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Westfalenstats: The Nerd Revolt

Ohhhhh you gon’ learn today!

World Cup ball at adidas testing lab Photo by Daniel Karmann/picture alliance via Getty Images

Welcome to Fear The Wall’s nerdy little basement. We’re the guys that were stuck behind that door that Brian always kept locked, but Sean has finally set us free. I’m sure you were wondering what that dull humming was. It’s our supercomputers. They’ve been tracking your behavior and selling all your secrets to raise money to pay for the writers to go on a writer’s retreat in Tulsa. But don’t worry about that, we’ve got something much more interesting for you: the new FTW weekly feature, the Analytics Roundup!

Here we are, just a couple of guys hanging out with the boys and doing cool dude stuff

Every Tuesday or Thursday, depending on BVB’s schedule, I will be putting together a roundup of some of the best and most interesting work going on in the football analytics community. These articles won’t be for everyone (so feel free to skip them), but I think there is probably some demand for a light, accessible look at some of the cool research that is going on out there.

Perhaps a good place to start is by looking at some resources that might help fill any gaps in everyone’s existing knowledge of football analytics.

Data, Advanced Metrics, and Resources for Analytics

The best site for up-to-date event data is FB Ref, but when you’re looking for alternative sources for recent match data, particularly regarding Expected Goals, Understat, FiveThirtyEight, and Michael Caley are all good.

FB Ref gets a lot of its advanced metrics from StatsBomb, which is the dominant player in the analytics market. They are an excellent resource if you are looking for some more detailed event and tracking data. StatsBomb make data available from a handful of seasons and leagues for research purposes (WyScout also offers similar). If you have any interest in accessing this data, they provide some guidance on doing so using R or Python.

Should you be interested in carrying out some of these analyses yourself, or simply want to learn a little more about what these nerds are talking about, I’d very highly recommend taking a little look at this course, the Mathematical Modelling of Football (and the YouTube channel operated by the same folks, Friends of Tracking). I’m currently working through the course myself, and because it is freely available, you can work through it at your own pace. If anyone is interested in taking the course and wants some help, or has any questions, feel free to give me a shout in the comments, or on the Discord server.

Some Interesting Examples of Football Analytics

There are plenty of fascinating discussions about football analytics going on between these accounts and many, many more. Just reading through their timelines is a great way to learn plenty about the sport, whether learning about research that confirms long-discussed ideas in football or challenges everything we know. Here’s a couple examples of the interesting research that is out there, and a look at the sort of stuff these round-ups will cover in the future.

Who is the Most Versatile Football Player?

I remember a time when versatility and positional flexibility was viewed as a knock on a player. I remember some English fans scoffing at Owen Hargreaves, viewing him as a “utility player”. But compared to the 90s and early 00s, modern coaches are more inclined to mix things up structurally, and versatile players become a real asset in that context. As a result, positional flexibility is of greater interest to clubs, analysts, and fans.

Ben Torvaney compared player versatility across the leagues, measuring versatility as the total number of positions at which a player has played a minimum of 270 minutes. He finds that the Bundesliga is the most versatile league, and the most versatile player is Weston McKennie (with Julian Brandt and Leonardo Bittencourt coming in just behind him).

The Most Versatile Players in Football

However, there are some limitations to this approach (something Ben acknowledges). It obviously doesn’t account for performance in these different positions, nor does it make a distinction between players whose positional minutes are narrowly distributed but who just about pass the threshold in numerous positions and those whose minutes are distributed more evenly across a few positions. Finally, as stated in the blog post, it also doesn’t account for those that are capable of playing numerous positions but didn’t.

But a blog post like this isn’t trying to be all-encompassing, so these limitations shouldn’t be held against it. It is a simple and fun idea, that is well-executed and well-presented. It’s interesting to see that the Bundesliga is that much more versatile than other leagues. It does seem like teams in the Bundesliga are more inclined to experiment, with player positions and with formations.

The Real Cost of Transfers

Football teams all over Europe have been gradually reassessing the way they conduct their business in an effort to become more sustainable, and to make efficient transfer business another part of the competitive space in the sport. This has been particularly evident in recent years as the likes of Liverpool and Bayern Munich dominate their equally wealthy counterparts by being far better managed, and smaller but equally efficient clubs like Leicester punch well above their weight. Alex Fassone at 21st Club has combined the costs from transfer fees and player wages to analyze the market and find the leagues and clubs leading this charge.

The Cost of Transfers Across European Leagues

He finds that the Big 5 European leagues are getting poor value for money when they dip into the the market, though the Premier League is well out ahead on that front. The Bundesliga is getting better value for money than the other four, but given that the best teams in the league (Bayern, BVB, and Leipzig) are all pretty efficient, that is hardly surprising.

The Uruguayan Primera Division is apparently where the real value can be found. My knowledge of Uruguayan football is at best limited, so I don’t know why this is, but I’m guessing that it may be driven by one or two big moves. Interestingly, Ligue 2 is leading the rest of the pack, which just serves to further demonstrate that the French second division is where the best young prospects can be found. Many of France’s second tier clubs survive off the back of their excellent academies. Alex’s analysis just shines a light on that fact.

Future Roundups

I’m expecting the next roundups to be a little less dry, but I think this was necessary as a starting point. The plan for future roundups is that I will cover three or four cool pieces of research or resources that I think will be of interest to people here, and occasionally, I’ll spend a whole roundup looking at a single piece that is particularly important (or particularly complicated). The next couple weeks will also continue to introduce you to the best websites, channels, and people out there in the football analytics world.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or if something doesn’t make sense, let me know in the comments (or come find me on the Discord server) and I’ll do my best to help!