“Citius, Altius, Fortius.” In English, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The motto chosen by Pierre de Coubertin in 1894 to accompany the Olympic Games is more relevant than ever, with athletes and teams trying to push their limitations as far as possible. When the visible is no longer enough, the indescribable comes into play. This is why data has been used in top-level sport for almost twenty years.
Nutrition, physical preparation, opponents: data can dramatically influence the performance of sports professionals. In a summer punctuated by major sporting events (UEFA Euro 2016, the summer Olympic games, the European Athletics Championships, and the Tour de France), we meet with Christopher Carling, a pioneer in the application of data analysis to football in France.
In England, it’s known as a “sports analyst” or “sports scientist”. I specialize in everything that takes place during matches. I worked for Manchester United for five years and for Lille OSC for ten years. At Lille OSC, I analyzed all the matches from a technical, tactical, and physical perspective. My work was more focused on longitudinal performance: analyses were based not on one single match, but rather on ten, fifteen, or twenty games. I also analyzed the statistical performance of matches depending on whether it was a victory or a defeat, a home or an away game, or a European Cup or Premier League match. In particular, I noticed that a team re runs less in the championship than in the Champions League because the standard is higher in the Champions League and players have to run after the ball more! I’ve also audited the trauma players have suffered, and worked on workforce management statistics.
In England, I have a degree and a doctorate in “sports science”. In France, you can study the Science and Technique of Physical and Sports Activities (STAPS), but in general, you end up taking an examination to become a PE teacher. In fact, many analysts in France haven’t had any sports-related training. Instead, experts come from the cinema and TV industries; they specialize in editing, but there is no in-depth statistical analysis like there is in England. However, it has started to come to France too. There are now professionals with Master’s degrees that are much more suited to the world of professional sports, such as the Master’s degree in Training and Optimization of Sports Performance that can be studied at the French National Institute of Sport and Physical Education (INSEP).
Yes, I did this around twenty years ago. In a nutshell, it did the same thing as what happens now, but it was with a pencil and paper! In particular, I was able to conduct a major study on dead ball situations.
It’s an optical tracking system. During the game, we follow the players with a multi-camera system, and at the end, we can calculate the number of moves, the distance traveled, the number of sprints, etc. Manchester United and Derby County used this system, and nowadays almost all teams use the Prozone system, the current name of Amisco.
It depends on the clubs and coaches. In some clubs, you focus on the next game because the coach does not want to hear any more about the one that just took place, as he has already moved on. Others will analyze the last match in great detail so as to improve performance in the next. And then you have the example of Manchester City, which has an entire department dedicated to performance with around ten analysts.
Initially, they said they wanted to make their training a little more scientific. There is a lot of subjectivity in football, so data can confirm certain things for the coach. That said, statistics do not tell the whole story of a match; sometimes you see teams who played a perfect game statistically speaking, yet did not win the match. We saw this during the England-Slovakia match for Euro 2016: the England team consistently dominated the game statistically, but ultimately they did not win. I think it should be a mixture in which the coach’s instinct plays a significant role, supplemented by statistics. We can’t do everything with stats and above all, you’ve got to know your subject to be able to use them.
Absolutely! A coach will by no means change the basis of his game with our findings, but they can have an impact on how he sees things. There are key moments in a season where statistics can influence certain choices, and even the results of matches. But the impact of analysts’ work remains very difficult to quantify.
Ah well, I can’t say whether that’s my doing or not! It’s a combination of things: the players, the coach, the structure. But one thing is certain: the statistics must have helped a bit. For example, we launched a study of the substitutes to analyze their contribution to the club’s results. It allowed us to see that during the season when LOSC ended up champion (Editor’s note: 2010-2011), substitutes helped earn 15 points in the season across five games. This is a concrete example of how statistics can be put to good use in sport.
Yes, that’s right. In particular, the players are better prepared physically, but there is still room for improvement. We collect, analyze and present the data to the staff, but in many clubs in Europe, it is not really clear how the statistics are used, or even whether they are used at all.
Have you worked in sports other than football?
Yes, I have also worked with the INSEP as a teacher and researcher and I’m currently working with a Rugby Federation. I am conducting research on trauma over a series of games; this is a subject that is much more critical than in other sports because of the impact on the physical and physiological game plans. Rugby is very advanced in terms of data analysis. For example, the FFR has had a research department dedicated to this type of question for several years.