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OptaPro Analytics Forum 2019 review

By: Stats Perform

To be oversubscribed for a football analytics conference for practitioners is testament to the evolution of this field.

With some 300 delegates in attendance, the Forum has grown from its inception in 2014 into what can arguably be described as the leading football analytics conference in the world.

It is of course all very well to say this, but the value lies in understanding why this is, and how the Forum is often a reflection of analytics within the wider industry.

With over 70 teams competing across over 20 different global competitions represented at the Forum, the appetite and enthusiasm for analytics from within professional football isn’t reserved for those at the top table.

Application, application, application

Historically, much discussion around the Forum focused on direct application – and rightly so. Ensuring this style of work can be implemented within existing workflows is a key objective of the presentations; an element Joe Mulberry grasped to perfect within his presentation on possessions and sequences.

However, the conversation has evolved but by no means at the expense of application. The Forum has grown to a place, and has perhaps earned the trust of its delegates, where immediate application is no longer the sole valuable output.

Perspectives across the spectrum have shifted here. While clubs in an earlier phase of their ‘analytics journey’ perhaps require an outlook of: “Can I apply this for our next match?”, there are more holistic outlooks that focus on longer-term applications and the wider development, implementation and potential surrounding the integration of multiple datasets; which is an issue currently at the core of real-world football analytics.

The 2019 Forum encapsulated this new perspective perfectly. Carlos Rodriguez’ ground-breaking presentation on player orientation along with Mladen Sormaz and Dan Nichol’s fresh approach to examining ‘shape damage’ are two examples of how the Forum continues to provide the platform for innovation in football analytics.

Evolution of the Forum

Football analytics has gone through so many shifts and movements within a relatively short period of time. It can become easy to forget that this is a relatively young industry that has made a tremendous amount of progress and impact on the game, and this is often reflected within the Forum.

It is not only overarching themes that evolve with the growth of the Forum, but it is also reflected in the topics presented at the event itself. 2019 saw a focus on manipulating space, further representing the next phase in the evolution of integrating multiple datasets to discover new truths that can support on-field decision-making and player identification.

The gap has been bridged

A telling showcase of the OptaPro Analytics Forum’s progression comes from the background of the speakers. Offering a platform for the wider community to showcase new ideas and innovations has been one of the original goals of the Forum and is unlikely to change any time soon.

Kuba Michalczyk, who delivered a poster presentation on build-up play, is an example here, having only recently entered this field and was selected last year as a fellow on Dan Altman’s NYA Analytics fellowship programme.

However, the 2019 Forum brought something new in that three event speakers had first-hand experience within professional clubs.

Huddersfield Town, FC Nordsjaelland and FC Barcelona were all represented on stage at the event (alongside guest talks with representatives from SL Benfica and the Arizona Diamondbacks).

This direct engagement from these groups in the event not only showcases how the perceived gap between the wider community and football clubs has firmly been bridged, but just as importantly, the diverse nature of these three clubs further reinforces the widespread adoption of analytics across professional football.

Football analytics in 2020

In this industry, clichés like, “If you’re standing still, you’re falling behind” seem especially true, and the Forum is no different. Whether it is through event innovations such as interactive posters, guest speakers from new sports or decision-makers delivering Q&A sessions, the Forum must continue to evolve to ensure it is at the forefront of the football analytics industry and remains relevant to those 180 representatives from professional teams.

Through the integration of the Forum’s expert judging panel, analyst mentors, data providers and the commitment, expertise and approach of presenters, the Forum has the perfect platform to continue its growth and to be the central driver of development within football analytics.

How this happens is the next challenge. We speak about the Forum being a hub for innovation, and what makes this possible is a culture of cross-learning.

Different sports and industries have proved essential in driving this growth, and the representation of more sports in attendance and speakers from different backgrounds such as cancer research, cybersecurity and quantitative finance further reinforce this.

The appetite for analytical insight and sharing principles, approaches and new ideas that can transcend different sports and industries certainly exists, and there is a clear opportunity for football analytics in particular to build on this and ensure it maintains a broad perspective to benefit from these opportunities – both present and in the future.