own. But we are supporting the MLS, and they’re trying to put out a stronger product on the field. And they’re using data and analysis to try and understand that. So we’re a cog in the wheel really.”

CLASHING CULTURES

But what about the other cultural differences or convergences between soccer in the U.S. and England, how does that play out in terms of the soccer stats industry?

“MLS followers, if you’re talking in marketing speak, it’s almost more of a middle class type of game,” Drew said, tapping his finger on the table rhythmically. “Whereas over here [England], you have that layer, but there’s also years and years of working class tradition, where people aren’t interested in stats. Which is fine.”

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Opta US has been helped by American fans embracing stats in soccer. The image above represents the MLS Player Genome.

But as I sat in deep discussion with Drew and Opta’s Advanced Data Analyst, Sam Green, we began to speak about the unique and close relationship MLS now has with Opta, and how that mirrors the U.S. public’s affinity to stats in sports.

“We have a fairly close relationship with MLS at every level now” Green said. “The American fans are slightly more prepared and more ready to take in the numbers, and to think about it in this way. Because most of the national sports already have that kind of tendency. Compared to Europe, it has taken off a bit quicker in the States.”

When RBI’s, Quarterback ratings, rushing yards, PPG, WAR and many other measurable categories are thrown at you by U.S. sports franchises and media outlets every single day, how are you not going to know all about stats if you’re a sports fan in America?

Naturally, U.S. soccer fans seem to be the savviest and most encompassing when it comes to seeking out statistical trends in soccer.

Many argue you can apply stats to any sport and get positive results. So, is there a general rule?

“The skill with all this stuff is finding the balance between what you see on film and what you see in the numbers,” Drew said. “That’s what I think you’re beginning to see in some clubs, there are people who have an interaction between those different categories.”

MESHING THE FUTURE

The next big thing is what many at Opta see as some kind of ‘holy grail’ and that is, combining their own data with physiological and tracking data.

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How a typical setup looks whilst using OptaPro. This incredible program is distributed to all of Opta’s clubs.

That would be a real game-changer, and clubs are hurriedly working behind the scenes to fuse these different types of analysis to create a system that can not only quantify a player’s performance in terms of passes, shots and goal, but also their meaningful runs forward, average position on the pitch and how they rank physiologically against the opposition.

It will be hard to achieve, but the guys at Opta aren’t ruling that out in the near future.

“I think the big breakthrough that the clubs wants to make is combining the event data and the physical data,” Bateman said. “If you actually log the physical data, you can log where the ball has gone but you can’t actually say what that event is. With a few of our clients this year, they’re all starting to use tracking data. So we now have a partner we work with and in the next few years we hope to have more than just speed and distance appearing on the screen. Nobody is using that data to say, ‘this is how many presses’ or ‘this is how many runs down the line.’ We hope to do that.”

That’s something Green echoes, and believes if that next hurdle is achieved, Opta’s level of analysis could be raised even higher.

“A lot of those clubs will take both [physiological and performance data], but I don’t know how much they try and synchronize that data themselves,” Green said with an inquisitive glance at Drew to his left. “There are obvious advantages to be gained from paying attention to the movement. If you can combine them, it allows you to say a hell of a lot more about what players are doing and potentially why, and look at the structures and styles of play in a different way, that’s beyond what we can already do.”

Another factor that we discussed in Part I that will also become more prominent, is being able to track players together throughout their careers to see how good they are. Look at the image on the right from OptaPro, as they compare the careers of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets. You can do this comparison for any player in any league Opta work with.

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Opta can now compare different players, in every category, over the span of their careers. Steven Gerrard vs. Sergio Busquets number of passes in final third is shown above.

The numbers can help players at Scunthorpe be compared to Real Madrid. The ability to unearth raw talent across many different countries and leagues over time, at the click of a button, is astounding.

But there is one rather useless fact that you often see popping up during the game, is the stat ‘distance covered.’ But what does that mean?

“The one editorial question we always get is people asking about ‘distance covered.’ And if it’s not meaningless… it’s not far off it,” Green said with an exasperated look on his face.

If you think about the likes of James Milner, who is hailed as one of the hardest working players for both Manchester City and England, he certainly looks like he’s running around a lot and busting a gut for the badge. But is it meaningless work? Or is the tremendous shift he’s putting in having the desired affect?

Meshing Opta’s stats with a GPS and physiological database will help get an answer to that.

That’s the next step.

MLS – A WORK IN PROGRESS

We’ve looked at the rise of certain stats and what Opta are planning for the future, but how is MLS using Opta’s information?

The truth is that although MLS is enamored by Opta, only a few of MLS’ clubs are really taking this stuff seriously. Is that because of rival companies or lack of funding for analytics departments? Perhaps.

But the aim now is to get as many MLS franchises as possible working with Opta’s deeper analytics. If all of this fantastic information is there for them to use, why wouldn’t they?

“It’s different [in MLS],” Dennis said. “You get Man City and Chelsea, who are two of our clients who use a whole range of our products and we have over 100 club clients. But in MLS we sort of work with two or three of the clubs on a match analysis level, and that’s still a level we want to get more involved in.”

On an in-depth level where Opta really helps them drill down on every single game they play, only two to three MLS teams use that. Of course, others sides may already use Opta’s stats that the league feeds them and be happy with that. From what I’ve seen and heard, stats, of any kind, are extremely prominent in U.S. sports. So it surprises me that MLS sides aren’t delving into the deeper analytics.

Stats aside, NBC Sports is helping soccer rise in the States with its TV coverage. So Opta’s work is now reaching new audiences.

“With NBC making all Premier League games available, there’s obviously an argument that MLS could suffer as a result. I don’t subscribe to that,” Dennis said. “I think that anything that gets the game out there more is a good thing. I think NBC have done a really good job and obviously they’re using our data which is great. They’re going to start using the touch screen as well for on-air analysis.”

With Premier League and MLS more accessible than ever in the U.S., Opta’s window of opportunity to showcase their talents is vast. Just one of the reasons why they’re keen to keep working hand in hand with North America’s top domestic league, especially as soccer analytics is on the rise in the US.

MLS’ website has their own ‘Opta Spotlight’ column and Devin Pleuler, who writes MLSsoccer.com’s ‘Central Winger‘ analytics column, is now employed by Opta US to help with their analysis of MLS. Add to that a vast multitude of blogs and writers looking at stats in U.S. soccer, and the market is booming.

“The community is getting a bit more savvy about it,” Dennis said. “There are more and more clubs who are beginning to develop their analytics teams, and MLS is trying to encourage that. Everyone is trying to apply the Moneyball concept to soccer. Will we get there? I don’t know.”

But it sounds like Opta, MLS and soccer analysts across the globe are going to have a wonderful time trying to unravel the myths surrounding the beautiful game.

“We want to cut through football and make it a lot better… but we don’t want to solve it,” Drew said. “Because then, well, it would be quite boring.”

Europa League: Mourinho says targeted Man Utd must win; Saints shorthanded

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United makes his way to the tunnel after the final whistle  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Europa League goes into its second day of group play with the onus on the biggest club in the tournament to pick up a win.

Don’t believe us? Ask Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.

“To be honest, I think we have to win,” Mourinho said at his pre-match press conference. “If we don’t win, I would say we’d have to win all the last four matches, which is difficult, so I think it is very important that we win this game.”

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

United fell 1-0 at Feyenoord to open the group stage, and now hosts Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk at 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday. He knows its the equivalent of a massive Cup match for the visitors.

“The Europa League is a competition Man United isn’t normally in, so when these teams have a giant like Man United in front of them, it’s a huge moment for them and they come to the game with incredible motivation.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start for United, as there’s a chance that Anthony Martial will rejoin the side. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is out, and Wayne Rooney (back) and Luke Shaw (illness) may not play.

The other Premier League side in play is Southampton, as the Saints take a long flight to Israel for a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff against Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Saints handled Sparta Prague at home, and now face the Camels, who went to Inter Milan and won. Southampton is without Charlie Austin, Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand, and Steven Davis.

Should be a very decent match from Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva.

Elsewhere

all times ET

Mainz at Gabala — 11 a.m.
Young Boys at Astana — 11 a.m.
Osmanlispor at Zurich — 1 p.m.
Red Bull Salzburg at Schalke — 1 p.m.
PAOK at Liberec — 1 p.m.
Qarabag at Fiorentina — 1 p.m.
Villarreal at Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m.
Nice at Krasnodar — 1 p.m.
Standard Liege at Ajax — 1 p.m.
Braga at Shakhtar Donetsk — 1 p.m.
Panathinaikos at Celta Vigo — 1 p.m.
Inter Milan at Sparta Prague — 1 p.m.
Konyaspor at Gent — 1 p.m.
Sassuolo at Genk — 3:05 p.m.
Zorya at Manchester United — 3:05 p.m.
Anderlecht at Saint-Etienne — 3:05 p.m.
Apoel Nicosia at Olympiacos — 3:05 p.m.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Dundalk — 3:05 p.m.
Feyenoord at Fenerbahce — 3:05 p.m.
Rapid Wien at Athletic Bilbao — 3:05 p.m.
Viktoria Plzen at Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m.
AZ Alkmaar at Zenit Saint-Petersburg — 3:05 p.m.
Astra Giurgiu at AS Roma — 3:05 p.m.

Wenger after UCL win: This year’s Arsenal has “interesting potential”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal looks on during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Arsenal FC and FC Basel 1893 at the Emirates Stadium on September 28, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is growing in confidence when it comes to his Gunners’ chances in England and Europe, and it’s not hard to see why.

Four days after Arsenal battered Chelsea 3-0 in Premier League action, the Gunners went out and handled FC Basel in the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Theo Walcott scored both goals in the 2-0 win, and there could’ve been so many more. Arsenal was fast, deliberate, creative, and dangerous. The finishing was not ideal, but the promise was massive.

Perhaps more important, the Gunners posted a third-straight clean sheet and have allowed just four goals in eight matches since the 4-3 loss to Liverpool that opened the PL season.

And Wenger acknowledges that his side can do big things, provided it doesn’t get too full of itself after solid performances. From Arsenal.com:

“It looks like the team has interesting potential. We have to be ambitious and, as you know, keep our feet on the ground to continue to develop. We know exactly how we want to play football and we have to continue to stick to that and get better at it. That demands big focus and some leadership inside the squad. It also requires humility.”

Arsenal has a very winnable run in the Premier League, and could be right there with Manchester City by the end of October. And with a winnable UCL group, who knows what the Gunners could do with a decent knockout round draw?

Bayern can’t break down Simeone’s Atleti: “We played too slowly”

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 28:  Carlo Ancelotti, Manager of Bayern Muenchen looks on before the UEFA Champions League group D match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on September 28, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich sits second in Group D of this season’s UEFA Champions League after losing its toughest match of the bunch: a trip to the Vicente Calderon.

Atletico Madrid won 1-0 when Antoine Griezmann linked up with Yannick Carrasco for a first half goal and Diego Simeone’s stubborn defense lived up to its reputation in blanking the Bavarians.

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Manager Carlo Ancelotti has been frustrated by Simeone in the past, perhaps most notably in his brief stint at Real Madrid. But the Bayern boss says the loss was down to speed.

“We tried to get back into the game but we played too slowly, which is why we did not have many chances to equalize,” Ancelotti said. “It’s never nice to lose.”

Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer also acknowledged a lack of speed in a way, pointing at urgency when he said, “Atlético showed a killer instinct tonight and we didn’t.”

Bayern hosts PSV Eindhoven in its next UCL match on Oct. 19.

Guardiola, Rodgers left to unpack thrilling Celtic-Man City draw

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 28:  Brendan Rodgers, Manager of Celtic issues instructions to his players next to Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City during the UEFA Champions League group C match between Celtic FC and Manchester City FC at Celtic Park on September 28, 2016 in Glasgow, Scotland.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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What a match in Glasgow.

The UEFA Champions League group stage returned to Celtic Park on Wednesday, where the hosts thrilled their crowd by taking a trio of leads before settling for a 3-3 draw with mighty Manchester City.

[ MORE: JPW on Walcott’s Arsenal heroics ]

The draw is the first competitive game City hasn’t won under Pep Guardiola, but the manager didn’t feel much like complaining after his team rallied.

From the BBC:

Guardiola: “It was difficult for us. I’m happy with the reaction from the players, it’s not easy to score three goals away.

“I don’t know how many the chances they had after the third goal. We should have won it.”

As for Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers, he was tickled. After all, Celtic had fallen 7-0 to Barcelona at the Camp Nou during their first outing.

From the BBC:

Rodgers: “We were brilliant, the pressing and the energy. Every time we went forward we looked like we could score.

“Apart from the Barcelona game these players have been operating at a high level this season. Now, to do it against that team, it was a magnificent performance.”

Celtic Park was loud on Wednesday, and both sides gave the crowd plenty of oohs and aahs. It’s hard to imagine Celtic could do the same again, and City did give away a pair of goals (one own goal from Raheem Sterling, one gaffe from Aleksandar Kolarov).

But for one afternoon, who cares about anything other than an entertaining 90 minutes?