Meet the men who led football's statistical revolution

When Opta brought their stats to the world, a new era was born; an era in which experts’ precise analysis replaced grizzled old pros complaining about players falling over, and pub arguments were based on fact for a change.

But who were, and who are, these mysterious, magical masters of the stat? Do they live in spaceships? Are they plugged into a giant mainframe? Do they have spies in headsets watching every game on the planet?

No. Three men sit around a computer and point and click. And somehow, it’s actually more impressive this way.

“We have a home team analyst and an away team analyst,” explains Paul Every, Product Manager at Opta. “When the home team have the ball the away team analyst is not doing anything, but when possession changes he obviously comes into play. Then the central screen, where all the events actually appear, is checked by a third analyst.”

Right. It all sounds a bit easy, to be honest: identify the players and trace where the ball goes. Simple, no?

“It’s important to point out our analysts go through six weeks of training before they’re let loose on a live game,” says Paul, “and even then it’ll be a more low-profile game.”

Ah.

Opta’s analysts have to record every 'event' - be it a pass, shot, tackle or save - with incredible precision. “And it’s live” (with apologies to Martin Tyler). All the stats come in real time, so the data is available in literally just a second or two, including on your phone with FourFourTwo’s new Stats Zone app.

And there’s more.

“Alongside all the basic events like pass, shot, save, there are a lot of detailed qualifiers,” Paul reminds us. “The system will identify a short pass or a long pass, based on the pitch co-ordinates, and the analyst can add ‘chipped pass’ and things like that.” Hence the third analyst: he’s not only there to provide a general overview, but add extra detail when the home and away team analysts are frantically keeping up with the play.

Look at the detail for passing alone. ‘Cross along the ground’, ‘pull back’ and ‘switch of play’ are all qualifiers, plus ‘kick from hands’, ‘throw’ or – brilliantly – ‘hoof’ for goalkeepers.

“Each analyst usually has a specialist team,” continues Paul. “One analyst will specialise in Arsenal, and know that team inside out. Because it’s all happening so quickly, they use recognition techniques to identify players: shirt numbers, what type of boots they wear, their latest haircut, even whether their shirt is untucked!”

So how can someone get involved in all this?

“At interviews we look for anyone that’s got an interest in football, and get them in for a quick quiz,” Paul Pettitt, Senior Data Collection Executive and former analyst. “Then it’s all about hand-eye co-ordination.”

“We find people into computer games and with a good knowledge of football often make the best analysts,” adds Paul Every.

This must destroy the analysts’ fun though. No more enjoying a game at the weekend – for them it must be all numbers and diagrams, the poor sods.

“Once you start training it’s pretty intense,” acknowledges Paul Pettitt, “but you can still enjoy the games. And some people end up supporting the team they analyse.

“They’ll have to analyse a French or German team all season, then they pick them up as their favourite team. A few people start buying their kits and supporting them.”

Well, it’s good to know the people tirelessly providing us with stats are having a good time too. Now you can enjoy FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone even more.

STATS ZONE:  Young, Downing, Gervinho… and Stats Zone  STATS ZONE:  More screenshots from FFT's new Stats Zone app

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