Changing the Game: The Concept of Player Archaeology
As part of Prozone’s Changing the Game event on 21st November, Business Development Director Blake Wooster gave a keynote presentation about how a more contextualised approach to data can help us to more fully understand performance.
“I want to know their stories. I want to know what these people are all about and how they became who they are.” (Stephen Francis)
Head Coach at MVP Track and Field Club in Jamaica, Stephen Francis is the man responsible for the development of some of the finest sprinters in the world. Having nurtured the talents of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Francis is renowned for his ‘recruit for attitude, train for skill’ philosophy. In order to get the very best out of his athletes, Francis wants to know the source of their internal motivation and competitive drive.
The potential to adapt this concept – understanding the story behind a player’s development – is something that resonated with our team at Prozone as a relatively unexplored area. It seems obvious to look at past performance in an attempt to identify the factors that lead to success and indicate likely future development, but football’s short-termism rarely affords those involved in day-to-day analysis the time to indulge in retrospective longitudinal research.
The concept would seem to carry even greater relevance in light of the drive to produce more home-grown talent. In the UK, for example, this has been manifested in the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) and the recent opening of St George’s Park. Indeed, with the implementation of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, teams further afield are often having to produce talent to stay in business, something that has instigated a global push towards improved player development.
Using the term ‘Player Archaeology’, we’ve used the example of James Milner, currently of Manchester City, to illustrate how it’s possible to use past performance to unearth key moments in a player’s career trajectory. Since making his Leeds United debut at the age of 16, Milner has played for three other Premier League teams and switched clubs on five occasions. With a long and transient career in the top flight, Milner provides us with a rich narrative to assess in terms of performance development.
Predominantly playing as a wide player, we can assume that coaches generally look for Milner to exhibit playing characteristics such as showing for the ball, crossing, passing and shooting. In the interests of a concise analytical approach, our analysts have synthesised these metrics into one stat: Offensive Efficiency (the number of successful passes, successful crosses and shots for every pass received). As a result of having 10 years of technical data, we’ve been able to plot Milner’s Premier League performance across the last decade.
Two patterns in Milner’s archaeology really stand out. Firstly, it would seem that Milner takes some time to adjust to the playing style of each new team. This adaptation effect can be seen most clearly after his move from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2010/11. His Offensive Efficiency decreased from the previous season, only to improve again in 2011/12.
An awareness of the time taken to adapt to a new team (whether owing to factors on or off the field), is important when setting expectations around the impact that a new player can make. In other words, teams should be aware of the time it can take for a player to adjust to their new surroundings.
The second major trend is a jump in Offensive Efficiency after a loan spell. In 2006/07, having spent a season on loan at Aston Villa, Milner’s performances improved exponentially. It was interesting to read a quote from then Villa manager David O’Leary: “I think we’ll make James a better player, and that Newcastle can’t lose out. I think he’ll play a lot more games for us and he’ll show people what a good player he is. He’ll learn and get experience.”
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the loan move was a shrewd piece of business for both clubs – Newcastle and Aston Villa benefitting from Milner’s development and improved Offensive Efficiency.
Of course, the key is not necessarily what happened, but why it happened. We can all speculate on why Milner’s performances improved, and data doesn't provide all the answers, but it’s fascinating to use the Player Archaeology as a platform to go back in time and attempt to understand the underlying factors behind performance development. More importantly, if we can consistently identify success patterns, then we can endeavour to replicate the things that worked and avoid the things that didn’t.
Every player’s development is a uniquely nuanced process, but can it really be a coincidence that some organisations are consistently able to produce the world’s best talent? The likes of MVP Track & Field, British Cycling and Manchester United have all generated legacies of continued success achieved through identifying and nurturing talent and investing in athlete development.
Given that we’re dealing with humans, there will never be an exact science to nurturing talent. However, there’s a lot to be said for the creation of a culture that aids the development of players and capitalises on the available talent pool.
Pioneers in performance analysis, Prozone are committed to delivering analytical insights that go far beyond the traditional gauges of performance. To find out what Prozone can do for you, visit the Services section of our website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.