Goal! What enterprises can learn from the England soccer team’s use of data analytics.

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks December 9, 2019
What can enterprises learn about tapping into data from the Manager of the England football team?  Quite a bit, it seems.

Google Next

Learnings for enterprise business managers can be found anywhere. For example, one of the celebrity guest speakers at the recent Google Cloud Next conference, England Soccer Manager Gareth Southgate, who delivered insights into both the way data can be generated and exploited, and the way that businesses need to think about how it is used.

Data is not just a dispassionate entity. It has real power and sometimes should be wielded with some care. This is especially the case when dealing with individuals and their indentities/personalities, and this applies whether the individual is an international soccer star, or one of the team in a mainstream business.

In the case of the Football Association (FA), it is applying technology to some of the strongest egos in the country. That is not meant to be disparaging, it is just something that inevitably goes with being an international soccer player. Get it wrong and permanent damage can be done: get it right, however, and significant advances can be made.

Earlier this year, the FA and Google signed up to work together on a project with the objective of utilising  the right technology to help them access information about player performance and provide insights about athletes that the FA could never tap into before. This is an increasingly common component of running a professional sports operation, for in the end success or failure of the business is dependent upon the players, be they individuals in sports such as tennis, or teams, like baseball or soccer.

The ability to track movements throughout a game, not just a position on the field of play but also speed and track in getting there, provide vital data not only on the way players operate, but also the type of training routines they need. Matching training to both the needs of the player and the coach is the ultimate goal.

Indeed, when it comes to soccer, an increasing number of clubs are now using technologies of this type. Certainly all of the Premier League clubs – where the majority of then England team have their ‘day jobs’ – make increasing use of data analytics technology. This, in itself, creates an additional problem for Southgate in matching his own requirements and ambitions for a player with those of their club coaches.

Collaborate, if you can

For example, Google’s solution is not the only analytical system available on the market, which can lead to technological incompatibilities as well as differences in training requirements between club and country. Southgate explained:

There are different systems and analyses. The style of your own team’s play really dictates what you want to measure. So some teams might want to play with more players forward, or more quickly, and so that would be a measure of playing in the style they think they should. Every team has a slightly different style of play, and what's important to them might not be as important to you. One of the beauties of it is that there isn't one system that will provide everybody exactly what they want. And everybody's going to read it slightly differently.

This has an interesting side consequence as I see it – if a manager/coach changes, is part of the overall cost inclusive of the investment in the player, the monitoring/analysis system of the new coaches choice and, perhaps, the consequential loss on the portion of the cost of the old system that is not amortised out?

The time available with Southgate did not allow this theme to be pursued, but it does seem like a very good argument for using short term as-a-service cloud contracts rather than making acquisitions. It also suggests that businesses need to be aware that if they take on a new senior employee – especially if that is because of their track record – they will want to bring ‘their environment’ with them. So a business now has to be prepared to allow for that rather than insist that they work with what the business already has or is prepared to pay for. This a market model well-suited to the cloud.

Southgate’s needs also point to another underlying trend that comes along with the growing use of the cloud. This is the way that Individuals (in this case) or businesses can now find much greater benefits working collaboratively rather than in competition. Consider the whole concept of multi-cloud operations as an example of this. By allowing businesses to use the best, or most appropriate, service provider or applications to meet their specific needs, all parties get a share of the pie. This is then nearly always much greater than a single service provider can generate alone.

In the same way, Southgate aims wherever possible to build a collaborative relationship with the team coaches of players selected to play for England. This does not always happen, however:

“Some clubs are willing to share everything. Some clubs are willing to share small bits, some clubs don't share everything. That's the reality of understanding (what they see) as their intellectual property. So the most important thing for us is to avoid injury, therefore the training load is a really key piece of data for us.

Data, sometimes fools rush in

Monitoring services now provide the potential to provide player information across the board, not just on the pitch during matches, but in the gym, and on the training ground, where tactics and set-piece moves are worked out and practiced, both by individual players and by small groups when expected to work as a unit. The widespread use of video and animation, coupled with the availability of data about upcoming competitors, means that complex video training seminars can be made available via the cloud to all that might need to see them.

This can therefore include players in the training programme who are not in the squad for an upcoming match, but still might be in the future. It also saves time and effort, as those players can watch the seminars when time allows, rather than have to attend a specific session, at a specific time, at a specific location. Southgate said:

We have webinars and hangouts rather than travel for five hours to attend a three hour session, so it makes life easier. It allows us to make choices and tap into that coaching knowledge and assessment.

The FA also uses Google services to help manage the team’s organisation and overall management, from travel arrangements through to managing social media interactions.

Southgate is also well aware that the availability of data about the players has a growing potential to be a two-edged sword, and is therefore very clear that the use of the data being generated has to be applied carefully and with moderation. Too much data, perhaps inappropriately analysed and tactlessly applied, can be very damaging:

Be careful’ would be my advice about how to use the data, because it's great to be critical of young players. But it's very easy to read too much, place too much emphasis on one piece of data, when you need to see patterns over a period of time. Everybody will have a bad performance and we have to be very clear on the message that we're going to give. There's lots of random things that can happen in a game of football.

Sometimes information for you is really important, but how you then interpret that to teams is even more important, because sometimes we can give them too much so their heads are full of confusion. If they are to quickly apply it, their heads need to be as free as possible. 

My take

While at first sight there is a world of difference between the Manager of the England football team and the CIO of a major corporation or a small, tearaway start-up following a mad dream. But in practice, so much now comes down to data and, perhaps more importantly, how and when that data is used.

There are learnings from Gareth Southgate that apply right across the board these days. Learn to share (selected, curated) data with partner companies – and even some that might be seen as competitors. I would also suggest there is advantage in learning to be slow(ish) and considered when acting on data and its analytical results. Everyone says, these days, that you need to be first in to get the competitive edge. But I would venture to suggest that being second-but-right is a much better option, and I feel business history shows this to be true.