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Data & Analytics - Will Sunderland’s new American owners ensure our club moves with the times?

As the world of football moves forward using analytics and data, particularly with regards to player recruitment, will Sunderland’s new transatlantic owners ensure that our club joins the party before it’s too late?

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In Roker Report’s recent Roundtable article, discussing the overall metric of satisfaction regarding this summer’s transfer dealings at Sunderland, its fair to say that the reviews were mixed. Despite some positives - highlights being the potential of Jordan Willis and George Dobson, along with the relief of securing what appears to be an experienced left-back - there were several familiar feelings that have intravenously seeped into our systems over a series of recent transfer windows.

I think for some there was a feeling of quiet satisfaction.

For others, there was a feeling of disappointment.

Many felt… well…. just underwhelmed.

There must be a myriad of complex details that go into a football transfer, from the initial starting point of a club’s necessity, to the concluding moment of a footballer’s signature on a contract. So, this is by no means an article slamming the recruitment team or hammering any particular individual that works hard, probably harder than we know, to try and get players over the metaphorical finish line.

I for one am not an expert on those intricate and elaborate details of contract negotiation or the twisting, convoluted efforts put in by the recruitment team, who carry a heavy responsibility to improve the squad, work on a tight budget and satisfy a clamouring support desperate for the next Super Kev or Defoe to walk through the door.

Arsenal v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

While there is a significant minority of well-meaning supporters who are well within their rights to question the overall competency of Richard Hill and Tony Coton and are rightfully examining the results of the recruitment team’s labours, other fans, like me, just feel disconnected from the process altogether.

Are the recruitment triumvirate of Hill, Coton and Ross just bang average? Are they performing beyond their abilities? Are they outfoxed by their wily counterparts at competing clubs, or are they wisely keeping their powder dry, waiting like lions in the bush for better opportunities before they spring their attack?

We can either be smugly satisfied or massively disappointed with the end results of their efforts, but that’s not to say they aren’t trying.

The problem is that we just don’t know. When it comes to our transfer plan or recruitment philosophy, it doesn’t appear obviously structured with a set pattern and established practices.

Are we gunning for youthful potential whom we can sell for a handsome profit down the road? Are we going for expensive experience, those who we know can guarantee results? Are we just filling in spaces of necessity with available journeymen who are cheap and unwanted elsewhere?

Without knowing the complexities of such challenging deals, it appears more scatter-gun than precise and coherent.

Coton and Hill are part of a generation where the manager controlled the transfers of his team and squad, and the scouts danced to his tune. It’s a system based on gut feeling and an eye for talent. It’s a segment of the game controlled by men in their late 50’s who haven’t played the game for long time, and who think Fortnite still applies to the period of time we know as two weeks.

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What we know about our new investors and owners, men who made billions from data, analysis and cutting-edge technology and who have dabbled in US sporting franchises, is that they are men of detail. Men of precision, known to prefer an investment system that relies heavily on data analytics. The savvy investments that have enriched them have been compiled by an army of skilled analysts who gather the details that give the negotiating team all the skills and tools in which they can deliver the best deal at the best price.

When it comes to potential transfers at Sunderland, its known that our new owners prefer a similar system that has worked for them in their other businesses.

The “Money-ball” styled system is already in place in English football and is spreading its influence as we move forward into a creative new age. Sunderland too, look likely to be joining the exciting new era of football analytics. But what does it look like?

When Red Star Belgrade were looking for a new attacking midfielder a year ago Lorenzo Ebecilio wasn’t exactly on the tip of the tongue of their traditional scouting team. Playing in the almost anonymous Cypriot top division, Ebecilio was little known, little fancied and on very few radars.

Yet in an unremarkable office block in central London more than 2,000 miles from Cyprus (and more than 1,000 miles from Belgrade), an analyst working at his computer liked what he saw.

He recommended Ebecilio to the Serbian champions and in turn, they decided the deal was too tempting to turn down. A month after he joined Red Star, the Dutchman scored in a Champions League qualifier. Against the odds, Red Star made the Champions League group stage and Ebecilio went on to play against Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain.

Omar Chourdari, Head of Football Intelligence at football consultancy 21st Club is one of many data analyst and technology firms currently crafting transfer assistance with their ability to pull together data from every league and every player and all within the blink of an eye.

We’re very much about trying to open the market up for clubs and discover undervalued talent. Red Star approached us with a shortlist of names given to them by agents. We evaluated their shortlist and found a cheaper player who the data suggested would be better.

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This is the world of our new owners. A world of data scientists and software engineers. An empire of strategists and management consultants.

They’ve successfully used analytics, data, software and consulting so they can find the competitive edge their businesses need and have used that knowledge-accumulation as valuable currency to increase their business portfolios and their considerable wealth.

Is this the way forward for Sunderland?

Analysts like 21st Club for example, created PIRLO (Predictive Intelligence Research and Learning Outputs), an analytics engine with information on 150,000 players. It uses machine-learning algorithms to offer smart insights and recommend players – like the aforementioned Ebecilio – who may not be on club’s radars and for a fraction of the cost.

But, don’t panic if technology isn’t your bag. Football analysts and algorithms are not the Terminator. They are not AI robots here to replace the human race. Certainly not in our beautiful game. Statistics only tell part of the story.

For example, a player in the Mexican 2nd division may have the highest stats in the world for passing accuracy, work-rate and tackle completion, but those stats don’t tell you how he’ll cope in the more sophisticated cut and thrust of the English Premier League.

So, gladly, there is still a place for some gut feeling and the experienced eye of a man in the know. But, it has to be complimented by the clear and invaluable assistance of technological systems that can help organise a clear plan, build an identifiable transfer infrastructure and design a recruitment philosophy that can add positively to a system that may just be stuck in the mothballs of football past.

Once wary of diving in too deeply into the science of our sport, football clubs have realised the benefit and Sunderland’s new owners are certain to want to feel that benefit too. According to the latest figures, 90% of Premier League teams are now working with football analysts. Lesser luminaries like Brentford and Barnsley are following suit with lower league clubs desperate to find a cutting edge, but on a very strict budget.

Whether Coton and Hill can survive such a systematic revolution is open for debate, but with our new transatlantic cousins taking control of the club the revolution truly begins. Our current recruitment team may find our brave new world a little too brave and perhaps a little too new.

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