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Arsenal’s most significant recent signing will never step on the pitch

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Feature
7.94K   //    23 Aug 2018, 06:04 IST

Wenger
Wenger after a victorious battle against his zipper

Recalling some of Arsenal’s most recent signings we see a shift towards a transfer policy that targets proven players. Ozil, Sanchez, and Aubameyang are bonafide footballers with a history of winning that justifies their price tags.

Despite finally heeding the cries from supporters and splashing the cash on superstars, the club’s most important purchase might just be that of StatDNA.

Arsenal struck up a relationship with the sports analytics company in 2010. The initial deal was for the company based out of Chicago to provide the club with analytics for a single year for a fee of $250,000.

Seeing the value in the service early, Arsenal only made the deal if the company agreed to work exclusively with the club. Shortly after that clandestine tryst, other clubs sought the data-minded help of StatDNA. Unwilling to share its newfound advantages, Arsenal decided to purchase the company in 2012 for $4 million. 

Now if you were to walk through Arsenal HQ you’d find StatDNA’s founders and key members with a section dedicated exclusively to mining the world’s beautiful game for meaningful data. Following suit, other clubs too have shacked up with analytics, but not like Arsenal has.

Big sports analytics companies like Opta and Sportradar provide numbers for clubs around the league and world. But Arsenal is one of a few clubs to have purchased a data company that works in-house and produces numbers tailor-made for Arsenal.

Working so intimately with sports analytics means that Arsenal’s mathematicians can quickly shine a light on what’s considered meaningful data and what’s not.

The Gunner’s analytical team collects data on a wide range of in-game events. Through such a large pool of data they can discern how often defenders commit errors and how grace each mistake is. But more than providing coaches with raw numbers, the analytic team can even convey the certain type of error that occurred.

If a defender was allowed to run through unmarked, if an aerial duel or one-on-one battles were lost, all are recorded in a lucid manner so as to provide clear feedback to coaches.

Collecting numbers is one thing, but collecting meaningful data and being able to use it to one’s advantage is a new skill set in football. The difficulty in being able to understand the numbers may be a reason why Wenger is no longer at the club.

Despite having five or so seasons to implement the analytics, Wenger still never won the EPL or seriously challenged for a Champions League title during this spell. This is simply because not everyone knows what to look for.

A famous story within the world of sports analytics is how Sir Alex Ferguson once looked at the numbers and noticed that a prospective transfer wasn’t slide-tackling as often as the others.

Placing great import on slide-tackling Fergie decided that the defender wasn’t pulling his weight and decided against buying him. Now we know of course that slide-tackling is a last resort and that if in the right position a defender never needs to dive in.

The data provided by a sports analytics team is only as good as the communication it has with the club’s manager. With all the numbers swimming around the analytics team needs to know which ones to target.

The team must be informed that while recording the number of passes a midfielder completes is well and good, the number that really matters is completed passes going forward.

The nascent relationship between analytics and football is one that needs time to yield results. Unlike other professional sports, football has arrived late to the analytics party.

In the coming years look for analytics to play a more crucial role in a club’s transfer policy, in-game tactics, and training sessions.

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