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Graphical Insights for Football Content

By: Andy Cooper

In the world of big data, there is no better way to communicate insights than using data visualisations. In The Functional Art, Alberto Cairo explains that humans are visual species, and that ‘to see and to understand are intertwined processes’, as visualisations can more effectively allow the reader to digest information. Graphics can allow users to deliver insights in a much easier fashion than describing through text, and can also have a greater impact.

There is so much that can be done with football event data using graphical insights to add colour and contextualising the data. Data visualisations can supplement and enrich football content, as informative graphics can add context to the article. The aim is to be both eye-catching and insightful, as one without the other would limit the effectiveness of the image. Graphics can also bring data to a wider audience, making it more compelling than tables or paragraphs full of statistics, engaging a section of the audience that was previously dismissive of data.

People who are dismissive of data tend to claim that statistics mean nothing in football, all they need to trust is their eyes; however, an effective visualisation can present data that also does this. Take Real Madrid’s 8-0 victory against Malmo in their final Champions League group stage game in December – as the graphic tells the story.

Real Madrid

One-sided” and “dominant” are just two of many words to describe this game, and it comes across in the data. Even ignoring Real’s attack, the graphic still shows how little Malmo offered going forward, only attempting one shot inside the area.

Yet when Everton lost 1-0 against West Bromwich Albion in February, the Toffees attempted 34 shots but failed to score with any of them. That in itself is unlucky, as Everton were certainly the side taking the game to their opponents, yet the shot chart graphic highlights their biggest issue at both ends of the field – West Brom scored from close range while Everton hit the target with just five shots, and just one of them was located in the central area of the penalty area.

Everton 34 Shots

While some people may only care about the final score, graphics can show whether that agrees or disagrees with the narrative of the game itself. In one image, the state of play can be shown, whether it is attempts on goal such as in the above, the effectiveness of a single player or the performance of a team overall.

The heat map is a much maligned graphic in football at this point, but that’s mainly due to its improper use, often being presented without comment and frequently used to highlight a lack of input from a player rather than how much he featured. However, there really are many legitimate uses for heat maps, such as when presenting tactical insights on a game. In Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat at Arsenal in December, City were mainly limited to touches in wide areas when reaching the final third as they found it tough to break through the defensive shell of the Gunners.

Man City Heat Map

This is just one use and it is based on touches, yet heat maps can be used for various data, such as where passes are received by players in a game – and visualising where players typically received the ball can provide insights into their performance as a whole.

Showing how dominant one team has been over another can also provide interesting visualisations. In Arsenal’s 3-0 victory against Manchester United earlier this season, the game was as good as over in the first 20 minutes of the contest as Arsene Wenger’s side dominated, completing 120 passes to United’s 48 and attempting the only shots of the game. The graphic highlights Arsenal’s advantage over this part of the game, which proved to be decisive.

Arsenal v Man Utd

Yet Arsenal were on the receiving end of one of the most possession-dominated periods of play over the course of this season. In their Champions League round of 16 match against Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal successfully completed just nine passes over the last 15 minutes of the first half – over 100 fewer than Barça.

Arsenal vs Barcelona

Data has so many potential uses, but visualisations can be one of its most powerful. Graphics are typically much more easily digestible by the user, with content becoming more engaging due to the visual aids in the article. For football, visualising event data can provide insights to supplement the content, with a wide range of potential uses and images, and the aim should be to aid the analysis with interesting graphics. As data journalism grows in the digital age, the effective use of graphics will only augment the content – and potentially reach a wider audience.