The Mathematics of the Beautiful Game

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When we look at the news and see how companies like Cambridge Analytica are controlling our world through analysis of big data, it can be quite concerning. Mathematics is becoming increasingly important in all works of life largely to to analyse and process the huge amount of data that is currently available.

Over the last decade or so this has also started to filter into professional sports particularly the high profile professional ones like football. Sometimes when you watch your favorite team fail to impress yet again there seems to be little planning behind their performance. However at the top of the game this is not strictly true. Mathematics obviously doens’t control the game of football but it is used to help managers, players and staff maximise their performances in a host of different areas.

The focus is of course using mathematics to give a team an competitive edge. This is in the form of analytics, algorithms and numerous statistical models in various sections of the game. It all sounds incredibly high tech and modern but the origins of using statistics in football is actually quite old. IN the 1950’s a gentleman names Charles Reep, a retired RAF officer who loved football decided to try and help his beloved Swindon Town.

How did he do this? Well he took out his notepad and started analysing the players – making notes about movements, positions, tactics and their setup during the fame. His goal was to try and identify small changes which could be made to help his team score more goals.

This was literally decades ahead of his time. Now as we approach the 2018 World Cup, this sort of analysis is actually commonplaces in football. If you tune into any football programme you’ll see a bewildering range of statistics about the game virtually as you watch on screen. Certainly on the UK football shows on Sky TV or if you’re streaming Match of the Day online like this, then you’ll get loads of statistics literally at the push of the button.

The biggest football teams in the world all use advanced systems of collecting data, analysing them and producing metrics and reports on all aspects of the team and their players. There is an element of using algorithms in bringing success to the football fields.

Ironically going back to Charles Reep – his team had little interest in the statistics that he was producing. However another team did decide to take it further employing him as an adviser, that team was Brentford Town. The West London side were struggling with relegation and used all his recommendations which indeed seemed to make a huge impact on their results. Brentford were saved from dropping down a division and he was considered something of a hero to Brentford fans.

Reep however was not popular among other football fans partly because of how his data suggested the game should be played. His data suggested that the majority of goals scored came from moves involving three or less passes. In essence he suggested the most effective way of winning a football game was to play the much maligned ‘long ball’ game. Basically to maximise their chances thy should hoof the football forward and hope for a knock on or lucky break.

Football teams now take this sort of data very seriously and the revolution of ‘big data’ is increasingly being employed by teams at all levels of football. Indeed commercial data companies like SAP are starting to get involved in managing the data produced by actual games and training of professional football teams. The training is the obvious target initially because you can analyse and modify training much more than you can the actual game. Crunching and analysing the data means you can look at the strengths and weaknesses of each individual player and adapt their training to maximise their performances.

Additional: How to Watch Match of the Day Online