Unpredictable Jeff! How Data has Changed our Relationship with Football

Football's great stories typically involve dramatic turnarounds, or the underdog triumphing over the odds. This is how many of us become hooked in the first place, but is the unpredictability of the game being challenged by the new data-driven approaches to analysis and statistical measurement?

I readily concede that football is decidedly not interesting for quite a few people, those who presumably see the game as 22 illiterate millionaires hoofing a ball around to the accompaniment of cretinous chanting. This overlooks one of football's prime attractions, the abundance of something rare and precious in life: unpredictability. I love the fact that even at the highest level of the game, results are not what one might have reasonably predicted - something that I suspect Iceland fans are still celebrating. 

As a fan of American football from the early 1980s, I was always struck by the way US TV coverage involved a huge variety of statistical measures. Was it just the nature of the American game that allowed for this kind of analysis? After all, baseball is also very rich in statistics, the 'Moneyball' approach being perhaps the most celebrated victory for analytics in sport. Why was it that in the UK at least, footballing statistics seemed to go only as far as goals scored versus goals conceded?

Part of it of course is that the UK audience had no appetite for a sudden deluge of statistics, and partly also that no-one yet knew what statistics might actually be meaningful. Since the beginning of the Sky era however, we have seen a gradual increase in the prevalence of stats in football. Some of this was a desire on the broadcaster's part to make it seem like the game, and the coverage of it, had changed for the better. Higher production values certainly allow for this perception, but there is a huge gap between where we were in 1992 and today.

As the 2017 - 18 season approaches, many of us are forming Fantasy Football teams, creating strategies for wagers, or simply ruminating on what will happen and why. The forthcoming season looks to be one of the most unpredictable in years, so this is why the new approaches to analysing the game are so fascinating. It is no longer a question of goals scored, or of assists provided.

Today's broadcasts routinely mention, and expect people to understand, newer concepts such as pass completion percentages, interceptions made, headers won, distance run, etc. Our American friends will probably, and justifiably, roll their eyes that these basics were not always part of the game. But I believe that there are new drivers such as in-game betting which will see more complex metrics becoming part of the game's common parlance.

I do not expect there to be any amusing fan chants about xG any time soon, but I am expecting TV pundits to start referring to this metric very soon. I believe that the UK's football audience is in the middle of a learning process, and that with every season, a deeper understanding of performance is being developed.

Does this make the game more predictable and therefore less attractive? I think that meaningful analytics can only enhance our experience of football, both individually and collectively. Our relationship with football may be changing, but the joy (and misery) of the unexpected result, or 30-yard thunderbolt from a centre-back, will never disappear. 

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