As statistics become ever more prevalent in elite sport, are we seeing our favourite pastimes clearer? We asked England wing Anthony Watson and Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Anthony Watson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain run the numbers
WE’LL never know if Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could have made it in rugby. But we can pinpoint the moment the Liverpool midfielder’s chance of being a London Irish great evaporated. “I never went to the trial!” he tells Rugby World. “We didn’t play football at my school (St John’s College) until sixth form, so it was all rugby and cricket.
“I played rugby until I was 15. That’s when football got more serious… And the size of the rugby boys got more serious too! Southampton (FC) weren’t too keen on me playing rugby at that point. But I came back for the Hampshire Cup final. I got Man of the Match from full-back!”
Football was destined to win. Still, a scrum-half who could also play full-back, Oxlade-Chamberlain knew how to put a shift in. Today, in front of the famous Kop, it is part of his job description to wear a deep furrow between the boxes.
Yet if we accept that high work-rate is a necessity in all major sports, we must also appreciate that in 2021, with the very elite of these games monitored and rated through every training session and competitive outing, top athletes do more than just run around hoping it works out.
Today, between the opinions, work the analysts. Our understanding of statistics is becoming more sophisticated, while technology continues to improve. And if we take the red pill and suddenly wake up to a world of numbers chittering down the screen, being able to decipher the code is vital.
So we asked Bath, England and Lions 2021 back-three star Anthony Watson and Oxlade-Chamberlain about this. Giving a glimpse into the Matrix of sporting stats, they reveal a world that may run away from us fans.
Sure, obsessing over the numbers can be a dry way of analysing such beautiful games, but appreciation of the figures is shaping real-world decisions – it made headlines across sport earlier this year when metronomic Man City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne signed a new deal with the Premier League champions, after a data analyst provided him a detailed report on his influence for the club and the likeliness of success in the future.
In the silos of these specific sports, it’s clear there are ways stars can make the numbers (and video analysis) work for them. From rugby, Watson knows what he values on the spreadsheet.
“There are a few metrics that are important, irrelevant of performance,” the Lion says. “So high-speed metres is very important, and top speed is very important. Keeping those as high as possible, consistently, is massive for me. It’s something I keep an eye on.
“But within that there’s obviously context as well. So when you play full-back as opposed to on the wing, you could expect to have a bit more volume, less high-speed metres, And your top speed might be reduced because you don’t have the opportunity to kick-chase, to get up to speed. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is the word you use, and you have to look at those, but you also have to apply context. If there’s a massive drop-off from full-back to wing then there’s an issue, but if there’s a little one then that’s to be accounted for in terms of the positional change.
“Just from a performance perspective, ‘defenders beaten’ is a stat that I always pride myself in. And whoever does stats for defenders beaten (at the moment) needs to rejig their way of doing them because to me it doesn’t make sense!
“But for example, Stuart Hogg and Charles Piutau probably make more line breaks than I do from phase play. So I need to look at how I can be better, so that I can make more line breaks – make more, it’s more effective for the team. So I guess somewhere there’s a little bit of self-awareness but it’s also an appreciation of other’s strengths.”
Does our footballer feel the same? There is definitely a parallel when it comes to the value we give some stats in isolation. He agrees with Watson that some numbers belie the true flow of the match action – for him, the big one is chances created – but looking at the physical side, what a picture you can paint with numbers over a year.
Oxlade-Chamberlain says: “The physical stuff is easier to quantify in terms of am I running enough, how many sprints are there and how quick am I going? The technical side is a bit more of a broad span and you can’t trust that data over five games, but you can probably get a clear picture of where you’re at, how you’re performing, over the course of the season.
“I’ve never based a massive decision on them like Kevin (De Bruyne), but the way he plays is similar to how I want to play. He always looks for end-product and creating things, making positive impacts on the team. I can understand how we could look at those numbers and the way he’s playing, and base his future chances of success and also improving as a player around that. We try to take the information and the data that we get to ultimately improve us.”
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If you look at our On The Run panel below, you can see a direct comparison of ‘personal best’ running numbers in competitive matches, collected by STATSports, between some of England’s top men and women footballers and rugby’s Elliot Daly and Watson. Covered amongst the obvious hits is High Metabolic Load Distance (HMLD), a metric for the amount of high-speed running an athlete does, coupled with the total distance of accelerations and decelerations (a higher score means more intensity), plus High Speed Running (HSR) distance.
“We will use HMLD,” explains England rugby sports scientist Nathan Beardsley. In a previous life he worked with Nottingham Forest FC. “But those two obviously split into HSR and explosive distance – looking at the accelerations and the decelerations – and we will look at that closely as well.
“So in terms of ‘scoring’ players, that’s a really good marker for rugby, because of the contrast of the players. You might have a Mako Vunipola, and he actually gets really high accels because of breaking the line constantly, but then Ant (Watson) accels in a completely different way, while still accumulating them, so it’s a good way to compare.
“Obviously HSR is really important and we’d split guys into bands of five metres per second, and seven. It translates into football, so you are looking at a cruising distance. But we’ve actually had to take that threshold even higher than seven (in rugby) because the boys are getting faster and faster.
“As we look at eights and nines, top wingers should be over nine and edging more towards ten metres per second, so getting closer to 100 metres in ten seconds, all being well.
“Therefore we want to be a little bit more prescriptive in what we give in those bands there. You’re going to get real fast players in the Premiership. And we were privy to some numbers from football and (former Chelsea midfielder) Eden Hazard would be a player that accumulates loads of distance, then cruises. He gets a lot of those five metres per second as well, but he’s obviously high calibre. And you imagine someone like Mo Salah might be the kind of player that makes those darting runs in behind for Liverpool but not a lot else, a lot of the time. Lionel Messi is the prime example of this.”
But individual stats must marry with the team’s. And running further away from amateurism, tactics play a part. The time of just heading out and throwing the ball around are over.
“Teams now use that data to recruit players,” Beardsley adds. “Certain teams will look at the physical characteristics, and if they can’t get players from that band of technical stars, they’ll say, ‘Okay, at least he can do X, Y and Z physically, so he’ll fit into what we need within our formation’.”
Oxlade-Chamberlain will talk with old pals about rugby and draw comparisons, particularly in the gym. Watson struck up a friendship with Aston Villa defender Tyrone Mings after meeting in Vegas and does likewise. All these pros live with real-time analysis.
Beardsley considers good contextual stats bleeding into our consciousness, saying: “I saw two defensive midfielders being compared on TV, and they were looking at assists, goals scored or passes in and around the opposition box. I was thinking, ‘That’s not really relevant for a defensive midfielder!’
“It’s about adding the right context for that player. They may not have to do so much high-speed running in a game, but their tactical awareness within the line of defence meant they didn’t have to.
“It’s being selective. There are so many measurements. Goal-line clearances are huge in football or there might be a try-saving tackle on the wing and their worth is huge. You can’t generalise with the same ten metrics (for each player).”
For Watson, seeing the whole picture was not always natural. After becoming a senior player at Bath, he says: “I never really looked at the context of the team’s performance and where we needed to change in an immediate fashion. Now at half-time I can know exactly what we’ve done wrong, what we need to fix up.”
Oxlade-Chamberlain discussed with Watson how methodologies can cross sports, and is interested in rugby training approaches that translate. Though he adds, “I’ve no interest in being smashed by forwards anymore!”
As our understanding of elite sports advances, let us see how far the rabbit hole goes.
Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Anthony Watson are ambassadors for STATSports, one of the world leaders in GPS sports technology. Their Apex Athlete Series is available for athletes at every level from STATSports.com
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