Can we take data management tips from England football?

Player performance data plays a big part of Gareth Southgate’s squad management strategy.
21 November 2019

Southgate is a data-led manager of his team. Source: Shutterstock

The business world today is run by data insights, and even in the passion-fuelled, beautiful game, performance data is instrumental in informing management in pursuit of game-winning decisions. 

Fresh off a 7-0 Euro qualifier victory against Montenegro, England’s international football manager, Gareth Southgate, explained at Google Cloud Next how data is providing a new view of players away from the pitch-side. 

Much like many businesses (in some cases controversially) are employing performance management platforms to drive and incentivize workforce productivity, the England boss can reel through player stats inside of 12 hours of the final whistle.

Player performance can be indicated by data such as running distance, shots taken, passes made— all of which can help inform tactics, starting squads, formations, and substitutions at future fixtures. 

Southgate also claimes to have analyzed footage of thousands of penalty shootouts in order to establish preferences of outfield players and goalkeepers, to help ensure his squad has the best intel when it comes to set-piece crunches. 

“When I took over, there were no records of the past older England managers that have been over 30 years,” Southgate said.

“Now, everything we do is stored, everything we do is shared.

“We are awash with data […],” he told the audience at the cloud event.

However, while certain high-scoring sports can be won or lost with data alone— as demonstrated in the 2011 ode to stats-based baseball Moneyball— Southgate acknowledged that data doesn’t tell managers everything about their men on the ground. 

He warned of “random events” and “blips in the data you can read too much into”, and that physically being in the heat of the game carries huge additional pressure.  

“Ultimately, the player and the players still have to have the nerve to put the ball on the spot and execute,” Southgate said. 

There is one area that the England manager claims is crucial for data insights, and that’s in training load and ensuring players are in the best condition possible when they step onto the turf. 

“The most important thing for us is to avoid injury.

“Therefore the training load is a really key piece of data for us, which helps the other club as well because if we overload the player physically there is more chance of getting injured.”

As technology develops, making it both easier and quicker to collect vast amounts of various data, managers across all industries will be able to draw rich insights on the performance of their operations, and that of individual workers. 

With that three-dimensional perspective, however, comes the responsibility of turning it to a team-wide advantage, without losing empathy to the pressures of each individual on the pitch, or factory floor, office or otherwise.