As football continues to evolve, so too do the clubs that seek to remain at its cutting edge.
In a time not too long ago the idea of clubs having a team of data analysts poring over the minutiae of details of a players performance in order to realise unseen benefits when signing players was unheard of.
There has been a boom in the past decade, with Liverpool very much driving that forward in the Premier League through their adoption of data analytics, something that owners Fenway Sports Group have managed to implement with great success, delivering a Champions League and Premier League title in the past two years.
The model isn’t for everyone, however, and given FSG’s lack of transfer spend it has become a model that can represent penny pinching instead of being at the vanguard of a change in the game. That is something that is up for discussion.
But marginal gains is something that all big clubs are now seeking, hiring individuals in positions that simply wouldn’t have seemed fathomable 15 or 20 years ago.
Manchester City, despite their open wallet policy under the heavy spending ownership of City Football Group, have also turned their attention to trying to find the value in the margins in order to try and make sure them remain at the summit of English football under Pep Guardiola.
It wasn’t too long ago that the notion of sporting directors seemed odd, but City have now added a Cambridge University and Yale University alumnus who studied dark matter halos and galaxy clusters before data science at Harvard University.
Oh, and he has also worked as a successful hedge fund manager.
Laurie Shaw confirmed he was to join City in January in a deal that went under the radar, especially during a month when fans are concerned with the potential incomings and outgoings of the playing staff.
Shaw had been working for London-based algorithmic investment firm Winton Capital Management and the UK Treasury when City came calling and offered him a route into football.
His role within the City Football Group will be a broad one, working across the Group’s portfolio of clubs that include, as well as City, the likes of Girona, New York City, Troyes, Melbourne City and Yokohama F. Marinos, among others.
Shaw’s focus will be on building machine-based models to better manage player fatigue, injury and illness and he will also work on player identification, recruitment and individual development, pre and post-match analysis and recruitment of coaches.
Such attention to detail, and with Liverpool owners FSG eyeing their own club portfolio expansion through their £536m investment deal with RedBird Capital Partners, lends itself to the John W. Henry way of thinking.
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It is in baseball, where FSG’s roots lie with the Boston Red Sox, that the idea of using statistics really came into the mainstream, helped in no small part by Billy Beane, the man behind the art of ‘Moneyball’ and the man who had been in talks with FSG, along with Gerry Cardinale, over taking a 20-25 per cent stake in FSG through their special purpose acquisition company RedBall Acquisition Corp.
That deal never came off but Cardinale is coming to the FSG table with his RedBird firm, and given his own interest in analytics, owning a stake in Zelus Analytics, it will likely see more focus placed on getting the marginal gains across their sporting entities.
“We fully expect in the next few seasons—like it’s embraced in baseball—that these PhDs will also be on the pitch, in uniform and computer in hand, advising coaches on real-time match decisions,” Paul Conway, director of Pacific Media Group, the firm that owns Barnsley, a club which Beane has a stake in, told Bloomberg News.
“There’ll be an arms race for PhD statistics and physics talent.”
Liverpool have invested heavily over the decade of FSG’s tenure in the field of data analytics and have very much been seen to be at the forefront. But with City now adding Shaw, and understood to be hiring a further three positions similar to his, it seems like they are now looking to try and take the lead and use it to their advantage across their vast network of clubs.