The Rise of the Foxes

By Matthew Watts, Mon 24 October 2016, in category Opinion

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In a world where data is being processed at an inconceivable rate, companies are constantly striving to gain that competitive edge through data analytics. This is particularly apparent in elite football clubs in recent years.

If you are looking for an example of a team that has transformed its culture and brought success through data analytics in the past two years, then look no further than Leicester City FC. Coming off the back of a season where they escaped relegation by 6 points, they began the 2015/2016 Premier League season as relegation favourites and were given 5000/1 odds to win the title. Despite these less than encouraging stats they finished the season as champions with one of the smallest transfer funds and the smallest squad size in the league. So how did they do it?

Leicester's success cannot only be attributed to the industrious owners, resourceful scouting and a buoyant manager. Its innovative sports data science team created a data-driven approach to the sport which was carefully integrated into the club culture over several years.

Attack-attack!

During their title-winning season, Leicester adopted an unusual style of play, with little possession and relying on fast counter-attacks, they took their opponents by surprise. To do this, the club used Prozone3 tracking data during training sessions to support the assessment of player fitness and conditioning through a range of physical metrics, such as distance covered, sprints and high intensity runs. This type of data is used to inform the coaching process and to tailor training programmes to the needs of individual players based on their in-game exertions. For example, they knew the strikers had to be conditioned to perform up to 500m of sprints in every game for their counter attacking style of play to be successful.

The result? Leicester made more counter-attacks and scored more counter-attacking goals than any other team during the season.

Fewer Injuries

Important technologies used by the club include the Catapult Sports' Optim Eye S5 (worn at the top of the back), it establishes the risk of a player getting injured at any given time based on benchmark data and automatically shows when they have exceeded their usual workload. Used across their first team and academy during training sessions, the device checks whether a player is ready to either play or return from injury by looking at/comparing what they are capable of when fully fit.

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The result? In their title winning season, Leicester suffered the fewest injuries and used fewer players than any other club. From this they had the most consistent starting line-up and were able to play their star performers such as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez week in week out.

Live Match Analysis

Home matches offer Leicester more control in terms of what live data they can access. A team of analysts (on pitch side) are able to conduct live analysis of player performance and pick out key points to highlight to the manager. The club also has a special analysis room connected to the home dressing room so the team can access data from Opta Pro's Portal at half-time and for post-match evaluation.

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Some game insights to highlight to the coaches could include: Players losing individual battles and aerial duels. Opposition chances that are being created from similar situations Live score of player performances benchmarked against a season average. Expected goals- predicting the probability of a goal coming from a shot in a particular area of the pitch.

Early Cup Exits

One important factor which supported the cause of the clubs' data science department was that Leicester had fewer games to play. Leicester exited all cup competitions early in the season, allowing the club to focus on its league fixtures. This gave their data scientists an added advantage over other top teams in that they were able to plan the week's training with a higher degree of control. The players could follow a more appropriate recovery process and not risk injury. The club also had more time to analyse their next opponents and to prepare accordingly.

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The Data Analysis Culture

The club understands how important data analysis is to not only the analysts, but also to the recruitment staff, coaches, sport scientists, the manager and to the players. Because of this they host daily morning meetings which bring all departments together to help the manager make informed decisions.

Through the sports science work, pre-match preparation and post-match evaluation, there is a constant flow of data to the players. They are are given pre- and post-match interactive reports to read from the performance team via iPads, which include statistics, subjective comments and match footage. The players also complete a daily questionnaire, to be asked how their bodies are feeling after the previous day's training session and how they slept. This allows the coaches to gain a real understanding of each individual, to adjust their training level intensity, diet plan and recovery time.

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Summary

Although most elite football clubs have access to similar technology and can produce the same detailed analysis of team/player performance, few clubs have embraced the data-driven approach as fully as Leicester City. Maybe because of the club's lack of resources, they were able to appreciate the importance of small margins that can be created through data analytics. These margins can make all the difference in competitive sports such as football. For example a study found improvements at the club were relatively low at 3.5%, but even a marginal gain like this might be enough for Jamie Vardy to reach a cross before a defender and score. In the end these small margins during each game of the season lead to one humongous win for the club.

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I believe the Leicester City success story is an excellent case study of what a dynamic company from any industry that is striving for innovation will look like. Through the desire to embrace new technology, working styles, new cross-departmental relationships and a new evaluation process, data analytics has proven to bring great reward to a company.

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