Fleig reveals revolutionary stat attack
Manchester City have launched a website providing the public with all the statistical data that Opta collect from Premier League games. This information always used to be a jealously guarded secret by Premier League clubs for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding the fact that Opta charge for it, but City’s strategic performance manager, Simon Wilson, and Gavin Fleig, head of performance analysis, plan to change that.
Their strategy extends not only to “Soccernomics” – football’s equivalent of “Moneyball” – but also to something they call “player care”, which starts the moment a British player arrives at the club and weeks before a foreign player and his family have arrived in the country. In fact, the department, which boasts three full-time employees, has even gone so far as to find out which restaurants the players’ wives prefer to eat in so that it can make recommendations.
When City signed Sergio Aguero for £38 million, the department were keen to avoid the usual scenario of leaving the player to sit in a hotel for the first three months so that he can slowly lose his mind. Fleig said of Aguero: “Within two weeks, he was living in his own house and had a car with a Spanish satnav system that was linked to the Spanish community in Manchester.”
This is a new level in attention to detail and long overdue given the huge investments that clubs have been making in players for many seasons. In my experience, new signings have nearly always been brought in to a football club surrounded by a media circus and 48 hours of constant interviews and meet and greets, only then to be abandoned to their own devices until they manage to integrate naturally. If they don’t, as the was the case with Robinho, the club can usually expect a heavy loss on the sale of that same player.
Players were always expected to come in and perform to a high standard from day one but the difference today is that they are getting a huge helping hand to enable them to do so. I remember going for lunch shortly after a French player signed for us and realising just how difficult it is to be expected to cope in a different country, regardless of having to play Premier League football. He and his family were still in a hotel, could not get their daughter into a nursery and weren’t able to get new mobile phones or lease a car because they didn’t speak English. Eventually, our captain persuaded the club to hire a “player liaison officer”, which is now the norm for most clubs from the Championship up.
Fleig is prepared to argue that City did, in fact, overperform in securing their first title for 44 years, though I’m willing to bet that the expectation at City would have been extremely high at the beginning of last season and that there would have been plenty of disappointment around the club if the team had failed to win the Premier League by the end of the year.
Many pundits, fans and even fellow players that I know are still adamant that City bought the Premier League title. But the fact is that the average age of City’s squad last season was 25 and had less experience in the big games and of winning league titles when compared with their rivals, where the average age was between 26 and 28.
And Fleig certainly didn’t take the fact that City had spent £350 million on transfer fees alone in the previous four years as any kind of guarantee of success. Instead, he turned to what he knew best – statistics. After watching hundreds of corners from the previous half-dozen Premier League seasons, he concluded that the most dangerous – ie. where the goals are scored – came from inswinging deliveries. He reviewed Mancini’s corner-kick routines and noticed that nearly all of them were outswingers.
At the start of last season, Fleig convinced an initially reluctant Mancini to deploy a new corner-kick strategy that he felt sure would yield impressive results. And by the time that City had claimed the title, they had scored no fewer than 15 times from corner kicks (the highest in the Premier League), with ten of those goals coming from inswinging deliveries.
This area of football is so often shrouded in mystery – with good reason, I might add – and you might be forgiven for thinking that City have selflessly opened up this statistical data out of the goodness of their hearts. While it will certainly be refreshing to have the data available, and to be able to pore over which player had the most final-third entries and which player made the most interceptions, there is an agenda.
“I want our industry to find a Bill James [a janitor who revolutionised baseball statistics],” Fleig said. “Bill James needs data and he doesn’t have the data because it costs money. For this area to develop, you need a much wider group of people to take it forward. We’re opening our doors.”
For the anoraks among you, or even the casual observer, this is a golden opportunity to show City, arguably football’s next dynasty, what you can offer the world of football analytics, to take and apply it in a way that hasn’t been seen before and that does for football what Bill James did for baseball. Fleig will be tweeting regular updates of his team’s efforts @MCFCGavinFleig … Good luck.