Footballer analytics – what does the past 20 plus years of research tell us?


But what’s it all for? Reflect upon last October’s prediction for 2022 and the background to why elite clubs have no choice but to become more serious about their analytics (Thinkers360 Predictions Series – 2022 Predictions for Artificial Intelligence). 

Despite the good intentions, clubs may still be limited by long established scouting and analyses structures and methods, in some cases with resistance in their organisations to even discussing, never mind adopting modern methods and it will take executive leadership and drive to change this.

Lawlor, Rookwood and Wright’s excellent 2021 paper “Player scouting and recruitment in English men’s professional football opportunities for research” discusses this mixed progress in clubs and calls for more research. A positive development shown by my own research, performing a systematic review of all the relevant literature, shows a steep increase in the number of studies involving footballer analytics research in the past twenty-seven years.

In addition, there is certainly no shortage of footballer attributes to be measured, with over 1,500 different attributes identified, although we must be careful to identify which are objective and measurable and which are based upon people’s opinions and therefore subjective. This is not because we shouldn’t value subject matter expert opinion, indeed this wealth of experienced judgement is essential, but we need to understand the blend of objective and subjective, to successfully apply our analyses. The research also shows that there appears to be scope for increasing and intensifying the application of modern machine learning analyses given that 65% of the papers identified solely applied statistical techniques and only 21% applied Machine Learning techniques with the remaining 6% applying a mixture of both. 

The future is bright – but only for the club executive teams who grasp the nettle. If you’d like to learn more, check out The collection, analysis and exploitation of footballer attributes: A systematic review.

By Dr Ed Wakelam

Keywords: Analytics, AI, SportsTech

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