- US-based StatDNA is expert in sports performance analytics
- Database helps guide Arsenal’s scouting and game preparation
By David Hytner, The Guardian, Friday 17 October 2014
At the top of the agenda, as usual, was the subject of new signings. Why, the Arsenal shareholders wanted to know at Thursday’s AGM, had the club failed in the summer to sign the extra defender they so plainly needed? The numbers appeared simple enough. Arsène Wenger’s squad has five senior defenders while the club has £207.9m in the bank.
Ivan Gazidis, the club’s chief executive, did his best to explain that the vast majority of the headline cash figure was already accounted for, but down on the floor there was scepticism. He had a seven-figure signing he did want to promote. It is one that strikes a fundamental chord with him and the Arsenal majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, even if there continues to be a hush-hush quality that underpins it.
Arsenal bought StatDNA, the US-based football data analytics company with a massive workforce in east Asia, for £2.165m in December 2012 but, for the second successive AGM, Gazidis did not mention them by their name. Instead, he referred to AOH-USA LLC, which is how the limited liability company was registered in the States. AOH stands for Arsenal Overseas Holdings. Arsenal are reluctant to divulge anything about StatDNA’s methods but it is clear that Gazidis believes their means represent the club’s secret weapon.
“The company is an expert in the field of sports data performance analysis, which is a rapidly developing area and one that I, and others, believe will be critical to Arsenal’s competitive position,” Gazidis said. “The insights produced by the company are widely used across our football operations – in scouting and talent identification, in game preparation, in post-match analysis and in gaining tactical insights.”
StatDNA was formed in 2009 and the CEO, Jaeson Rosenfeld, presides over a small but highly skilled team in the US. Rosenfeld, whose expertise covers analytics, offshore operations management and software development, is also the co-founder of Digital Divide Data, whose stated mission is to help the world’s poorest benefit from information technology by creating sustainable social enterprises. DDD employ 500 disadvantaged people in their operating centres in Cambodia and Laos, and they act as StatDNA’s operations partner, providing a workforce that can produce detailed video analysis.
The workers watch footage of matches from around the world, and they code them in the most meticulous fashion. They look beyond a mere assist, for example, and examine whether the pass has enabled the goalscorer to shoot without breaking stride. Did it put the chance on the striker’s favoured foot? Was the goalkeeper properly positioned?
The numbers are a long way from being simple. The depth is extraordinary and every last detail is assigned a score, from which a comprehensive picture of players and, in turn, teams can be built.
The search for meaningful patterns, objective proof and deep-rooted truths has long since been embraced by baseball, American football and basketball. It is perhaps best known in baseball, where the successful, statistics-driven approach of the Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane, spawned the book Moneyball.
Kroenke loves Beane while he has also said that Beane loves Wenger. “Billy Beane’s idol is Arsène Wenger,” Kroenke said. “You know why? His ability to spend money and extract value. That is what it is all about to be successful in pro sports. If you can do that better than other people, you are always going to be pretty good.”
Football is perceived to be more sceptical about number-crunching. For decades, it was often said that the only statistic that mattered was the final score. Can the Moneyball approach really work in the game? Baseball is a sport where the parameters feel more defined, more fixed while football is more fluid and difficult to quantify. Or maybe the coding simply has to be more precise?
Gazidis is a believer, and he is not alone. Every top football club employs analysis staff and all of them are looking for the edge. But it is not merely about collecting the data; it is about analysing it, which is where StatDNA come in. Gazidis has also assembled a team of experts at Arsenal and they work with Rosenfeld and his staff and give information to Wenger and others at the club.
StatDNA’s database is now Arsenal’s database, so if Wenger wants to sign a defender, who is, say, 6ft 4in, an excellent reader of the game and an accurate passer, one push of a button will bring up the best options in world football.
Andries Jonker, Arsenal’s new academy head, said in September that the club’s “scouting must be restructured all over again”, while Gazidis has noted that “analytics makes decisions more robust”. To put it another way, they might make them more comfortable. It is unclear how Wenger felt about the acquisition of StatDNA, given his love of control and his general resistance to change, but he appeared to have caught the stat-bug at the AGM.
“Today, [if] you concede the first goal, in a big game, you have 85% chance to lose the game,” Wenger said, as he reflected on Arsenal’s heavy away defeats from last season. “That’s the statistics. It doesn’t mean you have to lose the game but, overall, it makes it very difficult because everybody sits back. You have to come out and you make it easier for the opponent to get you on the counterattack.”
Some Arsenal fans are worried that the purchase of StatDNA is a ruse on Kroenke’s part to use the money from their club to buy something that could help the other teams in his Kroenke Sports and Entertainment stable. This is not the case. Besides, StatDNA specialise only in football. But Gazidis did suggest that KSE had opened his eyes to the analytics industry.
“Sports analytics and developments in the US are one of the many areas that we have consulted with KSE over time,” Gazidis said. “The analysis that it [StatDNA] undertakes is highly technical and IT-based. Therefore, the true value of the operation is in its proprietary data, its computer programmes, its algorithms, its analysis methodologies, which it has developed and owned, and its people.
“Those assets were developed in-house and did not have an accounting book value at acquisition. That’s a very common feature of many technology start-up companies. We are very comfortable that the acquisition has represented excellent value for money for the club.”