Football in Australia started a new era this autumn, with the country’s leading men’s, women’s and youth competitions all competing under a single unified A-Leagues banner.
This change is one of a number of initiatives brought in for 2021-22, which includes matches in the men’s top-flight no longer being scheduled during FIFA international breaks, meaning that the league’s international players will no longer miss matches for their clubs during key periods.
These developments reflect the growing maturity of domestic football down under, which is also reflected by the off-field operations at many of the A-Leagues’ clubs, with several men’s teams establishing internal management infrastructures, overseen by a dedicated football director, which are similar to those seen at top clubs in Europe.
One such club is defending A-League Men champions Melbourne City, part of the global City Football Group, who under the leadership of Director of Football Michael Petrillo have invested in resources and personnel to optimise the club’s recruitment and performance analysis operations.
Supporting the first-team squad and coaching staff during the season are three performance analysts, led by George Apostolidis, who use a combination of Opta data and Stats Perform software to deliver pre and post-match insights relating to City’s on-field performance, as well as their A-League Men opponents.
In addition, the day-to-day activity of the club’s scouting operation is being managed through a private and secure online system, Stats Perform’s Intelligent Sports Framework, overseen by City’s Head of Recruitment James Poole.
As City begin their title defence, Stats Perform caught up with Poole and Apostolidis to discuss how the technology has supporting them in their roles as the club looks to sustain its performance and challenge for further silverware long-term.
Combining Data, Video and Live Scouting to Profile Recruitment Targets
One of the recruitment challenges shared by all 12 A-League Men clubs is the need to work within the confines of the league’s first-team roster rules.
Each squad is limited to a maximum of 26 players, with only five slots available to overseas players who don’t have Australian citizenship. In addition, every team has to operate to a $2.5 million salary cap, with exemptions for two marquee signings and one designated player. City currently have one marquee player, Jamie Maclaren, who since joining in 2019 has become the club’s record scorer, netting at a ratio of nearly a goal a game in his first 60 league appearances.
Victoria-native Maclaren, who joined City from German side Darmstadt 98, is one of ten players in the current first-team squad to have been signed from European clubs, reinforcing the global nature of player recruitment by A-League Men teams.
Recruited from Abroad: Melbourne City Squad 2021-22
|Tom Glover||GK||Australia||Tottenham Hotspur (England)|
|Curtis Good||DEF||Australia||Newcastle United (England)|
|Scott Jamieson||DEF||Australia||IFK Göteborg (Sweden)|
|Nuno Reis||DEF||Portugal||Levski Sofia (Bulgaria)|
|Rostyn Griffiths||MID||Australia||Pakhtakor Tashkent (Kazakhstan)|
|Mathew Leckie||MID||Australia||Hertha BSC Berlin (Germany)|
|Aiden O'Neill*||MID||Australia||Burnley (England)|
|Florin Berenguer||MID||France||Sochaux (France)|
|Jamie Maclaren||FOR||Australia||Darmstadt 98 (Germany)|
|Manuel Pucciarelli||FOR||Italy||Chievo (Italy)|
At the heart of City’s work across recruitment is ensuring that all the players being monitored are done so through the lens of the key parameters outlined by the club’s Head Coach, Patrick Kisnorbo, which Poole believes is achieved through clear communication and collaborative working between himself, the coaching staff and Apostolidis’ team.
“The message from the top is clear on what the Head Coach wants from his players, so there is a general understanding from everybody at the club,” says Poole, who has headed up City’s scouting since 2019.
“This is reinforced through the hours spent looking at the methodology, watching training sessions, watching our games and in face-to-face discussions.
“When you do that, you quickly start picking up on the attributes that the Head Coach likes. Then it is really important for the recruitment, coaching and analysis teams to work together closely because it isn’t always possible to tick every single box that the Head Coach is looking for. Instead it is about working closely and saying ‘this is the best option we have available’.
“A real-life example of this was when we brought in Nuno Reis during January. We lost Richard Windbichler, who went to South Korea, very, very close to the start of last season, so we needed to find a replacement in central defence.
“I knew exactly what the manager wanted in a centre back so as soon as I profiled Nuno, I was able to quickly establish that he ticked many of the boxes within our centre back profile, so that was one that I could quite quickly put in front of the Head Coach for him to then do his own work.
“So the more you work together and the closer you operate, the easier it becomes for everybody.”
One often overlooked area of data application when discussing the profiling of recruitment prospects is the importance of appearance, minutes played and injury data when completing recruitment due diligence.
With its live global database of over 730,000 players, Poole is quick to highlight how Stats Perform’s ISF platform provides him with a valuable central resource to quickly establish a player’s credentials.
He explains: “In my role I’m involved in recruiting across seven or eight teams, across different age groups, so I will review thousands and thousands of players every year. From the perspective of using some very basic data points, I’ve got some key markers and key metrics that need to be hit by a player if we are going to progress to the next stage of monitoring their performance through video analysis and live scouting.
“So for example, if a player has had serious injuries over the last three seasons, or played only ten games, it is very unlikely they will be of consideration to us just because of the increase in risk. That’s probably one of my biggest uses of ISF, that initial profile page with the players’ season-by-season data, which you can then break down by league and cups. It is incredibly useful and something I will check for every single player that that comes across my desk.”
In parallel with the work completed by Poole and the other staff, who filter down prospects using a combination of biographical data and the club’s scouting reports – which are also managed and stored centrally in Melbourne’s ISF database – Apostolidis and his colleagues in the analysis department provide additional recruitment support through the data profiling of prospects, using more detailed Opta event data.
“Obviously working with the coaches quite closely, you develop a pretty good understanding of what each position requires and what attributes align with that position,” says Apostolidis.
“So we’ve got documents that have been fed down based on the methodology of our parent organisation, City Football Group, but also ones that we’ve created ourselves where we’ve broken down, for instance, a centre back and what attributes are key to that position in the way that we play. So we’ll look at their passing range, aerial ability, 1v1 ones and so on, basically everything that we think is important to that position, both in possession with the ball and defensively without the ball.
“That ties into the work the scouts do in terms of backing up the observations they make with identifying, from their point of view, what the coach wants and what is required in that position to play the style that we play here at Melbourne.“
With most of City’s scouting resource based domestically, supported by staff in the UK working for CFG, the availability of thousands of new match videos each month in ISF is crucial for assessing players fitting the club’s recruitment profile, a situation further exacerbated by lockdowns imposed on the state of Victoria, totalling more than 260 days across eighteen months, and the difficultly of travelling into other states.
“The scouting department at the club is small, so recruitment is a process that involves all staff including analysis staff, directors, and coaches,” points out Poole.
“A lot of work is done through online video, supplemented by live scouting when possible, which is the most efficient way of covering as many relevant games as we can. Covid has led to the cancellation of a lot of junior and senior football across Australia, which has reduced the number of games we have been able to watch, so video is the technology source that has given us a huge help to our recruitment work, both internationally and domestically with the NPL Leagues (the second tier of football in Australia) over the past two years.
“Using video and live scouting, all of our senior scouting reports, as well as the reports for established youth players in the older age groups, go into the ISF. This is our central database for reports which are accessible to all the key members of our staff.
“We also use the ISF to shortlist players, so that we have a hub for those players of interest to go and sit, and then once they’re on there, we can decide whether we want to take them on to the next stage or not.”
Applying Data to Evaluate Performance
In addition to helping Melbourne research, profile and monitor players to inform key recruitment decisions, Opta data is also being utilised from a performance analysis perspective, both pre-match and post-match, to share insights with players and the coaching staff.
Throughout the 2020-21 season, followers of the A-League Men became accustomed to Melbourne’s high-intensity approach to win the ball back high up the pitch, a tactic which led them to completing 270 high turnovers during the campaign, the most of any team in the league. What’s more, once they won the ball back they looked to quickly instigate attacks and create opportunities to score – over 15% of their total goals for the campaign came directly from high turnovers.
In the days leading up to each of City’s league matches, team and player level opposition trends are presented to the first-team group through a combination of Tableau dashboards and widget-based visualisations taken from Stats Perform’s ProPortal platform, which provide engaging, easy-to-understand insights that are relevant to how each opponent plays.
Then on a matchday, within minutes of the final whistle, City’s performance analysts are putting the Opta data collected from the game straight to work as they plan their debrief.
As Apostolidis points out, the speed of data delivery is vitally important so that the analysts are equipped with answers to the questions posed by the coaching staff in the immediate aftermath of a match.
“As an analyst, I have a few markers that I’ll look at post-game, and they are always through ProPortal,” he explains.
“In addition to that, if a coach asks me, for example, how many times we were in the final third, or what our passing percentage was, my instinct is to go straight to the Opta data, as I know it is going to be available. The turnaround time is unbelievable.
“The report from each game that I’ll send through to all the coaching staff during the season are pretty much entirely made up of Opta data. I guess the biggest thing for me is that it’s reliable and the data is accurate, so I can confidently send that out and know that the meaning behind the numbers is true.”
Evolving Analysis Processes Going into 2021-22
City’s utilisation of technology has coincided with success on the field. As well as securing their first Premier and League Championship double in 2020-21, their success was achieved through the adoption of a patient, possession-orientated approach with the ball. According to Stats Perform’s Sequence Framework, City averaged 3.9 passes per sequence, as well as completing close to 19 individual sequences comprising nine passes or more per match.
As well as being adept at retaining possession, City were the league’s standout side when it came to creating chances – in total they created opportunities worth 2.3 expected goals per 90 minutes (compared to the league average of 1.6), which resulted in them scoring 12 more goals than any other team during the regular season.
As they begin their A-League Men defence, City are planning to build on their use of supporting analysis software by introducing another live application, ProVision, which will provide the performance analysts with the added benefit of being able to filter and interrogate Opta data to identify contextual in-game scenarios and crucially, review passages of play meeting key criteria on video.
Apostolidis believes that this integrated video is going to be a major benefit to him and his colleagues to communicate key messages, not only when they are profiling recruitment prospects and analysing opposition, but also when it comes to one-to-one coaching with players who are working on specific facets of their game.
“If I want to filter for a certain players’ touches or anything that relates specifically to their game, interrogating Opta data is the best way for me to do that”, he points out.
“Now I’m excited to go through ProVision, to start linking the video with that data because obviously the database and the numbers we’re able to pull through the platform is massive, so you’re looking now to use that data and back it up with footage.
“It makes it really appealing to quickly find numbers and start putting together documents, reports or even individual player clips that you know coaches use for young players who want to develop a certain aspect of their game. It’s really easy and handy to find it through that workflow.”
With an ongoing desire to further optimise their off-field processes, built around the proactive use of data and technology, Melbourne City are rightfully establishing a reputation as one of A-Leagues’ most forward-thinking clubs, which they hope can help them sustain success on the field going into 2022 and beyond.