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Like walking into a football world of James Bond

The FWA goes behind the scenes at Opta who have made statistics into an art form…

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

DID you know Queens Park Rangers striker Bobby Zamora was a more consistent finisher than Lionel Messi or Ronaldo?

True, you can prove just about anything with statistics, but there is not a stat worth knowing that Opta cannot produce within seconds. Their offices, a corner kick from Waterloo Station, are an anorak’s dream, like walking into a football world of James Bond. If you could enlist the help of any of the Opta team for a football quiz night it would be like having Usain Bolt as a ringer in the 4x100m relay.

Football writers love Opta because when Robin van Persie scores his next goal, chances are we are soon informed that it is the fifth consecutive game in which he has scored against the opposition from outside the penalty area with his left foot.

Each Barclays Premier League and Champions League game is analysed by three technicians, one for each team plus a checker who can change any mistakes during a match. Every time the ball is touched, an expert – and having seem them operate that is not too strong a word – logs it. There are around 120 different categories of ball-movement, with strict guidelines about each and it takes between two to three months to train someone to “cover” a game for Opta.

For example, a chip-pass is when the ball goes over head height while for an interception a player has to actively move towards the ball and intercept the pass. If the ball just hits a player it is not classed as an interception. As assist is the pass leading up to the goal, but not if a player wins a penalty. It is a pedant’s heaven.

Television broadcasts to the Opta computers are on a screen which effectively has the markings of a pitch on it. As soon as, say, Frank Lampard, passes the ball the analyst will click on “Lampard” and “completed pass” or whichever category it falls in to.

To become an Opta analyst you need not only an excellent knowledge of football, you must also be a keyboard wizard. Andrew Baruffati, who has worked for Opta for nine years, said: “For an average game I would input between 800 to 1,100 details for a team, though it depends on the side. Barcelona would have a lot more than that but it is not necessarily more difficult. While you are putting in a lot more events and you are busier, I prefer doing them because they are all clean passes. Covering a game involving Stoke or Bolton, there are more long balls with ricochets and tackles which can be harder to analyse.”

The intensity of Opta’s analysis during a match is such that Baruffati said: “At times I’ll ask someone what the score is and they won’t know.”

To guarantee accuracy, if an analyst is unsure about a movement he will flag it up and the checker will replay the move to ensure it is correctly logged. Each analyst’s inputting is checked to see how many changes had to be made to determine whether extra training may be needed. Opta are as foolproof and accurate as is possible.

The company cover football on a global basis and for overseas matches an analyst is usually given the same team to cover to help familiarity.

AT THE flick of a switch any team’s or player’s performances can be viewed on screen. Matt Furniss, the UK editor, showed me that after two games Tottenham had hit the woodwork more times – three – that anyone else in the Barclays Premier League. Despite the popular belief, Manchester United do not win the most penalties – over the last three seasons Chelsea hold that honour.

“Whatever happens during a game, we can go back to our database and check if it’s happened before,” said Furniss. Trying to find a positive note for Liverpool after their 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich it was discovered their passing accuracy at the Hawthorns was their highest in 10 years.

Unsurprisingly the pass masters are Barcelona, their 1,046 passes against Levante in the Primera Liga in May 2011 a record. The last time Barca’s opponents out-passed the Catalans was four and a half years ago.

Rather than assists for a goal, Opta, who also cover cricket and rugby in England, prefer chances created as a better reflection of a player’s ability to lay on opportunities for team-mates; it is not his fault is they are missed. Individual honours for 2011/12 in this respect go to Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil with 103 ahead of Lionel Messi on 92 while Xavi had 65. Michu, who looks the bargain buy of the summer for Swansea at £2 million from Real Vallecano, was not only Primera Liga’s leading scorer from midfield with 15 goals, he also created 64 chances, one fewer than Xavi, in 1,664 minutes.

Messi ended last season with 50 goals and 16 assists [for goals] in 37 Primera Liga games. “In any other period Ronaldo would be the greatest player in the world,” said Furniss. “He had a total of 46 goals and 12 assists in 38 matches.”

Of Messi’s goals, 44 were with his left foot, five with his right and one header. Ronaldo scored 33 with his right foot, six with his left and seven headers. Furniss said: “Over the past few years the most impressive player in this aspect is Zamora with almost an equal split between right, left and head. He is also one of only two people in the Barclays Premier League since 1998 to score a penalty with both feet, alongside Obafemi Martins”

Opta’s service is not used just by media outlets, many top clubs use their statistics as football moves more and more into the world of hi-tech. Furniss said: “If we were working for a club and they asked us for an analysis on their opponents, we could tell them how many goals they score from crosses, how many tackles they won in a certain area of the pitch…anything, really.”

The top clubs in England now have a dedicated team of analysts to pour through videos and Opta’s stats to point their scouts in the right direction. John Coulson, head of professional football, has collated details on around 6,000 players across Europe so if a club are looking for a particular type of player Opta’s stats can be a huge help in knowing who to watch.

Coulson said: “These people are there to support the coaches and managers. You wouldn’t expect a manager to have the time to go through videos and stats. Not just for scouting possible transfers, but also to show their own players details about their displays to help them improve even during a match. Clubs can take an Opta feed of the first-half and during the interval the details can help to improve a certain part of the performance, notably possession losses.”

Opta have a log of every penalty over the last nine years, illustrating which side the kicker placed the ball and which way the goalkeeper dived. “Both teams know what to expect now when a penalty is taken,” said Coulson.

IT IS for player recruitment that Opta are most focused on helping clubs. Tottenham had few doubts that Fulham’s Moussa Dembele was an excellent replacement for Luka Modric, but Opta’s details underline the Belgium international’s quality.

“We can see with things like ball recovery, duels won and key passes there has been a steady improvement over the past two years with Dembele,” said Coulson. On the other hand the dip in Nicola Anelka’s conversion rate between the ages of 27 and 31 dipped alarmingly so his departure from Chelsea caused little controversy.

Coulson’s database can be defined to help a club searching for a new player, for example a midfielder. Opta have 1,000 such players and that list can be redefined with aspects such as losing tackles or inaccurate passes and it will surprise few that Andrea Pirlo of Juventus came out top, the Italian followed by Spain’s Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid and Spain.

More fine tuning with passes only in the final third of the field with a minimum of 40 key passes which directly led to a shot on goal per game added still showed Pirlo leading the way from Xabi Alonso though Modric and Manchester City’s YaYa Toure were high on the list.

While these players are well known, Roberto Trashorras, an attacking midfielder with Rayo Vallecano, showed up well in terms of creativity.

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1 Comment

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    Notbenelton

    August 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Fascinating stuff.

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