How analysis took over the PSL

Unbeknown to most people, Cape Town City hopped on a European trend when it hired Rayaan Jacobs as coach Benni McCarthy’s assistant before the start of the season.

It has become trendy among the world’s best leagues to promote football analysts to coaching positions. Their contributions are increasingly viewed as vital to the overall preparations of the team and their input is deemed worthy of right-hand-man status.

This would have been inconceivable when Jacobs first started shopping around in 2010. Alongside three others, he started Amisco,a company that could offer clubs a complete performance breakdown on video.

Teams have been reviewing footage since the invention of television but this is something entirely different:it was the opportunity to scrutinise almost every perceivable facet of the opponent’s game at the click of a button.

Want to know the crossing tendencies of Kaizer Chiefs from the right flank? A simple filter will give every recorded incident from that position. If you’re curious about the patterns of the Sundowns’ press, a new tab could have you inspecting its velocity in an instant.By breaking down a match into such tiers, it allows for the identification of tendencies that, in turn, could be filed neatly in reports.

“We provided basic analysis,” Jacobs says. “All we did was provide video and then we coded the game manually. We coded every contact, every metre run, just manual coding. It would take anywhere from three to four hours to code one game —even longer sometimes to do a check.”

By code he’s referring to the human aspect of the procedure. As powerful as software has become, it is still labour-intensive to tell it what a particular situation denotes.

“Clubs were a little bit hesitant in the beginning,” says Jacobs. “Some were for it, some against.Some of the old-school coaches weren’t really up for it.”

Four teams initially stepped into the unknown —Ajax Cape Town, Orlando Pirates, Wits University and Moroka Swallows. Three years later, 14 of the 16 participants in the Premier Soccer League were using the software to some extent. The analytical approach had grown exponentially world wide at this point, and British-based company Prozone bought out Amisco but was itself bought by STATS, an American sports data and technology company.

STATS,now a sporting giant,counts Paris St Germain (PSG), Juventus and the German national team among its clients and offers products to the US National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball. The crop top vests worn by players overseas during trainingis a Viper Pod that monitors players’ performance. Teams subscribed to STATS use the vests to keep track of player movement and various physiological performance factors — a GPS tracker sits beneath it and between the shoulder blades.

Somebody sitting on the sidelines with a laptop and an antenna is able to receive instant data on which areas of the pitch the player is inhabiting, how fast the player is going, their heart rate and an overall impression of how their body is handling the training session.

Soon teams began taking an interest in hiring analysts like Jacobs in-house, and he became the first to tour with Bafana Bafana before joining Pirates in 2013 (incidentally, where his connection with McCarthy took root). It was the Buccaneers, he says, who initially showed the biggest appetite for using technical analysis in innovative ways. The team moved beyond using it to measure up the next challenger and used it to laser in on their own weaknesses and foibles.

It soon became apparent that it was an efficient method of scouting for individual players. Mpho Makola and Kermit Erasmus are merely two names who were reportedly brought in after extensive input from the analytical team.

Despite now dabbling in coaching, as he describes it, Jacobs will not be leaving his software and tools behind anytime soon.

“I still use the analytics, I still use the data,” he says. “I always say, when you want to prove things or when you want to affirm your findings of what you’re trying to look at, you’ve got to use the numbers —they don’t lie.It’s ignorance if you don’t. If you want to use your opinion or what you see from the eye, it’s not good enough in today’s environment. You have to be more strategic.”

Musi Matlaba, a former colleague of Jacobs, is part of the technical backroom staff Sundowns is now using to distinguish itself as one of the leaders in this aspect of the game. The Brazilians have a team of three analysts who seek to combine all the aspects of off-pitch scrutiny. Matlaba focuses on breaking down Pitso Mosimane’s players, another person is responsible for opposition scouting and a third is a stopgap,straddling between the two duties and assisting the MultiChoice Diski Shield side.

The trio also take notes during any given match. Anything of significance is picked up and delivered to the coach as advice at halftime. Whether he takes it is his business.

After attending an analysis summit in the Netherlands last year, Matlaba concluded that Sundowns’ approach mirrors that of the global standard.“There were analysts from Monaco, Ajax, PSG and other European clubs there. When they presented their work model and how they do things it was fairly the same as us. It was just some teams had a bigger analysis department, more individuals, more manpower, but the processes were the same. We followed suit in what the world is doing.”

Despite an increasing appreciation for this new art, it’s clear there is still space in the South African market for such technology to expand— and not only in football either.

Michael Caradas, chief executive of VS Sports, is hoping to do just that. His company intends to offer services to a variety of sporting codes at multiple levels, including providing school rugby coaches with the option of filming their players to have data sent back in return.

At present, the bulk of the company’s business comes from US college tennis and boxing. At their offices across from Wanderers Cricket Stadium in Illovo, he showcases the process they use, which in principle would have been similar to the methodology of those in the football world such as Jacobs.

Four sports science graduates sit in a room and, for hours on end, comb through footage to “tag” the relevant parts. (One reason this is outsourced to our country is it’s more affordable to get competent people to do this long process here).

If a serve hits the net, they mark it as such. When the score ticks to love-15, they identify the section of the court the ball fell to. Similarly, for boxing, every punch of significance —“left jab, right hook” —is recorded on the system. Once the tagging is done, it is compiled into a digital report that the client can peruse at their leisure.

“The trend is based on success, and it’s obviously growing,” Caradas says. “In junior tennis, the feedback we’ve been given is that 80% of that scouting process is based on the analytics.”

In the world of video assistant referee and goal-line technology, it’s little surprise that this form of analysis is having such a big effect on the playing field. Perhaps more surprisingly is the fact that it only began to penetrate South Africa’s favourite sport after 2010.

Those who decry the infiltration of technology into our beautiful game had better get the tissues out: this million-dollar industry is going nowhere.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.


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