Winning by numbers: the role of data analysis in World Cup preparation


Almost 50 years have passed since England, the country who gave football to the world, last won the game’s most coveted prize: the World Cup.

In a bid to turn things around at this summer’s finals in Brazil, England’s manager Roy Hodgson has assembled the largest back room staff the country has ever known. It includes an array of nutritionists, physiotherapists and psychologists, and intriguingly, as many number crunchers as the playing squad has goalkeepers.

“England are taking three performance analysts to Brazil and you can bet the Germans and Dutch will be too,” says Paul Boanas, senior account manager at sports data expert Prozone. “In fact, I’d be shocked and a little horrified if all 32 teams at this summer’s World Cup were not using some form of data analysis to help improve their performance.”


Popular wisdom dictates that it was the Germans who first began using data to get an edge over their opponents. Prior to becoming head coach of his national team, Jurgen Klinsmann moved to California and became friends with Moneyball sports data pioneer Billy Beane.

On his ascension to the German football throne in 2004, Klinsmann wanted to explore the benefits of using data in football and enlisted the help of Professor Jurgen Buschmann from the Sports University in Cologne.

At Klinsmann’s behest, Buschmann assembled a group of students and colleagues to start putting Beane’s Moneyball ideas into practice for Germany. The result – a secretive group known as Team Cologne – began providing data analysis for the 2006 World Cup and has long since outlasted Klinsmann.

“Ahead of each tournament, the German Football Association’s coaching team receives a book’s worth of reading material,” says sports journalist Olivia Fritz. “It includes information about all the other teams. Later they receive another 40-page document and a DVD illustrating various tactics.”


Of course, not every country has the luxury of calling on a Team Cologne. However, between seven and 15 of this year’s World Cup finalists will be making use of the services provided by professional sports data companies such as Optaand Prozone.

With teams of analysts and cameras recording every pass, tackle and through ball in all the major leagues, Prozone and Opta are perfectly placed to help coaching staff whittle large pools of players down into the 23-man squads allowed at the finals.

“If you’ve got a lot of players to look at and they play in leagues around the world, you will scout some of them live but a lot will be done via video,” explains John Coulson, Optapro’s head of professional football. “We use data to index videos and make it easy for coaching staff to search not just for their players but also to narrow it down to things like if they’ve touched the ball in the final third or regained possession.

“The other main way data is used is through statistics on all sorts of things like passing accuracy and switching the play. When they’re planning their squads for the World Cup, coaching staff can use our database of metrics to compare their players and assess their opponents.”

This is an excerpt from the cover feature of Factor Magazine for iPad. Get the Factor app to read the full article and more World Cup-themed features.

Images courtesy of Adidas.

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