How data is changing the way football, Leeds United and Victor Orta approach the transfer market
In January, Marcelo Bielsa stood in front of a packed press room and explained for 70 minutes how he and his staff leave nothing to chance.
Analysis and data, of course, are ingrained into the fabric of the game in 2019. Bielsa, though, swung the door wide open for the world to see just how much in the wake of Spygate.
The incident where one of United’s coaching staff was spotted outside Derby County’s training ground in the build-up to the two sides clash sparked debate across the world of football.
Headlines were rash, but Bielsa’s briefing allowed the average fan an insight into how important and reliant clubs can be on data gathering in their search for success.
The Argentine revealed that 360 hours of analysis had been undertaken against each and every one of United’s opponents across the season.
A single game, he added, would take up to four hours alone for his staff with the data compiled aiding the assessment of what Leeds would be facing across the Championship campaign.
Leeds and sporting director Victor Orta are just as reliant on crunching the numbers in the transfer market.
Late last week, Analytics FC announced a formal link-up with the Whites to help the club with their “scouting and recruitment” process.
The data company already aid the likes of Premier League side West Ham, League One outfit AFC Wimbledon and MLS franchise Colorado Rapids in identifying talent.
They provide a “full range of services” which include a data-scouting platform – TransferLab – which tracks players in over “ninety competitions globally” and helps manage a scouting network for individual teams.
Orta has used the help of their data in the market already in recent seasons, with United’s January transfer target Daniel James being identified using this method.
James was just minutes away from becoming a Leeds player on deadline day before his proposed move from Swansea City fell through.
As fate would have it, he is now employed on the other side of the Pennines at Manchester United.
Leeds are among those who are fighting the constraints of Financial Fair Play in the Championship, with teams unable to post overall losses of more than £13m a season across a three-year assessment period.
The sale of Jack Clarke to Tottenham Hotspur will help, but many teams – United included – are having to approach the market in new ways, with the use of data and analysis becoming more vital as each transfer window passes.
Birmingham City received a nine-point penalty from the EFL last season after they breached the competition’s profitability and sustainability rules, leaving many clubs in fear of a similar charge.
Analytics FC say they will help United find players who suit “the style of play that Leeds are championing under Marcelo Bielsa”, with Leeds making use of their services to track potential incomings at Elland Road.
Similar approaches have been made in other sports, with perhaps baseball’s Oakland A’s boasting the most famous example through ‘Moneyball’.
The A’s, who were strapped for cash in the early 2000s, decided to analyse players in the open market mainly based on their on-base percentage, with general manager Billy Beane believing value could be found in those with a high conversion rate rather than expensive free agent acquisitions.
Beane, who now owns a minority stake in United’s Championship rivals Barnsley, found success in his methods.
United, through their sporting director, will now officially be taking a similar approach after the partnership was announced, in a bid to eliminate as much risk as possible during player recruitment.
The Whites are looking to land four new players this summer, with Liverpool’s Ryan Kent, Manchester City’s Jack Harrison, Wolves winger Helder Costa and Brighton defender Ben White at the top of their wish list for now.
“Football recruitment is changing constantly,” Orta said.
“Whilst there is no substitute for the well-trained eye of a scout, we also need to combine that skill with various scouting tools.
“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 marketplace.”
Teams such as Arsenal are heavily reliant on data companies in their search for new talent already, with the Gunners paying around £2million for US-based sports performance analytics company StatDNA five years ago.
The approach in the market is becoming more and more popular, and Leeds United’s latest link-up – in an official capacity at least – suggests the strategy is only going in one direction, particularly at Thorp Arch.