Ian Graham is not a particularly likely revolutionary. He has a distinctly academic air: affable, intelligent, just a little wrinkled. He is not a born salesman. He doesn’t particularly like giving interviews. About once every 10 minutes, he allows a mischievous and quirky sense of humor to take over. He feels this makes appearing on any broadcast media a risk.
However, it is difficult to deny that he is a wildly successful insurgent. Twenty years ago, he was one of the first to explore the idea that football could better understand itself by examining the vast amounts of data produced by each player in each match. He wasn’t so much a pioneer in the field of football analysis as he helped create it.
Then, over a decade in Liverpool, it acted as a proof of concept. From scratch, he created a data department that came to be considered one of the most sophisticated in sports. Their systems, their methods and their knowledge turned a club that had long been a drifting and declining giant into a beacon of innovation.
There are two ways to measure its influence. The simplest is the football standard: weighing silver and gold. During his time at Liverpool, the club was crowned champion of England – for the first time in 30 years – of Europe and the world. He reached the Champions League final, the sport’s biggest match, three times in five seasons.
But perhaps a better measure is the wake he left than the path he blazed. When he joined Liverpool in 2012, the fact that an elite team could employ a real scientist (he has a PhD in polymer physics, but uses his honorific only as a joke) was considered outlandish or absurd.
Football had long resisted outsiders, those who had not established their bona fides within the sport as players or coaches. The initiates looked at the academics with special contempt. The sport was still considered too dynamic, too fluid and too poetic to be reduced to the mundanity of numbers. The idea of a data department was still a novelty in itself.
However, when Graham left Liverpool earlier this year, he was closer to being a necessity. It is widely accepted that any club serious about competing in the continent’s top leagues should consult data when recruiting new players and evaluating performance.
Almost every major team in Europe has a data department, which increasingly includes someone with a scientific background. Perhaps Graham would be forgiven for thinking that the revolution he helped instigate was complete. However, as far as he is concerned, this has only just begun.
In Graham’s opinion, there are two reasons why football is more complex than theoretical physics. The first is that “hard science” – its term – has the advantage of being subject to a set of unquestionable rules. The laws of physics are non-negotiable. Particles behave in predictable ways. That is not the case in football. “In physics you don’t have to take into account that in Germany gravity works slightly differently,” he said.
The second is that elite sports do not offer the “great luxury” of controlled experimentation. European football does not operate in sterile laboratory conditions. There is no opportunity to formulate, test and modify a hypothesis. “It’s very emotional, very reactive,” Graham said. Fans and executives alike demand instant gratification.
The long-term future extends, at most, approximately six weeks. Until Christmas at the latest. The one thing that no one in football has, as a general rule, is time.
He attributes much of his success at Liverpool to the fact that he did. This was, he said, the key ingredient in the “special sauce” the club developed. “The first thing I told the owners was that they shouldn’t expect to hear from me for six months,” he said. “That’s how long it would take to build all the structures we needed. Whenever there was something more urgent, we could hire someone else to do it.”
That few, if any, teams have that privilege limits football’s ability to make the most of the great strides made in analytics in recent years. Even Brighton and Brentford, the two English clubs now functioning as Liverpool’s heirs to the forefront, with their fairytale data-driven promotions to the Premier League, must keep pace with a field evolving at a rapid pace. vertiginous
“If you look at what people do outside of sports, people who have time to try things, they’re often much more advanced,” Graham said. “The available tools, technology and data are much better now. If you started building a system today, you would have a much higher base. Within a club you have to stop developing at a certain level. There is so much daily work that there is no time to investigate.”
That’s not the only limiting factor. Clubs operate in different silos: the work they do with data is largely proprietary. That teams do not share knowledge or disseminate best practices makes a lot of sense at a sporting level. But not only is it scientifically antithetical, it serves to diminish the scale of the data’s potential impact.
Teams that didn’t have the foresight to be early adopters are, Graham estimates, “10 years behind” teams like Liverpool, Brighton and Brentford today. Those who had the appetite but not the resources are also excluded. “The teams that could benefit the most from this often can’t afford to do it, or at least do it properly,” he said.
It has been almost a year since the 45-year-old informed Liverpool that his role there had come to “a natural end”. Working for the club he had supported as a child was his “dream job”, he said, but he felt he had achieved everything he could. He knew that, at least in a professional setting, he couldn’t start from scratch again.
When news of his impending departure broke, he quickly received a flood of offers from other teams, all hoping he could do for them what he had done for Liverpool. Graham did not find the prospect attractive. The systems he had designed for Liverpool were now the club’s intellectual property; He particularly didn’t want to build something for someone else. “I felt like he did it,” he said. “It would have been crazy to work for just one club again.”
Instead, he set out to help make football as a whole a little smarter.
Over the past few months, Graham has met with a succession of football team owners and potential owners. They are largely, but not exclusively, extremely wealthy Americans, often executives at private equity and venture capital firms, all eager to acquire the services of Ludonautics, the company he founded after leaving Liverpool, for the clubs that have bought or the clubs that hope to buy.
The appeal is obvious. In a sport that chronically lacks time, gaming has the feeling of being a shortcut. Graham’s resume is compelling. So is that of Michael Edwards, the famous publicity-averse sporting director who worked with him at Liverpool and who is now employed by the company as a “sports consultant”.
The argument, however, is not that they can repeat the success they had in Liverpool; is that they can expand it. Graham no longer has to work to the demands and demands of an individual team. Instead, he can use the full range of modern technology at his disposal to build something new, something better, and fuel the sport’s next big leap.
Over time, he said, that might even allow him to achieve what he considers the “holy grail” of analytics: assessing how important a manager really is. “That’s very complicated,” he said. “It tends to get confused with who has the best players, the best team. There are many second order effects. It is very difficult to know exactly how good a manager is and what kind of impact he has on the results.”
What has caught his attention the most in his last matches is how little football still knows about itself. It’s not just that complex things – how much of a team’s performance can be attributed to luck, how much it spends for each point it has acquired – remain a mystery. Simpler building blocks often do as well.
The most pressing thing is that, in many cases, teams do not know what should be considered success. Ludonautics has seen team sales prospectuses where roster values are little more than on-air estimates. That, Graham said, represents more than a little sales sleight of hand; It has a tangible and detrimental effect.
“In terms of performance, they often don’t have a systematic way of knowing who they are and where they are,” he said. “They have no idea of the underlying strength of the team. Without that, how do you know where you should end up? How do you know if finishing fifth is good or bad? And how to hold people accountable?
In his opinion, this is in the interest of the sport as a whole: the more teams that know the simple and complex things, the better the sport will be. “There’s a quote from John Keats about Isaac Newton using the prism to explain the colors of the rainbow,” Graham said. “But knowing why it happens doesn’t make a rainbow any less beautiful.”