Saturday 18 November 2017

Moneyball men here to stay

Mickey Ned O'Sullivan argues in favour of the use of statistics and the 'stats man' in the modern game

IMET someone I used to play football with and he was very curious about what exactly the 'stats' person did in modern team management. "I think the whole data thing is a load of rubbish, just making jobs for people. Did we not win loads of All-Irelands without it?" he commented. Well, while my friend is entitled to his opinion it's an opinion I certainly can not agree with.

Next Sunday in Fitzgerald Stadium two management teams come face to face in pursuit of the Munster Championship, Kerry's led by Jack O'Connor and Cork's by Conor Counihan. The essence of team management is to produce a winning team. Team managers the world over are continuously searching for something that will give them the edge over their opponents. Whatever it is may only give a one per cent improvement, but it could be the difference between winning and losing.

In team sport this edge may come from various methods of physical preparation, it may come from some specific aspect of mental preparation or perhaps from more effective methods of coaching. Because of the different aspects of team preparation the management team continues to grow – the coach, the fitness trainer, the sports psychologist, the physiotherapist, the dietican are all accepted elements of any management team now. The latest addition is the statistician and like everything new in the GAA the role is being viewed with great suspicion.

My introduction to the numbers game in sport came when I read a book about ten years ago named Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It is a true story about an American baseball manager called Billy Beane who managed the Oakland As on a very low budget.

Beane used stats to assess the potential of all his new recruits instead of the traditional scouting system, which based decisions on experience of the scouts and their "gut feeling". In a short while the Oakland As began to punch above their weight. Soon, the Moneyball method was being utilised with great success by all the top US baseball teams.

Soccer and rugby were very quick to jump on the stats bandwagon. All the statistics and data that was being gathered about the top professional players began to play a vital role in the transfer market. Clubs were no longer going to rely on subjective decisions about players because there was so much money at stake.

If a Premiereship club in soccer was looking for a midfielder they would now be looking for someone with a pass completion rate of eighty per cent. Another interesting statistic is that the top four teams in the Premiereship have a higher percentage of pass completion in the final third of the field.

Similarly in Gaelic football I would be confident that Kerry and Cork have less turnovers (loss of possession) inside their opponents 45m line than the other counties. In team sport it is estimated that if a team can reduce their errors (in all their actions) to between 15% and 18% it would be unbeatable.

In team sport the stats person is responsible for gathering a lot of data about every player such as how much ground each player covered during the game, how fast they ran and at what intensity. They know at what stage in the game they get tired, the amount of tackles they make, the amount of successful and unsuccessful kicks and passes of each player and the amount of support runs they make. There is no place for the lazy player to hide from the statistical Big Brother.

So, what relevance has all this to the Munster Final? There will be so much happening on the pitch for the full 70-plus minutes that no manager is capable of absorbing all this information in the heat of battle of a Munster Final. Nevertheless he needs all relevant information in order to make the correct decisions and the correct changes. This is where the stats person comes in.

Much of the information may be irrelevant so the manager must know what information to look for that is relevant. He wants to know how many times his team turns over possession and who are the main culprits, the number of frees conceded inside the scoring zone, the number of kickouts won and lost from both sides, how are they on the breaks, the number of scores from play and frees and the number of shots dropped into goalkeepers hands, the number of attacks inside the opponents 45m and the success ratio between the number of attacks and scores.

Both Conor Counihan and Jack O'Connor and their selectors will be studying all this relevant information during the game and especially during half-time. It is important to emphasise that decisions are not based totally on stats, but stats help the management team in the decision making process.

After games I like to analyse the game stats in order to assess progress – what went well and what needs to be worked on. I generally compare stats from game to game. For example, if a team has 45 turnovers (give away possession) I like to get a breakdown on the causes.

Was it down to poor kicking, poor passes, a player caught in possession or poor decision making? Subsequent training sessions would be geared towards reducing the number of turnovers in the next match with particular focus on the main cause.

I like to analyse the frees we conceded inside the scoring zone, who conceded them and how they were conceded. I look at how well we did on our own kickouts, why we won them and why we lost them. What was our scoring ratio in relation to our last game? All this information will prioritise what we will work on in training.

Unlike soccer and rugby there is no national data bank on inter-county footballers mainly because there is no transfer market in the GAA. Nevertheless, I believe a player's stats can have a major influence when it comes to team selection.

Next Sunday why not try to jot down some of your own stats during the game. It will give the game a whole new dimension for you. If my footballing friend does the same I am sure he would change his mind about the importance of the stats person in the management team and realise that the use of stats in the heat of battle can make the difference between winning and losing.

It looks like the numbers game is here to stay.

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