Ben joins us as the new Head of OptaPro, joining from Burnley Football Club, where he was the Championship side’s Technical Scout. Ben has worked in professional football for over nine years, enjoying roles at Norwich City, Reading, Fulham and Everton. Across his club career, Ben has enjoyed both scouting and analyst roles (at first team and academy level).
To welcome Ben, we asked him a few questions about his experiences in professional football and data analysis.
You’ve worked in academies and at first team level at a number of clubs in England. Is there an integration between these departments, and how transferable are the skills between these roles?
There is certainly an emphasis on different aspects of analytics within these roles role. In academy positions, the analyst’s work revolves around education. Introducing players to how analysis can impact their preparation and development is a vital aspect and working with players on a one-to-one basis occurs more often than in a first team environment, where there is a greater focus on team outcomes.
The academy focus on player profiling and development tracking – something I experienced quite early in my career – has been something I’ve been able to apply to technical scouting; a role I’ve done more of in the past few years.
The perception of an academy analyst role is sometimes considered a stepping stone to the first team; however these departments often contribute to some of the best longitudinal analysis and projection which can often lead the way for the rest of the club to follow.
You were heavily involved in two clubs’ introduction of technical scouting. How did you initiate and sustainably implement this process?
The process of identifying players always starts with what you already have and this means initially analysing your own squad and then matching this with the manager’s football philosophy. Once these profiles have been created it becomes a process of identifying the leagues and then the players who match each positional profile.
At both clubs we had limited European scouting coverage but needed to extend our reach beyond the UK. The most efficient way to do this was to use data to identify players that matched our specific criteria (which was developed by the manager) and then to use this information to coordinate ‘scouting weekends’ where we could go and watch these players in short trip to a particular region. In order for the club to take to this approach, the use of data had to be integrated alongside a more subjective approach.
The question of how advanced analytics can be feasibly implemented within a club is frequently raised. What have your experiences been and what are your thoughts on this?
We are certainly seeing the introduction of some more advanced metrics fully integrated into clubs’ processes, but a major challenge remains in how they are presented.
I always looked to simplify the data presented. Coaches want data to support and help explain tactical processes or to quantify a player's ability. For example, when describing a player’s ability in possession, presenting this with one figure – that derived from combining a range of in-depth, detailed statistics – worked for the coaching team. As long as you can provide a simple explanation as to how this is calculated, then this can be extremely effective.
How do you see data being used within a tactical context?
To really impact the game and influence the performance on the pitch we must continue to strive to find ways to use data and apply it to tactical concepts. Coaches are becoming more data savvy but can be quick to note (and often correctly) that data is used to describe performance rather than actually affect it.
Analytics in the professional environment should be aimed at trying to enhance the performance of a team or player, identify strengths and weaknesses in an opponent or quantify the impact of a potential signing.
In an article for OptaPro, Rob Mackenzie discusses the relationship between applying data and trusting a scout’s ‘gut feeling’. Have you had similar experiences in your roles?
As Rob suggested, the biggest challenge is breaking into the scouting culture and gaining credibility for not only your ability to use data but specifically to judge a player’s ability on your own tactical knowledge and experience. In showing an appreciation for this side of scouting, you create opportunities to put across your own ideas and to encourage scouts to use data to help narrow their searches and point them in the right direction for identifying new talent. It is about encouraging those scouts to continue to trust their instincts and experience but educating them in that data will provide additional support to the work they are doing.