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How the use of statistics in modern football is changing the game

For so long, we’ve seen managers and clubs take on players with little more than a hunch. Or because they see something that the majority don’t see.

It hasn’t always been the most successful method of business for clubs across the world, but there are always some diamonds in the rough. You don’t need to look too deeply, either.

Ballon D’or winner and World Cup finalist Luka Modric is a great example. As a child, Modric grew up during the Croatian Independence War. A far cry from the high-grade youth academies we see at any number of top-flight clubs today.

After being rejected by his childhood club, Hadjuk Split, Dinamo Zagreb took a chance on the then 16-year old, signing him. He was loaned out numerous times before turning into Zagreb’s shining light.

He eventually would sign for high-profile Premier League club Tottenham. After a successful stint in North London, he made the dream transfer to Los Blancos, Real Madrid.

The rest speaks for itself.

Four Champions League trophies, a league title, three domestic cup titles, three UEFA Super Cup triumphs and three FIFA Club World Cup victories.

Luka Modric will forever live on as a footballing legend.

Mario Balotelli is another great example. A footballer who has always had an attitude, the Italian striker originally trialled at Barcelona as a junior. However, he was never signed up by the Blaugrana for that very reason. Attitude.

However, Manchester City took a chance on him, recognising his talents. They believed that if they could harness that talent and help him drop the arrogant tag, he could help them win trophies.

Now, we know they were right. Before ‘Aguerooooooooo’, there was ‘Balotelli’. His influence in that play justified the chance Roberto Mancini and City took on him, regardless of anything else.

His City career may have been short-lived, but he repaid the faith and in turn, became a Manchester City legend.

Now in saying all of this, there are some footballers who have failed to repay their managers, fans and clubs. These are the times when perhaps, those who take the chance on these players when no one else will, should’ve listened to the majority.

Ravel Morrison sticks out like a sore thumb on a list of high-potential players that never fulfilled their destiny. Once touted by Sir Alex Ferguson as ‘the best he had ever seen’, Morrison’s career went downhill quicker than you could snap your fingers.

A once promising English football talent, Morrison now plays for Swedish club Ostersunds and with full respect to the Swedish leagues, it’s a far stretch from where he could’ve been.

Juan Manuel Iturbe, once dubbed ‘the next Messi’, was another immensely talented youngster who had the world at his feet at a club like AS Roma back in 2014.

But a slow start in the nation’s capital saw him out of favour and soon, out of the club. After several loan spells at AFC Bournemouth, Torino and Club Tijuana, Iturbe now represents UNAM in the Mexican league.

25 years old and no longer playing in Europe, it appears he may never get another chance.

All this can confirm one thing.

We never know just how high a player’s ceiling is. We can listen to all the talk, read all the hype. But at the end of the day, we never truly know until they get out on the park and on the big stage.

Which is why the use of statistics in player recruitment has become such a worldwide phenomenon amongst football clubs, especially in the age of technology.

There was always research done when clubs looked to sign players, but that’s child’s play compared to the amount that professional clubs do nowadays.

There’s no stone unturned. No book unopened. No margin for error.

Clubs get one chance to do it right and if they get it wrong, it’s disastrous. But when done correctly, it can be a masterstroke.

Davy Klaassen was signed by Everton prior to the 2017/2018 Premier League season. Despite a lot of hype behind a player supposed to be in his prime, Klaassen failed to cut it, managing less than 500 minutes in both Everton’s league and Europa League campaigns.

Klaassen, an attacking-minded midfielder, averaged at least one shot per game for Ajax in their Eredivisie and Champions League matches across five seasons. He was involved in 21 goals from 30 appearances during the 2015/16 league season. Then, the season before he joined the Toffees, he was involved in 23 goals from 33 appearances.

He was named the Dutch footballer of the year in 2016.

But when he joined Everton, he averaged a mere 0.3 shots on goal during his time in Merseyside with no goals or assists to his name, either. That’s for the Premier League and Europa League.

So why didn’t he work at Everton?

We may never know, but we can only assume that his playstyle wasn’t suited to that of the Premier League. He may not have been a physically or mentally prepared as he should’ve been.

Now at Werder Bremen in the German Bundesliga, he has a second chance to show that he can cut it in Europe. But it seems to be a long road back.

It is possible, as players such as Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne have proven. Once cast aside by Premier League clubs, they worked hard and earned another shot in England.

Now, they are two of the best players in world football.

As an example of a player who has been able to prove his worth in what is regarded as ‘the toughest league in the world’, let’s take a quick look at Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The Arsenal talisman was a proven goal-scorer at Borussia Dortmund, scoring nearly 100 goals during his 150 appearances at Die Borussen. He was also prolific during his tenure at Saint-Etienne, prior to Dortmund.

He averaged one scoring involvement per game in his last full season for Dortmund and was on track to repeat those efforts the following season. Before Arsenal snapped him up in the winter transfer period.

Also bear in mind that Aubameyang had also performed strongly in the Champions League prior to his move to North London, scoring 15 goals from 25 appearances.

He has repaid Arsene Wenger’s faith and also that of new coach Unai Emery at the Emirates, scoring 32 goals from 50 games. A remarkable record for someone so new to the Premier League.

Aubameyang is clearly a player who is well suited to the physical and fast-paced nature of the Premier League, something Davy Klaassen was perhaps not.

In conclusion, the use of statistics can go a long way to helping clubs sign up players who will become icons. But in some instances, it’s that something special that someone sees that determines a player’s success.

But one thing’s for certain.

The age of technology and the use of statistics has changed the way we and football clubs see professional footballers.

Caelum Ferrarese is a Senior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on micro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions at grassroots level.

New A-Leagues, work still to be done

Australia’s top-flight A-Leagues is back and whilst much has changed it is clear that there is still a lot of work ahead.

Australia’s top-flight football competition is back and whilst much has changed it is clear that there is still a lot of work ahead.

The clubs are no longer driving from the back seat, and they have wasted no time and spared little expense in committing to a major makeover to Australia’s top-flight competitions, A-Leagues Men and Women.

A glossy new look, an inclusive new name that bundles the premier men’s and women’s competition, sleek new graphics, a bumper free-to-air deal as well as a new streaming service and dedicated football news platforms all represent solid wins for the Australian Professional Leagues ahead of their debut season on the back of a mountain of preparation that has gone into the promotion of the competition.

Whilst only the most naïve will have expected the efforts to deliver an instant return, the sobering numbers from the opening round of the 2021/22 A-Leagues Men season demonstrate just how much work lies ahead.

Not even the gloss of all the stellar exertion put into revamping the look and feel of the A-Leagues and the fantastic efforts that went into broadcasting the competition to Australia’s audience could completely deflect from the real issues that football continues to face in Australia.

Put simply, they are the same issues that have plagued the sport in Australia for decades, including infrastructure and failing to connect with every part of the Australian football fraternity.

The embarrassing relocation of Macarthur FC’s opening round clash with Wellington Phoenix due to the dire state of the pitch at Campbelltown Stadium will have resonated with hundreds, if not thousands of football administrators all over the country who rely on third parties to maintain their playing surfaces.

It’s one thing for a third-tier state league team to have to relocate a game due to a bad pitch.

It’s another thing for it to happen in the top-flight. Put bluntly, it’s completely unacceptable.

The issue serves as an urgent reminder for the needs of football owned and operated infrastructure.

The sub-10,000 attendance figures at four out of six games highlight the top-flight’s ongoing struggles to get bums in seats and build genuine support for expansion sides.

Off the back of a championship-winning season, Melbourne City would have to be disappointed with a crowd of 7,213, whilst the 8,210 who turned out for Western United’s home game against Melbourne Victory were largely supporters of the away team.

The relocated 1-1 draw between Macarthur and Wellington attracted a touch over 1,000 people, with a contingent of the people in the ground having stuck around following the earlier F3 Derby between Central Coast Mariners and Newcastle Jets – a fixture which was attended by less than 7,000 people.

They are numbers that must concern the clubs involved, regardless of the various mitigating circumstances that have been offered as explanations.

Macarthur’s relocation to Newcastle for the weekend was undoubtedly a major issue. However, excuses in Melbourne that with lockdown over, people have other priorities will not hold up in the long run.

The reality is that the pool of ‘new fans’ without attachment to an A-Leagues team or another club is dwindling in an extremely competitive market and this is not something that the APL will be able to expand its way out of.

For football and economic reasons, there is no denying that the A-Leagues needs more teams – as Adelaide United coach Carl Veart passionately advocated for last week. The methods for adding those teams is a critical component of the discussion moving forward.

There are clubs that exist today all over Australia that bring comparable, if not larger, crowds to Macarthur FC, Western United and at times Melbourne City.

Surely, at some point, these clubs deserve an opportunity. One of the biggest obstacles to making this happen is undoubtedly football’s first big problem – infrastructure.

Encouraging further investment in existing football infrastructure through the carrot of opportunities to access the top-flight could be a turnkey solution that will help solve both of football’s biggest issues.

The main short-term issue that was highlighted in round one was the varying quality of stream quality on Paramount+.

Personally, this was not something I experienced watching at least parts of every game via the Apple TV app on my television.

I did notice what seemed like a slightly reduced quality when simulcasting the Western United v Melbourne Victory game on my phone whilst watching the Sydney Derby on TV, but the second half seemed to be an improvement on the first.

Of course, it’s not all bad.

Technical streaming issues are nothing new when it comes to new services launching their live products.

We all remember the hugely frustrating buffering issues many users experienced when the Premier League first arrived on Optus Sport and the issues faced with the 2018 World Cup in times of peak demand.

Optus Sport rose to the challenges remarkably well and at this point, there’s no reason to doubt Paramount’s ability to do the same.

Elsewhere, a sell-out crowd packed into HBF Park to watch Perth Glory’s entertaining 1-1 draw against Adelaide United.

No doubt many of the 17,198 who attended the fixture were attracted to the game for the chance to get a glimpse of former Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool star Daniel Sturridge, highlighting the power of genuine marquees in attracting a crowd in Australia.

A healthy 23,118 at the Sydney derby at Commonwealth Bank stadium bodes well for two of the competition’s big teams in a crucial market, too.

The derby also attracted a free-to-air audience of 146,000. On face value alone, that’s not a hugely impressive number, but it is a number that bodes well for the competition according to industry experts, with well-known sports industry commentator @footyindustryAU suggesting that the number was “almost certainly” the highest-rated non-final A-League game in the last five years.

Like most things in life, the marketing gloss will never hide every flaw and the flaws don’t necessarily mean the world is coming to an end.

Round one 2021/22 represents progress and steps forward for Australian football.

The steps forward, however, are on a journey that still has miles to be walked.

Is the A-League prepared for sportswashing?

With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

This month, Newcastle United became the richest club in world football – due solely to majority ownership by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Wealth Fund. With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

World football has a problem with ‘sportswashing’ – which the Macmillan dictionary defines as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation” – as exemplified by the purchase of Newcastle United by the investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government.

This same government assassinated journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish consul in 2019, and now they have been allowed to purchase a football club in the world’s most-watched sporting league to rehabilitate their reputation on the world stage.

The World Cup in Qatar might be the biggest sportswashing event of all. The host nation of the 2022 tournament has a horrid reputation with human rights abuse, and over 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country since the World Cup was announced, with the total number likely significantly higher.

Countries like Australia will have no qualms sending their national teams – helping legitimise Qatar on the world stage and sportswashing away the human rights abuse and death toll that the event has created.

Australian football – and the A-League – will face a reckoning with sportswashing in the future, the question is how can it be combated?

Australian football has fought its fights against possibly malicious owners, both domestically and foreign. Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler promised the world, but left the Gold Coast without a club – and the Newcastle Jets penniless respectively.

Clive Palmer left Gold Coast United in ruin.

Foreign owners have also done their damage. On January 4, 2021, Martin Lee’s ownership of the Jets was terminated after he failed to inject any money into the club since October 2019, while also failing to pay any of the club’s debts.

ABC’s Four Corners revealed a director – Joko Driyono – for the company that owns the Brisbane Roar with the Bakrie family – was jailed for 18 months for match-fixing Indonesian football matches.

According to Indonesian business records, he remains the president director of Pelita Jaya Cronus, the holding company for Brisbane Roar.

Joko Driyono, director of Brisbane Roar’s holding company, spent 18 months in jail for match-fixing.

Does the ownership model of the A-League create accountability for owners, and do Australia’s corporate regulators do enough to ensure that malicious owners can’t drive clubs into the ground for personal profit or gain?

Take the Martin Lee example. Under the current franchise model of the A-League, he has no personal liability for the debt accrued by his ownership, and faced no repercussions for running the club into the ground before the A-League took back the license.

Former Newcastle Jets owner Martin Lee was forced to hand back the club’s license.

He simply abandoned the club after it was no longer of use to his business interests in Australia, and returned to his home country.

The A-League must avoid this as an example, while also ensuring that promises of rich domestic benefactors are balanced against the likelihood that it could be too good to be true.

The current franchise model does have its advantages, in regards to the Australian Professional Leagues having the power to take back the license of a runaway club like in the case of Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United, or when an owner fails to inject money like Martin Lee.

Currently, the vast majority of NPL clubs are run by a board of directors who are personally liable if funds go missing, or the club goes into severe debt.

Melbourne Victory is the only publicly listed company in the A-League, and that ownership model brings responsibility to shareholders and liability for directors.

Foreign investment at the A-League is at an all-time high, with five of the 12 clubs being either foreign-owned or controlled.

One club, Adelaide United, has its ownership completely hidden from the public. The Australian footballing community currently has no idea who finances the only professional club in South Australia.

A transparent fit and fairness test must be implemented for A-League ownership, one that keeps potential malicious actors away from the game, while protecting fans and clubs.

One way to achieve this would be to ask corporate regulators to take a more hands-on approach with A-League entities during the purchasing of a license.

The downside of this approach would be that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is capable of auditing companies’ finances, but foreign entities like Martin Lee’s businesses and Pelita Jaya Cronus can easily circumvent scrutiny.

Personal liability for owners and directors would force them to create sustainable businesses. While it might scare away some bad investors, those with good intentions will embrace the concept of a more stable A-League.

Another way to combat sportswashing would be to introduce the truly membership-based model championed by clubs in Germany.

The 50+1 model means that the majority of the club must be owned by local fans of the clubs, and if this was pursued in the A-League it would grant huge protections against owners who don’t act in the best intentions for the club long-term.

The Australian Professional Leagues need to ensure that those who want to invest in Australian football are doing so for the right reasons, instead of purely personal gain.

A true fit and fairness test, one that examines whether the owner is financially, ethically, and morally capable of owning an A-League team (or second division team) with the utmost accountability will be one of the best investment’s the APL can make for Australian football.

Without it, it will be a wild wasteland of Palmers, Tinklers, and Lees for years to come.

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