A chat with David Lee, RBNY analyst
With MLS now in full swing, Five Aside caught up New York Red Bulls performance analyst David Lee (@davelee_NY). Lee is one of a growing number of analysts helping teams make better use of data to improve performance and decision-making on and off the field. Here is our full conversation.
Five Aside: What's your soccer background? And how did you get interested in the statistical side of the sport?
David Lee: I moved over from the UK just before the 2011 season, so I'm just entering my second season with the team. I have been a professional performance analyst for almost four years, working with a variety of teams and academies in England, with most of my time spent working with Exeter City in League One before moving to New York.
When you are at home or at a bar watching a match between two squads you have no rooting interest in, what are you looking for? What trends and behaviors do you try to pick out?
Whenever I'm watching any match, I'm "working" in the sense that I always want to try and understand how teams play and look at their tendencies to see what I can learn -- and there are always interesting things to look out for, whether it be a UEFA Champions League match or an NCAA game.
Generally, I'm looking for the patterns that teams have in both the attacking and defending games and how they organize themselves in different match situations. Generally, I focus opposition assessments on what teams are doing most often and most successfully -- in attack, these things might lead to scoring chances while on defense, it could mean winning the ball back or stopping the other team's attack.
There are a million different questions that could arise, all depending on the teams involved in the game. Typically, here are some things I might look for:
• How they use the ball when in possession? Do they attack or keep the ball in particular areas? Which areas of the field do they use most often?
• How do they get the ball into the final third/forward players/penalty area?
• Which player is the focus of their possession (in deep or attacking areas)?
• Where do they play "final" passes?
• And importantly, what are the other 10 players who don't have the ball doing at any moment in the different stages of attack?
• Conversely, what are players doing when their team doesn't have the ball?
• What shape and organization does a team have without possession in different areas of the field?
• In what areas do they apply pressure to the ball?
The biggest problem with statistics currently available for fans is the lack of detail and context -- on its own, a soccer box score is a set of relatively useless statistical information that does little to enhance what actually happened in a game. It is my belief that if the statistics being displayed don't accurately reflect a successful performance, then what is the benefit in showing them? Or perhaps more importantly, it needs to be made clear exactly what the statistics represent. For instance, the most basic one of possession doesn't correlate to winning matches; what it shows is which team dominated and showed the most control of the game. But that alone isn't a system to win soccer matches. There has to be more information to make the stats provided more useful.
Having lived on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, what differences do you see between English and American soccer fans in terms of how they use and perceive statistics? Is one group more statistically inclined than the other?
There are certainly some big differences in how the "typical" fan in both countries looks at sports in general, and how deep they want to analyze the games. The U.S. is certainly lucky that it has a number of institutions (and of course sports) that lend themselves well to statistical analysis. This helps not only in producing statistics, but then also in publishing them so fans can enhance their knowledge.
Generally, fans in the U.S. seem more interested in assessing their teams' performance in more detail, and they welcome any methods to do this analysis themselves, particularly in the form of objective data analysis.
Similarly, what differences have you found between English and American players and managers in terms of how they use and perceive statistics?
I think there are actually a lot of similarities between players and coaches in both environments. Generally they're all interested in whatever information you can provide that will help them improve or win more soccer matches. However, it is certainly the case that there is an initial and general "distrust" of statistics amongst most coaches or managers, simply because they're not familiar with ever having had these before. We all know how difficult soccer is to analyze and break down into a set of discrete events and statistics, and this only enhances that distrust in a set of raw numbers.
How do you get your information and analysis into the hands of the coaches? The players? Any differences there between the English and Americans?
There is no one set formula for distributing the analysis within the club -- you're dealing with such a large group of people and many different learning styles that as an analyst I need to ensure I am able to tailor my work to the individual and deliver it in a format they appreciate, understand and can act on.
There is no doubt, however, that video is still the main delivery system of information to most of the players and coaching staff in soccer. The major difference now is that analysts in clubs are using objective-based information to analyze performances and are using this information to choose and select the important video to show to coaches and players, rather than relying on the subjective data. We get lots of very interesting statistical diagrams -- for example in heat maps and passing diagrams -- that are great for visualizing the data and can be presented if players or coaches are comfortable in receiving the information in this way.
I have found that, generally speaking, American players have a more "natural" inclination to watching and reviewing performances on tape, as it's a byproduct of the huge sports culture at the high school and college level. Athletes understand the advantages of video from an early age and how important it can be in helping to develop performance.