Three different ways to apply data to football ahead of the Premier League’s return

Data is a word with four letters but the way it’s used often makes it feel bigger than that. Sometimes people ask ‘how to use’ football data, as if there were One Single Way or a multi-step programme for how to live a more enriched, wholesome, data-guru life.

There are definitely some things that should be recommended as a starting point, but they’re more like learning a language than following instructions to construct an IKEA cabinet. To speak French, you need to know what the French words mean. If you have a favourite idiom in English, you need to be aware that the literal translation might not be the ‘right’ translation.

To use data, you should have some understanding of what the data means but once you’ve done that — like you can use French to sing or write poetry or argue in court — you can use football data for a lot of things.

With almost 100 days of waiting since it was originally postponed, Manchester City’s welcoming to the Etihad of Arsenal is a timely example. Let’s move gradually from how you could treat this game with data for social media, for a light analysis article, or for more detailed analysis within the professional game.


Premier League statistics for most goals conceded from outside the box in 2019/20.

That should be ‘nuff said, really. 

Depending on what you find, what your audience is like, what your visual brand is like, you can just use a list of numbers as a quick hit. The care, in these instances, comes in how you portray that list. OptaJoe’s famous single word end to posts is so good because it hints at what the piece of trivia they’re giving you means, but without drawing any firm conclusions.

Similarly, asking the question of whether this is a shortcoming for Manchester City does a few things:

  • It primes the reader that this stat is going to be something potentially negative about Manchester City (which is likely to grab a lot of people’s attention)
  • It presents a stat which might be important, but without making a definite claim that it is
  • And that leaves things open for followers to debate themselves

The same stat could be presented with something like ‘Ederson needs to go to Specsavers!’, but this should be done to match a brand’s style (stirring things up, a bit antagonistic, deliberately not to be taken fully seriously).


There’s overlap between all three of these ‘categories’ of content, of course. The stats about conceding from outside the box could be used in an article about ‘how Mikel Arteta could outsmart his former mentor’ (or something like that).

Whereas on social media it’s the simple numbers that have the biggest impact, here it might be nice to actually show where these goals were scored from.

Goal map illustrating the goals that Manchester City have conceded from outside the box in the 2019/20 Premier League.

Now that graphic seems a little empty, so you could show all of the goals City have conceded in the league this season – the ones from outside the box will still be clearly evident:

Goal map illustrating all the goals that Manchester City have conceded in the 2019/20 Premier League.

Let’s stay with the topic of Manchester City’s potential weaknesses. Investigating how to take them apart is, as their 57 points in the league can attest, not exactly easy. However, we can make a start.

Below is a visualisation that an article gives space to explain, because people aren’t yet familiar with it. It shows where City get attacked — down the left, middle, or right — and how threatening the attacks in each of those sections are.

Flank Attacks graphic showing where opponents find their most success when attacking Manchester City.

City get attacked down both wings to a similar level, although their left slightly more, and it’s this left flank where attacks become most dangerous.


Noting that City are, perhaps, a little more vulnerable down their left-hand side is one thing, and could form the bulk of a decent article. But for a football club, there will always be many more moving parts.

Here’s the reverse of the ‘flank attacks’ visualisation we just showed: where City themselves attack.

Flank Attacks graphic showing which areas of the pitch Manchester City enjoy their most success in.

There’s an interesting trade-off now that Arsenal have to think about. From these two visualisations, City seem more vulnerable down their left-hand side; they spend more of their time attacking down that flank, but the danger created is actually pretty even between the left and right sides. Does the volume of City attacks from their left scare you away from trying to exploit them down the same side?

We can get another quick snapshot into where City are most threatening – that might help inform our decision – by looking at where they set their shots up from. And, to be a bit more detailed, let’s only look at home matches.

Heatmap showing where Manchester City are at their most dangerous at the Etihad Stadium.

That should put us at ease about trying to exploit a potential vulnerability down their left, our right; it might just mean that our own left-sided players have to be a bit more careful to give the team some balance.

And, just to check that the pattern of where City concede attacks holds up specifically at the Etihad…

Flank Attacks graphic showing where opponents find their most success when attacking Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.

This all gives a starting point for further analysis. From here, a team could look into the data in more detail, for games where teams seemed to try and take advantage of attacking down City’s left, and look for sequences in which they were successful. They could be passed onto video analysts.

A team could look into the data of how City get to those positions just-left-of-centre outside the box where they get the bulk of their shot assists from. This too could be passed to video analysts. You could look into your own team’s vulnerabilities as well, to see who might need to be given special instructions or extra attention in training to make sure they know their role inside-out.

How you use data is entirely dependent on what your aim and audience is. You might need to have spent some time getting used to what the data is before you really spread your wings with it, but, once you’ve done that, the sky’s the limit.

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