“Clubs are hesitant to integrate technological solutions due to conservatism and fear of progress"
Ori Uzan is a former player for Israel’s national team, a coach, and a great believer in football data analytics. In an interview, he reveals the challenges in bringing data solutions to clubs and academies in sub-elite countries, the value leagues and associations have in advancing the technology, and on the next step of the data revolution: When players and parents become the main consumers. And as a bonus: A story about one top young talent and the power of coaching through video. This is only part 1 of the interview, the next one will be uploaded soon so stay tuned.
Every single time a success story in sports can be linked to data analytics and data-assisted solutions, we hear the same word for it. “Moneyball” has become a shorthand for such stories. It seems like everyone understands the importance of data in sports, or at the very least, has heard a Moneyball story. This is an illusion, though; the sports world has not embraced the data revolution as a whole. Less than a single percent of football teams worldwide use data solutions, and the ones who do are the wealthiest elite European clubs.
Ori Uzan has had a “standard” career, as much as a career in football can be standard. He was a professional football player who won championships with Maccabi Haifa, one of the biggest clubs in Israel, played four times for the national team, was an assistant coach at Haifa, and also coached youth teams of the biggest clubs in the country. Today, he is one of the foremost football commentators in the country, if not at the head of the pack. We had a conversation with him and heard his side of things: How much he knew about data solutions at each stage in his career, the importance of technology in developing young players, and about the obstacles in adopting data analytics in a non-elite team, and how to solve them. We also asked about the future of data analytics and where he thinks the field is headed?
"We had no real complete source for data analysis"
We start by asking Uzan when was he first exposed to data and video solutions and to what extent. "When I was an active player, clubs barely used any technology", he recalls. "Only close to my retirement (2012) coaches started using tactical video analysis. I personally was always a big fan of technology, and when I was appointed assistant coach at Maccabi Haifa I started looking for solutions. I pushed the club to add WYScout to follow players and used an external video editor to analyse specific situations from the match. "When it comes to set-pieces I think I was maybe the first one to switch from papers to using an iPad on the bench. In most youth teams I coached we had a video recording of the match, but no real source for data analysis. "If I wanted a personalized video of a player or to analyse and show key events, whether post-match or at halftime, I had to ask that they be specifically edited that way. Sometimes the tagging was done by people who had no connection to football and didn’t know what they were looking for.” Uzan describes a reality many youth teams, but also adult professional teams from sub-elite levels, experience – a difficulty to implement solutions that cover all of a modern football team’s coaching needs.
"As a coach, I was a big believer in data from day 1"
I’m wondering when did you first realize the true value of data and that “it works”? Were there specific incidents where hunches or subjective feelings failed you? “I understood the importance of data solutions a long time ago. I still remember the first game I played after I came back from an ACL injury. I thought I gave an amazing performance, but when I watched the video, I was horrified. Maybe that’s part of the reason why, as a coach, I was a big believer in data from day 1. Even though we didn’t use all-in-one complete solutions and hacked one together ourselves, I could still get important coaching information, like which player had the most successful tackle rate, who are my best dribble, and more. Even these insights are enough to help develop young players, set goals for them, learn their strengths, and sometimes change their position.
"Football isn’t like basketball. It’s not a sport that calculates the total sum of your actions and gives the team with the higher action number the win. The better team doesn’t always win. That’s the beauty of the game. But video, data, and objective numbers do show you trends and help you put a mirror in front of a player’s face. You can back up statements like ‘If the team plays X amount of the time in the last third and you play in position Y, you can’t finish a game with Z crosses".
"Through video, Manor Solomon learned to be more patient, make smarter decisions"
Uzan also shares with us a great example of this argument. An example that involves maybe the best Israeli footballer today – Manor Solomon, who’s now playing for Shakhtar Donetsk and whom Uzan coached during his tenure at his childhood team, Maccabi Petah-Tikva.
“When I joined Maccabi Petah-Tikva the people there couldn’t understand how it is possible that a player with his talent and capabilities can end a season with one assist and zero goals. We are talking here about a player who does whatever he wants with the ball. I remember a specific game where Manor dribbled past the opponent’s players 30 times. I am not kidding. When we sat down together, I showed him a video of this play and told him: ‘When I see this I want to just clap my hands for you. This is stuff Messi couldn’t pull off. Now, let’s calm down for a second and count how many defenders are still behind the ball. We counted ten.
"I asked Manor – what did you actually do there? You tricked one player, fooled the other, ran, drained yourself physically, almost got injured, and didn’t cancel even one defender. What value does this have to you and the team? This changed his perception. He learned to wait, be more patient, and make smarter decisions. I realized that the best position for him is to be a winger. Seeing was believing in this case.. He later said I really helped his career and I hope it’s true.”
Manor Solomon (image credit)
We’ve started talking about young players. What are the benefits data solutions have in their development? Are they more open to coaching instructions after they are given objective numbers or shown videos?
“I think people don’t realize how amazing this young generation is and how open and receptive they are. A thousand times more than my generation, and more talented too. Young players just want more. More data, more personalized videos, more personal tactical and physical training. You don’t need to mess around with xG or special metrics with them, you just present the data to them and you tell them: Do this and you’ll get to the adult leagues (or if you don’t, you won’t). They sometimes remember the game differently than it actually was, but when you give them access to actual data and video and then tell them what they need to do to improve, this is really eye-opening for them”.