The Data Game: James Nalton on the importance of analytics in football

The Data Game series sees Twenty3 speak to prominent writers and figures in football to get their opinion on the use of data and analytics in the beautiful game.

To kick things off, we caught up with world football guru James Nalton, who has written for the likes of BBC Sport, Forbes, This is Anfield, and is the founder of World Football Index.

Here’s what he had to say on how best to apply data tools to your analysis.

Why is context so important when looking at statistics?

The situation a player is in from game to game, or season to season, can greatly affect the numbers they produce. So, while stats on their own can be interesting, they are not necessarily useful. The tactics a team are using, their aims as a group (challenging for the title or avoiding relegation), the style of play in certain leagues, the weather conditions, and quality of team-mates are just a small number of the many variables which can affect football data, so context is key.

A good player is a good player in any league or situation, but sometimes the data can be skewed by circumstance and can be misleading if not presented properly. I think tactics are still an underappreciated aspect of player analysis, and always need to be taken into account when profiling a player, whether that be in the stadium or using data. Tactics, eye test, and data are all needed to complete the picture.

Without giving away too many secrets, how do you go about profiling players? What is your process?

Watch the player! Ideally live at the stadium/ground, multiple times. See what they do when they haven’t got the ball. Work out the manager’s tactical plan then see how the player fits (or is trying to fit) into that. How often does the manager need to give the player positional advice and how quickly can they take it onboard? How does a player react when something doesn’t go their way? Just a couple of the things you can’t always see on TV.

If you can’t watch them live, then try to find full games as well as selected clips (but even then you are only shown what the camera wants you to see). Then look at the notes from the games and see if the data backs this up. Does the data suggest something else? Watch the player again. Research the player’s background away from football. Articles written in the language of the player’s home nation are nearly always the most useful for this.

As someone who profiles players as a writer rather than an analyst, I think it’s important the article is not just aimed at coaches and people working in the game. The challenge is to tell a story rather than just writing a technical scout report and listing data.

What do you think is the most underrated or overlooked stat when profiling a player?

Any totals. Minutes played. Starts. High totals show consistency and availability, and a high number of starts show a player is trusted by their current manager.

High pressing totals can be an indication of stamina and endurance as well as tactical fit, for example. Per 90 stats are useful, but totals seem to be overlooked.

How has the Twenty3 Content Toolbox helped the way you work and the way you look at stats? 

It gives a graphical representation that is missing in a lot of online football analysis work. An image can replace 100s of words, and a good diagram can replace several still images from games.

The rankings, comparisons, personas, and raw data are extremely useful when used in context. Add in the graphical element and it’s a really powerful tool when it comes to helping explain what you have seen in a player, strengths and weaknesses.

Do you have any tips for anybody looking to get into the world of analytics?

Be influenced by others but try to do your own thing in terms of the presentation of data and the different datasets you use. Find the sets of data which can combine to reveal something others might not have noticed. Watch the player, look at the tactics, then see if your original conclusions are supported by the data. Set up your own online properties — website/blog/social media/video — then use these as a portfolio when looking for paid work. Don’t work for free unless there is something in it for you other than ‘exposure’.

Analysis content takes a lot longer to prepare than a standard article, so make sure you value it accordingly! This might seem like a minor thing, but be aware of social media image cropping sizes when publishing data viz online! Finding what a player is good at is relatively easy, but spotting and calling out an area of their game that needs improving can be much more valuable for all involved, especially the player! Remember to include basic things like height and build, strongest foot, strength on weaker foot etc in reports. Sometimes even the big data collection websites don’t get this stuff right.