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How AI & big data are shaping the Premier League

Football is often a game of very small margins – the difference between winning and losing can sometimes come down to a single moment, and clubs, teams and managers are always vying for the slightest advantage.

This could involve leveraging the latest innovations in the science of fitness, but tactical analysis is another key area.

At one time, this would have involved managers and their staff watching other sides in the flesh and scribbling notes for their own players to take on board when going up against those teams. A little further down the line came the analysis of video and then DVD recordings of games.

Now, a number of teams are using big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to take a lot of legwork out of researching opponents and tweaking your own tactics to suit.

Spatial data to analyze World Cup game

Before their semi-final match against England, Croatia’s analyst Marc Rochon was able to instantly call up, among other things, every set-piece that England had taken in the tournament. This included the type of delivery favoured by each taker, the runs that the players had made, and ‘danger areas’ in the box.

Tactics still have to be successfully carried out, of course, but a pre-armed Croatia were able to largely nullify an area in which England had been very successful to that point.

The programme uses spatial data to analyse other areas, such as how a team counter-attacks, how high they press, their vulnerability to crosses, and pretty much any other area of football strategy. This data is derived from the optical tracking of every Premier League game that has been stored over the past few years.

Manchester City’s senior first-team performance analyst Aaron Briggs told the BBC: ‘The spatial data is so key because when you look at an individual’s involvement in the game it is normally less than two minutes on the ball. ‘The spatial data is the other 98% of the game that no-one has really looked at previously.’

As well as Manchester City, Liverpool also employ data scientists to crunch the numbers, suggesting that this is an area that will only grow as the top teams continue to aim for every last piece of advantage they can get.

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