It’s developed particularly fast at Palace over the last four years, since Sporting Director Dougie Freedman changed Ben’s role from a first-team analyst to pulling a recruitment and analysis department together under one umbrella.
With Freedman’s aim being to enlarge and solidify the analysis structure, Ben has grown the team so that today the club has two first-team analysts, two recruitment analysts, two data analysts and Ben, who leads the first-team and recruitment roles. The Academy has its own separate pool of staff.
It’s a wide team with an even wider remit, but Ben suggests the size of the department is secondary to its efficiency: “You don’t want to be a bloated department… where you just get more information, cover more things but it doesn’t actually impact on decision making. So it needs to be that perfect size of big enough to cover enough but also small enough that you can actually make some impact on decision making.”
For clarity, recruitment analysts are a different type altogether. Their role is to “use video to scout and clip up presentations of players to show to the management and board.”
First-team and recruitment analysis are different specialities, with different purposes and different staff to cover them. But they both share a need for data, something Ben says has grown significantly since his career began 15 years ago:
“When I first started not all games were covered, so you’d have gaps in your log of data. The data available to you was from a small sample, a very small sample.
“Now you have the emergence of fantastic data analysts that are not from a football background but a mathematical background that actually put together all your technical data with your physical data to come up with completely new metrics. So the data scope has just gone through the roof over my time.”
This is a field which Ben only sees advancing further, in line with how the wider world is changing in its demand for immediacy. “People use data in their daily lives and want it instantly,” he says. For example, when watching a Premier League game, look to the bench and you will often see a member of staff with an iPad.
“That’s a stream from the analysts. Every team does it. It’s a video of what’s happening in the game live but also what’s been clipped and the stats, whether that’s technical or physical. The problem is there is a huge mound of information being thrown down plus what is already happening and the concentration on the game. So it’s sifting through and getting the key elements across that is the major [task].”
Fans and the media are starting to become more aware of statistics now, whether that be expected goals (xG) at the end of a game on Match of the Day or on social media. Ben sees positives in this discussion becoming more prominent.
“It’s brilliant people are talking about it… That’s what the media can help with. If they put wrong or misleading stats out there it’s harmful but if they put correct stats out there and get people talking about it, that’s [positive]. Then you can start having the debate of is xG that important. Ie: should expected goals differ if it’s me shooting or [Christian] Benteke shooting?”
It is also important to point out that the use of stats in the media and by fans will always be different to what goes on internally at clubs. Where clear-cut, easy to digest stats might be the ones that get picked up online, club staff have a more nuanced perspective.
Ben says: “For stats to work they have got to be internal massively because the internal people should know what they are looking for.
“There will be more [stats] with the emergence of tracking and event data where stats don’t mean anything to another club or the public but they are really important internally. So you’ve got to ask the question: ‘What is the point of this data? Why are we using it?’”
While the media and fans are getting to grips with the more prominent use of statistics and data, analysts like Ben have been trying to perfect the craft for years. Like many things in life, there will always be parts that can be improved upon, as he says:
“There is no way we are right every single time. There are definitely things we have missed and definitely things we have got wrong or definitely things that the opposition has changed from what you’ve said they are going to do. And then you think: ‘God, I should have clocked on that they were going to do that.”
It’s hard to predict what the future may hold in terms of analysis and technology. Right now, the tools at Ben’s disposal are different to those he had when he started. In another 15 years, they will have changed further.
He explains: “You think there is nothing left and then someone throws a curveball… the one that is being pushed right now is virtual reality. If you imagine what that is, that’s people taking the data from matches and throwing it into virtual technology with a headset and everything and training people on spatial awareness through that.
“That’s where a lot of clubs are going. I’m still sceptical because when I’ve tried it out with a couple of companies I feel sick using it! But more and more kids are coming through with virtual headsets, so you’ve got to look at society and go: ‘What’s society doing?’ That always drips back into sport.”
The analysts who are largely in the background do a lot for a football club and play an important part in a side’s success. Football may look like 22 players on a field and a small coaching setup, but there is much more detail behind it. The next step in analysis is only just starting.