Data boss on Leeds United and Liverpool success, new Elland Road deal and post Brexit transfers

Jeremy Steele of Analytics FC first encountered Victor Orta when carrying out an audit on the Leeds United academy.

Friday, 2nd April 2021, 5:47 am
RULED OUT - Onni Valakari is a player clubs in Britain will no longer be likely to sign due to the Brexit rules on recruitment but data firm Analytics FC say they can help clubs like Leeds United to quickly calculate eligibility. Pic: Getty

A former youth team manager at Brentford, Steele was working with Belgian football consultancy firm Double Pass who were contracted to assess and categorise clubs' youth systems.

Leeds passed the Category 2 audit with flying colours and according to Steele could have at that time applied for the Category 1 status they recently obtained.

He crossed paths with Orta again two years ago when looking for his next move in the game and although Elland Road wasn’t it, Leeds United’s director of football did point Steele in a direction he liked the look of.

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“I went for a meeting with Victor to see if there was anything going at Leeds and he told me about a Russian guy who wanted a sporting director,” he told the YEP.

“The job was working as a sporting director across three clubs, Pafos, Riga and FC Rodina Moscow, owned by two Russian multimillionaires.”

Basing himself in Cyprus he oversaw the recruitment strategy for the group of clubs until January of this year, when he left the role.

Somewhere along the journey from auditing Leeds’ academy to Orta’s tip off, Steele founded Analytics FC.

Having become aware of the growth of analytics during his time at Brentford where he tried to incorporate it into coaching, he began mulling over the role data could play in day-to-day operations of a club, while working for Double Pass.

“Working for a company like that gave me the time to think about what services a club would need and how you could integrate new data,” he said.

“I approached a group of guys who were doing some cool data analysis and asked if they wanted to do it commercially. We started the company from there, first as a consultancy and now we’ve got the software platforms which are pretty popular.”

TransferLab is one of Analytics FC’s platforms. It uses data algorithms to provide insight on players, their performances and abilities, with the aim of allowing users to make informed recruitment decisions.

“Clubs were happy to bring us in [to consult] but you don’t get quite as much insight into what they’re doing as you’d need to deliver a really good result, so you want to give them the power to take your algorithms and do what they want,” said Steele.

Leeds use TransferLab as part of their knowledge gathering efforts when it comes to recruitment. West Brom, West Ham, Derby County and most recently HJK Helsinki, are also clients.

“A system like Analytics FC’s TransferLab gives us incredibly important information and allows us to create comparisons between targets and other players in the market place,” said Orta.

Orta has enlisted further help from Analytics FC in the transfer market.

“We had a long-term contract with Leeds regarding TransferLab, and there’s a few times Victor has been very interested in players and we’ve given quite in-depth reporting,” Steele told the YEP.

“We did it on the Daniel James transfer and I guess Victor used it to present to Angus Kinnear and the board and to try and move quickly on that one. He’s come back to us a couple of times for reports, like in the last transfer window.

“I would guess that 99 per cent of the transfers done at Leeds would touch on the TransferLab algorithm. We know that West Ham do a lot of work with TransferLab.”

One of the firm’s more recent additions has been an API [application programming interface] that allows clubs to layer TransferLab’s data over their own information, like GPS data, through their own tools and platforms.

Leeds have just agreed a deal to incorporate the API into their work at Elland Road.

“It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with,” he said.

“It means that in-house they can do very in-depth, very specific to Leeds stuff. It makes it even more bespoke for them, which is important I guess when you’ve got a head coach like Marcelo Bielsa who is pretty bespoke.”

As clubs like Leeds navigate a post-Brexit transfer market, with rules that will close certain avenues and open others, Analytics FC spotted an opportunity and launched a Brexit calculator to determine a player’s eligibility based on the new points system.

“Our thought was every club and agent that’s going to deal with an English team is going to need the calculation. It’s a bit mad that one of the most high profile industries in Britain is having these kind of barriers put up to recruiting overseas players. It’s a bit of an own goal, a Brexit problem. It does kill English clubs in that sense, for recruitment.

“We had a player at Pafos, Onni Valakari, 21 years old, probably the best player in Cyprus, top scorer in the league from midfield – there were rumours in the Cypriot press that Leeds were tracking him when Victor visited Pafos.

“We signed him from Tromsø. I think he scores two points within the new system so he’s miles away from being able to sign for a British club, even though his British agent would love to take him to a Championship club.

“Players like him are completely off the radar now for British clubs, but I suppose it does open up the South American market.”

While Steele still senses a certain reticence in some quarters, mostly outside the ‘big five’ leagues, data is becoming accepted big business in modern day football.

“I spoke to a well known sporting director and showed him the platform and he got it, but he talked about still having to convince players to come, doing the soft-skill part with the families,” he said.

“Of course you do, that’s true, but you have to do that anyway, having the data helps reduce the risks of identifying the wrong player and gives you an in-depth view of what he’s going to do on the pitch. It takes time for new things to take hold but in the big five leagues most clubs recognise they need these kind of tools and insight. There’s been a massive glut of appointments of data scientists, physicists, mathematicians. It’s definitely taken off.”

He believes clubs, like Leeds, who have embraced data and use it to give themselves as much information as possible with which to make the big calls, will be better equipped to deal with the changing challenges of recruitment.

“They’ll be able to react far quicker,” he said.

“If you’ve got companies like us or internal data scientists and you can build even a small tool like a [Brexit] calculator, it means you can react far quicker, rather than taking days and weeks to go through lists of players to work out if they’re eligible. The more clubs buy into data and not just having it, but the time saving aspect of automating tasks to get information much more quickly, the better.

“I think why Liverpool and Leeds have been so successful when it comes to data is that they actually know how to integrate it into their decision making.”