the real fa cup

Prozone & OPTA Ruining Football?

A big sorry to optajoe on Twitter, top, top Tweeter that he is (and we are still big suckers for piles of beautifully thought-out stats) but I think the likes of OPTA and Prozone are killing football. These analytical tools are strangling the life out of a game that is, in part, beautiful because of its unpredictable artistry and invention. Passages of play are analysed, particularly by Prozone, so that at the press of ‘RETURN’, any Tom, Dick or Big Sam can get a full mapping of the average game plan of any decent team. Every pass, run, move, dribble, shot is logged, analysed and then nullified by a program that, by usage rather than design, is set out to stop rather than create. OK, quality defending can be beautiful but this data could be used to create, couldn’t it? But how often is it? This method of analysis essentially mechanises a player’s reactive thought process and demystifies the artistry of genuinely more gifted players. Only the most supremely gifted footballers can overcome the negativity.

When enough teams use the method you end up with a very turgid league, what you end up with is 12-14 similarly talented teams where the difference between them is decided by how well they interpret and use the data available. This is, arguably, why the Premier League can be so very, very dull. You may have an above average midfielder, able to play a cut-throat ball 75% of the time but who the opposition have analysed so they prevent that ball by positioning the central defender, at the point of release, 5 yards off the forward and closer to his centre back partner. No hole, no pass, no attack, no shot. A sideways pass. Another probe. Same result. That is but one example, of course, and by no means exhaustive.

This is perhaps why, along with financial and ethical reasons, the lower leagues are getting a bit more attention and are becoming more popular, relatively speaking. There is no Prozone there, you may have an idea that a particular player is handy and can do certain things well but perhaps not in any great detail, because you have only watched him a couple of times. This might be why you can see some cracking passes in the non-league. There are, for example, without intending to be unkind, some slightly overweight central midfielders who can barely move but stick the ball on their toe and you’ll witness a mesmeric 40 yard pass curled perfectly round the back of or through a defence and on to a speedy forward’s toe. OK, the striker might well then blast into row Z or scuff it to the keeper but you can’t have everything. It is, however, something, positive, not something destructive. Similarly you could see a winger who is unknown to the defender, they don’t know he’s better cutting inside so give him too much space. The defender might get wise to this but there is that element of surprise that wouldn’t be there if the winger had been reduced to a stat on a user friendly laptop screen.

Of course, it doesn’t always work, there is human error or good fortune but more often than not a stalemate or narrow, error-induced victory is the result. The by product of this is, of course, there are more very close calls and more delicate decisions a referee has to make and those mistakes are magnified because they stand out. If a game of football chess with this negative outlook and narrow window for error is what you like, fine, it’s not all bad, but I’d rather be entertained a bit more and not make a scapegoat out of the guy (ref or player) who committed the one error that decided a game.

This ill-conceived lunchtime rant is nearly over but let’s put the joy back into football and get rid of these stultifying devices. Or let’s all go and watch some non-league football and have a pie and a pint by the pitch. I know that’s technically not always allowed but you go and see if you can’t get away with it.

5 Comments
  1. So basically, what you’re saying is Sam Allardyce is the devil incarnate what with his science, and analytics and statistic coaches, et al?

    Couldn’t agree more if that’s what you are saying.

  2. Damon Threadgold

    Exactly. Ban science from football, it’s art. *Wry smile*

  3. Great blog, heartily agree. I’m a sucker for stats (even worked at OPTA for a short while ten years ago) but agree that sometimes we take an overly-scientific approach to the game.

    Worth noting that the way we’re trying to improve the technical ability of our kids is by not reffing them, not drilling them into positions, but giving them a small-sided game and letting them get on with it. It’s that freedom, time on the ball, getting players to work out situations themselves, that makes the best players.

    Stats can help stifle opposition, and therefore improve your chances of winning, so they’ll always be used. But the very best teams, the most successful ones, will always be the ones who can produce the unpredictable, the out-of-the-ordinary, the brilliant.

    And it’s that spontaneity that that make football so great. We need to keep hold of that.

  4. Interesting article. I wouldn’t say that Opta/Prozone and in general that computer programmes like that are ruining football, I would agree with you that perhaps it’s taking the ‘fun’ out of the game and has a habit of making players ‘statistics’ instead of talented and/or untalented players.

    Sometimes you can tell whether a player is good or not based on 1 performance, you don’t need a computer to tell you whether a player is good or not to a degree. There are lots of players who statistically may not add up to be a 9/10 midfielder every week and that because they have flaws to their game they’re ‘tracking back’ or ‘fouling %’ may not that great. Also people may look to much into stats and just because someone may ‘tire’ in the second half does not mean that they are a bad player, after all there are other players out on the pitch and even the great players (Ronaldo, Messi, Fabregas) have bad games because in some way or another they have a bad game.

    For those of us who watch football regularly live at games, you get to see what really happens in the flesh you know that sometimes players are marked out of games, they can not recieve the ball in the areas that they want them and that quite often players make mistakes because they are put under pressure by good opponents.

    Sometimes though it’s not always the best player who helps the team wins, case in example is someone like Claude Makelele who was the unsung hero of that great Madrid team, if it wasn’t for his tackles, hard work in midfield and unselfish play the likes of Figo, Zidane, Raul and that lad from Leyton would not have been able to do what they did with the ball.

    That point alone shows that sometimes good players aren’t ones who get the most points per game or however you want to call it. Taking the England cricket team now, someone like Eoin Morgan had an ‘ok’ average in first class and one day cricket and looking at that statistically you’d think that he would not be able to do it at the highest level of international cricket. However he’s done well and sometimes it’s players mental attitude and willingness to improve that helps them move up the ladder successfully.

    • Damon Threadgold

      I think that actually illustrates my point. Very good players can, more often than mortals, usurp the stats and win games with genius. But there aren’t many players at that level. However, with the use of things like prozone, the conscientious player can become king and learn to play the percentages to create something. That something, however, is not beautiful, it is pragmatic.

      It is Rory Delap’s ethic winning over Tuncay’s ability, for want of better examples. Prozone helps the Delap destroy the Tuncay. It is Prozone that helps the mundane triumph over the artist. Mourinho’s sides, for example, can stultify Barcelona. Is that ‘winning’ a football match or is it winning a competition to drill 11 men to stop 11 other men by the use of data? If the joy of football is simply to win then that is good. I would argue that that joy is open only to certain teams, the real joy comes from seeing the artistry that is being nullified, because winning is something only one team can do and, more often than not, it isn’t ‘your’ team.

      I don;t actually have a problem with Prozone, just the way it seems to be used. Negatively.

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