Doing things the Opta way.

Posted on July 12, 2011 by


Ascend to the 10th floor of a tall building on Waterloo road, and you may just stumble across the largest sports analysis company in the U.K, possibly the world. They provide stats for a number of huge media outlets such as Sky and The Guardian.

If you’ve ever wondered, whilst sitting on a train that’s just exited Wimbledon, or standing on a sweaty tube thats’s just entering Euston, how Opta collect such a multitude of statistics, in real time, then you’d be like me. I thought, maybe, that a system was in place to pre-tag every player on the pitch, including the ball. That way, the software would (somehow) be able to track every movement of every player, and of course, when they’ve released the ball. It would be able to track when Glen Johnson plays it inside to Lucas, who plays a simple pass to Shelvey. It would be able to track how many passes Arsenal completed before they just miss the target, and how Modric dictates the tempo of a game with short simple passes.

That, of course, is not how it works. Take a stroll around the football analysis section of Opta towers and you will see a rather less glamorous, but more effective data gathering technique. Young males sit at a line of computers, furiously clicking at the screens whilst simultaneously tapping in data onto keyboards. They are logging events. Every pass of the ball, to every position on the pitch is physically mapped by an analyst with a click of the mouse as they track the events across the screen. The only respite they get to correct any mistakes is during replays, and of course, half time.

The match is shown where the blue square is above, and the analyst has to map the events from that smaller screen, onto the pitch surrounding it. I had a go, and it’s very difficult. For instance, if you were analysing Man Utd game from last season, and Van der Sar passed it short from a goal kick to Evra, then you would click where the ball is for the goal kick, type in the number 1, press enter and then click where the ball was received, and type in the number 3. There are a multitude of pass types, like ‘through-ball’, ‘lay-off’, ‘chipped pass’ and ‘pull-back’.

When a shot is taken, the analyst has to be very quick to map whether the shot was regular, a volley, a half volley, a diving header or an over head kick. In this instance, a normal header would go under the regular shot type, and would be mapped as a header under the body part section of the shot analysis. Then, the flight, velocity, the swerve and the assistance of the goal are mapped in a flash. Also, where the shot was taken from, who took the shot, where it crossed the line, where the keeper was when the ball crossed the line and where the ball hit the net have to be logged into the system. If the ball was saved or missed the target, all those things still have to be logged, but where the ball ended up behind the goal after it was saved or missed the target still has to be logged. All of this is done in the time it takes to replay the goal on Sky, ESPN or wherever the game is being broadcasted.

It is a truly remarkable system. Each analyst is rigorously trained for a period of 4 weeks, then subjected to 6 months of support whilst they spot mistakes on other people’s games. Then, after those 6 months, they are allowed to participate in live analysis of a game. Each analyst is assigned a team which they must learn inside out. Hair styles, headbands, sock height, anything they can pick up to recognise players instantly. One of the Opta employees told me that he had AS Nancy for a while. They had a midfield four who were all Cameroonian, which made it very difficult for him to use the analysis tool effectively. After a while though, the left winger wore an armband on his left arm, and the right winger, one on his right arm which made things a whole lot easier.

Three people are responsible for the accurate collection of statistics during a live game. One analyst will concentrate on the home team, another on the away team, and then there’s the checker. The checker is there to add details that the other two analysts have flagged up. His or her contribution adds to a very thorough analysis of a live game.

There are too many aspects of the Opta analysis tool to go into anymore detail. So, sports industry TV visit OPTA to find out how it’s done.

Posted in: Football