August 17, 2012 8:25 pm

Sky-blue thinking

For the Premier League champions Manchester City, brainpower counts as much as talent
Manchester City players' supplements©James Dodd

Manchester City players' supplements

The other day I visited Manchester City’s training centre in rural Carrington, outside Manchester. The players hadn’t arrived yet, so the car park was empty of SUVs and sports cars. Inside the sky-blue building, every television set was tuned to the Olympics. There wasn’t much glitz on show at the centre: the chatty receptionist asked if I’d seen a can of car freshener lying around. You wouldn’t guess that this was, in effect, the office of the new English champions – the players’ habitat, where they spend most weekdays. Tomorrow City kick off the defence of their title at home against Southampton.

In a little office I found Simon Wilson, the club’s strategic performance manager. A slim moustachioed figure in his early thirties who resembles an Edwardian poet, Wilson didn’t make the grade as a footballer. Instead he became one of the first people in the sport to get a job as a number-crunching “performance analyst”. He started at Preston, moved on to Southampton, and arrived at City when they were still Manchester’s somewhat comical second team. But in 2008 City were bought by investors from Abu Dhabi. At a stroke, they became one of the world’s richest football clubs. In four years they have spent about £350m net on transfer fees alone. However, the new owners didn’t just buy players. They also demanded that City become more intelligent.

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Wilson now co-ordinates a groundbreaking project: to apply unprecedented quantities of brainpower to the problems of football. City’s specialists are trying to work out everything from how to take corner-kicks, to whether footballers can drink espresso, to getting new immigrants to settle quickly. In a traditionally anti-intellectual industry, this is a relatively new approach. Wilson told me: “I feel our model has started to pay back in the last year. We’ve actually allowed the business to think, and to come back with some insights.”

It has been a long journey. “The first four years was establishing ourselves as a team that could win every competition that we enter,” said Wilson. “We’ve had to make Manchester City an attractive proposition to the world’s best players. That was a challenge. We’re probably not there yet. We’re also challenged by the fact that Madrid, Barcelona and London are more desirable places to live than Manchester.”

To lure excellent players, City had to pay above-market salaries. But it then had to solve the conundrum of how to get the best performances from young foreigners plunged into an alien environment. Historically, football clubs had done almost nothing to help expat players. They would sign somebody and effectively say, “Here’s a plane ticket, come over and perform brilliantly from day one.” City’s first post-Abu Dhabi purchase, the Brazilian striker Robinho, bought in August 2008 for a then British record fee of £32.5m, failed to adapt and soon left. That taught the club a lesson.

. . .

Vincent Kompany's boots©James Dodd

Vincent Kompany's boots

On a wall of the Carrington training centre is a map of Manchester’s surroundings, designed to catch the eyes of passing players. The map highlights recommended areas for them to live; not on the list is Manchester’s city centre with its vibrant nightlife. For City’s “player care” department these recommendations are just the start. The department, with three full-time staff, was set up in its current form in 2009. It aims to take care of almost every need a new immigrant might have, whether it’s a nanny or what the notice on the Carrington wall calls a “discreet car service”. Even before a new player signs, the club has already researched his off-duty habits and his girlfriend’s taste in restaurants.

Last summer City signed the Argentine Sergio Agüero. Nobody doubted the young striker’s talent but many doubted whether he would adapt to English football and rainy provincial life. His transfer fee of £38m seemed a gamble, even for City. But Agüero finished last season with 30 goals, including the last-second strike in the last game of the season against QPR that won City their first top-tier title since 1968.

In part, Agüero succeeded thanks to City’s “player care” department, explained Gavin Fleig, the club’s head of performance analysis, a 32-year-old who joined City from Newcastle United in the summer of 2008 just before the Abu Dhabi group’s takeover.

Fleig said, “The normal transition time for a foreign player is considered in the industry to be about a year. Normally, those players are in a hotel for the first three months. We were able to get from agreeing a fee to Sergio living in his house within two weeks, with a Spanish sat-nav system in his car, linked to the Spanish community in Manchester. We had our prize asset ready to go from day one.”

Yet last season the club made news for major conflicts with two players: another Argentine, Carlos Tévez, who didn’t play for months after refusing to play against Bayern Munich after starting the game as a substitute, and the Italian Mario Balotelli, whose long record of peculiar behaviour culminated in a red card after an emotional meltdown against Arsenal. Both players have since returned, but the incidents hardly seem like advertisements for City’s man-management. Wilson argued: “Those problems haven’t happened because of Manchester City. If you look at the history of both players, they have operated that way in spite of their clubs. Yes, there was noise about it. Big noise. We got to the point last year of saying, ‘We’re pissed off with this player. This is not worth our investment anymore.’ But in the end we were able to bring those players back into the fold.”

First team changing room©James Dodd

First team changing room

When I asked Wilson how damaging the “noise” had been, he gave a surprising reply: “We welcome it, really. What did we do in the situation, what did the opposing party do? That helps us manage it next time around. The next Mario Balotelli that comes along, we know how to manage that person – or to not get into it.” Wilson pointed out that clubs with an omnipotent manager lose much of the accumulated knowledge in the organisation when the man leaves. At City, the knowledge is spread across more people, and therefore always stays within the club.

By 2011, City had probably acquired a squad more talented than that of their rivals Manchester United, who train just down the road in Carrington. Wilson said: “The expectation internally, and externally, was: ‘You’ve bought the title. It’s going to happen.’ ” But was winning the league a fair target? Fleig ran some numbers to benchmark City against Europe’s best teams, such as Barcelona and City’s main English competitors. His conclusions were sobering: the other teams had played together for longer than City; their players on average had played far more games in big-league football; and the average age of their squads was 26 to 28, whereas City’s was 25. Fleig told me: “We said, ‘We’ve got a great squad but we’re going to have to over-perform to win the league this season because we don’t have the experience, and we’ve made too many changes. But we won the league.” Fleig would never say so, or perhaps even think it, but arguably City won the league thanks to his performance analysis department.

. . .

In a cramped computer-filled room just off Carrington’s canteen, 10 analysts sit testing ancient shibboleths of football against cold data. About four years ago, when City were struggling to score from corner-kicks, Fleig’s analysts studied the problem. They watched more than 400 corners, from different leagues, over several seasons, and concluded that the most dangerous corner was the inswinger, the ball that swings towards goal.

After Roberto Mancini became City’s manager, in 2009, the analysts showed him their findings. The Italian heard them out politely. But he had always instinctively favoured the outswinger. He didn’t immediately adapt. About a year ago, though, when City were again having trouble with corners, Mancini’s assistant David Platt came to chat with the data department. Fleig told Platt about the corners study. He heard nothing more about the matter, but he soon noticed that City had begun taking inswinging corners. Last season the team scored 15 goals from corners, the most in the Premier League. Ten of those goals came from inswingers.

Joe Hart's gloves©James Dodd

Joe Hart's gloves

Wilson admitted that some football people remain skeptical of statistics. But he added: “Our manager has got a great tactical mind, but it’s not been built by data. So we’re inducting him into that. We’re growing his experience of data, his trust.” And even City’s players are learning to absorb data. Wilson said, “Football has got a very bad reputation [compared to] the Olympics: [athletes] set goals, work for them for four years, for a tiny amount of money compared to football. But the players we have now are an unbelievably committed, professional bunch. Their attitude is, ‘Anything you can do to help me, I’ll do it – but, if it doesn’t help me, I won’t listen.’ ”

Fleig cited as an example the data department’s 15-minute sessions with City’s defenders on match days. In each session, analysts run video images and statistics by the players, and discuss each defender’s tasks in situations such as free-kicks and takeovers of possession. Fleig recalled, “Vinny said, ‘Oh, we should bring more of the guys into it.’” So they did. Occasionally, the data team will hit the defenders with a number: “Guys, did you know that across the Premier League we’re first at getting first contact from crosses?” Fleig remarked: “That’s a thing about footballers: they like to compare themselves to other teams and other players.”

Fleig, who exudes good health in his work outfit of City shirt and shorts, walked me past a five-metre “hydro pool” and into the recently refurbished gym, where a quote from the boxer Muhammad Ali proclaimed from the wall: “The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses – beyond the lines, in the gym and out on the road, long before the dance under those lights.” Here is the domain of City’s sports science and medical department: 17 full-time staff, including experts in Pilates, nutrition and soft tissue. Fleig said, “The biggest thing they are into is injury prevention.” In Ali’s spirit, City’s players don’t simply prepare for matches. They even prepare for training, with 15 minutes of “pre-activation” of their bodies before every practice. Last season, City lost the fewest player-days to injury of any club in the Premier League. According to the specialist website Physioroom.com, in 2011-12 the club had only seven “significant injury episodes” in which a player could not play for at least 14 days. Meanwhile Manchester United, City’s closest challengers for the title, had 39 “significant injury episodes”, the worst record in the Premier League.

City’s nutritionist tries to grab each player for 10 minutes every two months. Even a Balotelli listens when told that his blood tests show he needs more of a certain food. Some football clubs still worry about players drinking beer; City’s fitness staff anguish if they see a player drinking espresso, because coffee is a diuretic that causes dehydration. Outside the nutritionist’s discreet, softly-lit little nook, with a screen to show a footballer his personal results – the place needs to be appealing, to lure any recalcitrant players – are pigeonholes where each player finds his own daily custom-made supplement drink.

After all this perfectionism, the players’ changing room is something of a letdown. Here are the multimillionaires’ names, side by side on their lockers: “Samir Nasri/ Gaël Clichy/ Vincent Kompany/ Joleon Lescott/ James Milner.” But nothing here is gold-plated. The floor is carpeted but I have seen smarter hotel gyms. Fleig explained that City tries to spend money only where it will add value.

Where that is will remain an internal debate for years to come. Wilson said, “Most football clubs aren’t able to look five minutes into the future. People get nervous if they asked to look too far ahead, because they feel they are taking their eyes off the ball. We are able to look five years out. We have people who have time to do that.” On Wilson’s desk is a file headed, “Project list”. He showed me only the cover page. It stated goals like, “Elite home-grown players in the first team”, and, under the rubric of “Team evolution”: “Succession plan – not yet started.” Meanwhile Fleig is working on long-term projects such as, “How might performance-related pay work in a football club?”

The challenge is to not let the club’s plans hang on the vagaries of weekly results – on whether or not Agüero happens to net that last-gasp, title-winning goal. City’s goal is continuity. This is a business cliché, but very few football clubs achieve it. Arsenal and Manchester United have done it, by keeping a manager in place apparently forever. Barcelona have, by instituting a playing style that doesn’t change. City are now trying to work out what their fixed identity might be. With all that money and brainpower, if they get it right they could create football’s next dynasty.

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Revealed: football’s secret codes

From today any statistician interested in football can visit Man City’s website at www.mcfc.co.uk/mcfcanalytics. The club is throwing open to the public football’s version of the secret code: all match statistics from the data provider Opta for the last Premier League season. Every number will be there, from which player completes the highest proportion of passes to how many interceptions John Terry made against Wigan. “It’s play by play, player by player, game by game, week in week out,” says Gavin Fleig, City’s head of performance analysis.

Clubs pay Opta for this data and have long closely guarded it. But now, with Opta’s support, City are giving it to hobbyists free. In return, City and Opta hope that a legion of football-loving management consultants, econometricians, PhD students and bloggers will mine the data to find new truths about football.

This project was inspired by the examples of baseball and basketball. In those sports, the first statistical insights came not from employees of professional clubs but from amateur outsiders. Baseball’s pioneering statistician Bill James was a janitor in a pork-and-beans factory in Kansas. He and other hobbyists worked out that time-honoured baseball strategies such as stealing bases made no sense. Crucially, too, the Jamesians developed new metrics to identify players who were undervalued by clubs. The clubs learned from the hobbyists, not vice versa.

Fleig says: “I want our industry to find a Bill James. Bill James needs data, and whoever the Bill James of football is, he doesn’t have the data because it costs money.”

City hopes to benefit from the findings of this amateur army. The club also thinks football’s statistical revolution has stalled. Simon Wilson, the club’s strategic performance manager, says: “We’re trying to find players who are undervalued. A bunch of people have tried but it’s not as easy as we had thought.”

Most Premier League clubs employ at least one data analyst, but only three or four statisticians in the whole league are working to develop new insights from the data, says Fleig. “For the area to develop, you need a much wider group of people to take it forward. We’re opening our doors and saying, ‘OK, what can you come up with?’” Fleig will tweet regular updates on the project from @MCFCGavinFleig

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