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Exclusive: Interview with Duncan Alexander, author of Opta Joe’s Football Yearbook 2016



The use of statistical analysis in football has seen a huge increase since the turn of the century and now, more than ever, we are witnessing its effects in the mainstream media and its use by those involved in the game themselves.

It is perhaps right on cue, then, that the excellent Opta Joe’s Football Yearbook lands on our shelves.

Written by Opta’s Chief Data Editor Duncan Alexander, the Football Yearbook sets out to de-bunk the traditional myths surrounding football and, in particular, the Premier League.

An engaging read, with plenty of humour to match, this is a must-buy for the modern-day football fan. Just as it is set out to do, the book brings bring Opta data ‘to life’, offering insight into the stories and intrigues fans have been talking about all season.

This publication doesn’t just focus on the Premier League season in which Leicester City made English top flight history. Indeed, we also gain an insight into some of the world’s greatest teams, as well as the summer Euro 2016 championships, just gone.

And, although the 2015/16 campaign is at the forefront of Duncan’s analysis, the reader is also treated to a taste of the past, with many chapters turning to historical data by means of comparison.

Whether you buy into statistical analysis within football, or not, this is a book you are bound to enjoy reading. Also, if you like a cheeky flutter once every so often, the knowledge provided could certainly help your chances of being significantly more successful.

We were lucky enough to grab an exclusive interview with Duncan following the release of his latest publication, during which we discussed his role with Opta, his motivation behind putting his knowledge into a book, and what he envisages for the future of statistical analysis in the world in football…

Hi Duncan, can you tell us about your role with Opta? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I’ve been with Opta for more than 10 years and have largely worked in the data editorial team. What that means, in English, is taking the vast amounts of raw data that is produced and sifting through it to come up with insight and memorable lines for television, newspapers, brands and, since 2009, social media. These days I try to create new ways of using data and shaping it for specific projects, such as the Opta Joe yearbook.

What convinced you to turn your knowledge of data and statistics into writing a book?

Well I was approached rather than hammering at doors demanding a book deal but once I thought about it I realised that there was (hopefully) a sweet spot between traditional yearbooks that have long lists of numbers and records and narrative reviews of the season. This book tries to occupy that middle ground, so covers the big issues of the 2015-16 season, mainly using data, but also veers off into some more unusual areas (such as: why are players called Alan in decline?)

For any of our readers hoping to break into sports analytics, particularly with regard to football, what advice would you give?

The skill-set required has changed over time. I still mainly use Excel like a calculating dinosaur whereas the youngsters are using things such as Python scripts to extract and play with data but ultimately the main thing is that you know about and love football. I could look at a load of numbers about importing paint or the budget deficit in Canada and it would leave me cold, but with football it can inspire me, occasionally, to come up with some interesting ideas and different ways of looking at the game.

How many people (at the same time) do you have analysing some of the biggest matches? And, can you give us a bit of an insight into the data collection process?

Even though Opta has been collecting football data for almost 20 years, the way it happens is still a bit of mystery to many. Essentially, it’s been roughly the same since 2006, with video images of the game piped through some custom-built software that allows two people (one per team, plus a third person to QA the info live) to track and record every touch of the ball in a game. There are roughly 2000 events per match and the x/y position of each is collected live. There’s a pretty good video showing the main elements here:

Do you think that the level of data collected by big clubs makes it harder for smaller clubs with limited finances to compete on the field?

Probably much less so than it does with something like transfer budgets. You could employ an innovative data guy who could give you a competitive advantage for a bit (probably until he was snapped up by a bigger club).

Do you think the role of stats will continue to grow in football and if so, in what ways? Is there anything exciting set to happen within the analytics industry that we should keep an eye out for?

The combination of different datasets is probably the next big step. If you combine positional data with events you could work out who was the best passer under pressure, which defence was the most drilled and which striker consistently finds the most space before shooting. It will be like football stats v2.0, basically.

How effective is the use of statistics for predicting the outcome of future games? Should those who like to bet on weekly fixtures start to have a greater consideration of the data to hand?

As usual, it’s about applying the numbers sensibly. Team X might have won their last five games against Team Y but if the most recent one was on Boxing Day 1931 it’s pretty meaningless. However if Team X have won none of the 14 games that Player A has missed this season and he is out of this match then you should probably take note. That’s without going into metrics such as Expected Goals which can hint at which teams/players are under/over-performing and whether a club’s recent results are realistic or not.

You have a huge Twitter following, with thousands of users sharing each of your posts. What is the secret behind your successful use of social media?

People assume there was/is a grand plan around Twitter but really it has always been a way to use content that wasn’t picked up elsewhere and interact with fans directly (and learn what they do/don’t like). Ultimately, most people don’t really enjoy complicated ‘stats’ but if it is presented in a way that they can use as a rejoinder to their friends it will usually do well. Some people don’t particularly like the one-word summary we do at the end of a tweet but it can often turn a fairly vanilla piece of information into something more amusing, without turning the tweet into some sort of subjective opinion.

If you had to pick your favourite statistic from the 2015/16 season, perhaps one you have included in your new book, what would it be?

Writing the book meant I had to sift through a lot of stats, a lot. One that didn’t make the book that I liked was that players in the Premier League are more likely to be sent off when there’s a full moon, while I keep meaning to get a copy of the Palace v Norwich game from April. The ball was in play for only 45 minutes and 39 seconds of the 98 so if you enjoy seeing linesmen flag morosely for throw-ins, offsides, and goal kicks it is an absolute classic.

English Premier League

£43m for Toby Alderweireld would be great business for Tottenham Hotspur

It seems that the Belgian defender is definitely on his way out of Tottenham Hotspur.



It seems as though Toby Alderweireld is on his way out of Tottenham Hotspur.

It is being reported by Het Laatse Nieuws today that the Belgian’s contract talks with Spurs have been halted.

With the Belgian out of contract in the summer of 2019, Spurs will attempt to cash in on Alderweireld now.

A fee of £43 million has been mentioned for the player, who reportedly wanted a wage to match that of Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool.

Tottenham’s stance of not paying out big wages to their top players has often been criticised. But on this occasion, the Lilywhites are doing the right thing.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

On his day and when fit, Alderweireld might be the best centre-back in the Premier League. However, it has been a long time since the Belgian had such a day.

Most of this season has seen Alderweireld on the treatment table. When he has played, it has always seemed a precursor to his next injury.

Given his age and contract situation, the injury record gives Alderweireld three strikes. At £43 million, Tottenham would be getting a fantastic deal for their defender.

The report from HLN claimed that Alderweireld wanted a wage in the region of €180,000-a-week (£160,000-a-week). Such a sum is vast for a player with his current issues.

The fact Spurs were reportedly willing to go as high as €120,000 (£105,000) per week shows that Daniel Levy tried to keep the Belgian, even doubling his current wage, but Alderweireld is on his way.

It will be a shame for Spurs but breaking the wage structure at the club for an injury prone defender would not have been a wise move.

Eventually, Tottenham might have to be more lenient with their wages, but that should be saved for the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen.

Tottenham should take £43 million for Alderweireld and persevere with the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Eric Dier, Davinson Sanchez and Juan Foyth.

Alderweireld’s next club will hope they can keep the Belgian fit long enough to reap the rewards of his potential signature.

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English Premier League

Ronald Koeman admits he wanted Memphis Depay at Everton

But would Everton have benefited from his arrival?



Ronald Koeman is about to kickstart his managerial career with the Dutch national team. It is his first role since getting sacked by Everton and his first foray into international management. Speaking about his new role he discussed the former Manchester United winger Memphis Depay.

Speaking to the press, as reported by Football Oranje, Koeman revealed that he had tried to convince Depay to join Everton whilst he was manager at Goodison Park:

“I invited him to my home last year, when I wanted to get him to Everton. That did not work, he went to Lyon.”

during the Netherlands Training session held at KNVB Sportcentrum on March 20, 2018 in Zeist, Netherlands. The Netherlands will play England in a International Friendly match on March 23 in the Amsterdam ArenA.

Depay was with Manchester United at the time, where he had struggled to live up to his potential. Instead of joining Everton he headed to Lyon in France in a deal reported by the Telegraph to be worth £16 million.

So have Everton missed out?

Depay’s struggles to settle in English football are well known. Since his move to France things have certainly improved. Depay has scored 18 goals since his move to France. However, considering he scored 28 goals in his final season at PSV prior to his United switch it is still not a massive amount.

ZEIST, NETHERLANDS – MARCH 20: Netherlands Head coach, Ronald Koeman walks out for the Netherlands Training session held at KNVB Sportcentrum on March 20, 2018 in Zeist, Netherlands. The Netherlands will play England in a International Friendly match on March 23 in the Amsterdam ArenA. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

In the time he has been in France those 18 goals have come from 61 games. His form has been good at Lyon but certainly not to the standard many expected of him when he made the move to Manchester United.

That said, £16 million today in today’s market is not a lot of money. Looking at Everton’s team, having Depay playing from the left side would have been a massive bonus for Koeman, and now for Sam Allardyce.

Depay still has plenty to improve upon and hopefully Koeman can get the best out of him during his time as the Netherlands boss.

As for Everton, they did not get their man and paid a lot more for the man he would be battling for first-team football Yannick Bolasie – who has not yet been a hit at Goodison Park.

So, all things considered, Everton probably should wish Koeman had managed to convince Depay into a Merseyside switch last January.

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English Premier League

Victor Fernandez furthers Newcastle United first-team claims on Spain tour

The 19-year-old impressed as he featured against Belgian outfit Royal Antwerp.

Jake Jackman



Photo: Getty Images

Newcastle United recently travelled to Spain for a training camp as they attempted to deal with three weeks without a competitive fixture.

Rafa Benitez is an experienced manager and he will have realised the danger that such a gap could pose for his team, especially when it came to the fitness of the squad.

He arranged a training camp in his homeland, which culminated in a unique 135-minute match against Belgian side Royal Antwerp.

It consisted of three periods of 45-minutes, which allowed the manager to give playing time to the fringe players in his squad ahead of the run-in.

Although it gave the opportunity to experiment, only two youth players made the trip to Spain.

Nathan Harker was the back-up goalkeeper as both Rob Elliot and Karl Darlow were struggling with injuries.

The other, Victor Fernandez, caught the eye of Newcastle supporters watching.

Fernandez will be encouraged about further involvement with the first-team, as he was the only young outfield player to feature against Royal Antwerp.

(Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

That is a sign that Benitez considers the 19-year-old as one of the best prospects currently with the club.

The Spaniard joined the club just over a year ago from UE Cornella.

The signing went under the radar, but Benitez has an extensive scouting network and he obviously saw something in Fernandez.

Although he is predominantly a winger, he can play anywhere across the front-line is required.

Soon after joining the club, he spoke of not wanting to aim for too much too early when talking to the Newcastle United official club website:

“My purpose was not to make an impact really quickly, because I’m new and I have to get used to English football – it’s really different from Spain. I hope, little by little, I can keep doing good things here.”

Considering this was very quickly after his move to a new country, Fernandez’s words show maturity and show a glimpse into his character.

Benitez is a thorough manager who likes to know everything about the players that he brings to a football club.

There must have been something about the Spanish winger that made the Newcastle manager believe that he could adapt to English football.

There are no guarantees in football when it comes to young players fulfilling their potential.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

However, the fact that Fernandez was taken on the mid-season tour to Spain suggests that he is on the right path.

He would have been offered guarantees about a route to the first-team squad and his involvement against Royal Antwerp will have been a reward for his progression since moving to St James’ Park.

He came on for the final 45-minutes and showed flashes of his ability.

There was some nice interplay with Dwight Gayle that resulted in the teenager having a shot on goal.

His trickery and direct style caused problems for his marker and he continued to excite those watching when the ball was his feet.

There is more developing for him to do before he is ready for the first-team in competitive action, but his performance against Antwerp was a positive one.

There is clearly talent there and he will be a player to follow over the coming seasons.

Newcastle are at the early stage of their development under Rafa Benitez and that will mean opportunities are there for young players.

Fernandez could have the ability to take his.

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