We’ve heard a lot about Prozone at Leeds United this season. We haven’t seen much professionalism in the pitch zone to go along with it, but Brian McDermott has had plenty to say about the player analysis system that is a byword for ‘stats’ in football.
The first problem was its absence. “We’ve got Prozone now,” he said back at the end of October. “Prozone is a really important tool that we haven’t had at Leeds since the Premier League days.
“It’s a way of measuring how far your players travel in games, basically, and you can measure it against the opposition. And we haven’t had that, so I’ve had no form of measuring, until last Saturday. I know what happened in that game, I know by my experience and my gut what happened – but we’ve got the facts now. So we can show the players, this is what you’re doing, this is where you’re going, this is what your measurements are. It’s a really important tool for us.”
This was around the time that McDermott was also forced into admitting on the Footballers’ Football Show that Leeds didn’t have a scouting structure “per se,” and it seemed like just another indication of the rot that had set in under Bates – and the trials and tribulations sent to test McDermott.
We still don’t seem to have a scouting structure – there’s been no official confirmation that Brian’s favoured new head scout, Luke Dowling, was ever put in the job. We have had confirmation, however, that the club has got Prozone; first, because GFH were able to use its return as another indication that the past was the past and all that, and second, because Brian McDermott was able to use it to defend the performances of Jimmy Kebe.
“What I will say about Jimmy is that if you look at the statistics, he ran more than anyone on that pitch on Saturday (at Loftus Road),” said Brian. “That is a fact. His high intensity sprints meant he did more than anyone on that pitch. That is a fact.
“I am talking about running, which has a meaning and makes a difference. Jimmy is running for the team, working for the team. There is no doubt about that, in my opinion. I have seen it.”
Sam Byram backed him up, telling Phil Hay, “We get all the player stats and Jimmy’s at the top pretty much every week. Sometimes it goes unnoticed.” Phil quoted another, unnamed player: “A player once said to me that Prozone is like a school exam – disputing the scores is a denial of hard, indisputable facts.”
The message was clear: the stats don’t lie. We got you your Prozone back, and Prozone says you’re all wrong about Jimmy Kebe. That is a fact.
Last week I had the chance to talk to Barry McNeill, who was head of consultancy and then a director of Prozone from 2000 until late last year – mirroring the Leeds’ company’s rise to prominence as a perquisite of football management.
Barry’s long involvement with Prozone makes him not just an advocate for it as a product, but a passionate believer that it should be used properly – with interpretation, analysis, a ‘storyboard’ that turns raw data into something meaningful.
“Part of my job as a consultant was, and luckily with my coaching background I could do this with a level of credibility, to say to the coach that no, we don’t put a top ten passers list up on the changing room wall,” said Barry.
“Back then you had players that were the central midfield holding player that would have a high success rate of passes, because his job was to connect the play and be safe and that’s probably all he had to do; whereas an attacking central midfielder, like a Scholes or a Gerrard or a Hazard, they’re going to lose the ball more often because they’re penetrating.
“Fairly obvious things but I still think this is a challenge in the market in 2014, never mind 2000. People look at volume and can’t help but automatically equate the high numbers with being good. And that’s especially the case with new data like the tracking data.
“I remember Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was on a coaching course and I had presented on how Prozone should be used. And Jimmy at the end said, ‘That’s all very well Barry, but I’ve worked with McClaren, Pardew and Dowie’ – and in my head they’re in the top quartile of Prozone users – and he said, ‘And they all think me running 11km is better than 10km, regardless of what my contribution is in front of goal.’
“Therein lies the challenge for me. If that’s not being interpreted in the right way then that’s a crime for how data is going to be used long term.”
Which brings us on to Jimmy Kebe.
“I read that article and I think, having come out of the Prozone business, when I was in it any publicity was great – and that they have convinced themselves that Prozone is that powerful is, from a business point of view, good and bad. Good in that it’s publicity and they’re giving it a level of importance, but bad in terms of how their quotes are misrepresenting what Prozone is about.
“Brian used it an awful lot in his previous role, and used it from a youth level so it wasn’t just because he inherited it. He actually took Prozone from the first team at Reading down to the youth level, and was using it with the youth team much more as a developmental tool, which is where it should be used. So he should have experience that gives him a sense of not doing things with data and comparing quantity.
“That leads me to believe that was probably a bit of a political response to defend a player. I understand that, that’s a leadership responsibility, but maybe what he used was something that he thought was something that would be out of the knowledge of the fans.
“I think there’s a challenge that fans will start having access to the same data and will draw their own conclusions.”
The data available to fans at the moment through apps like Squawka is still far behind the tools Prozone offer – movement tracking, which animates a players position and options on the pitch, provides a much more meaningful picture of a game than the events data – passes, shots, corners – that are reaching the fans.
Some of the arguments around its use, though – that a heat map of a player’s touches provides a view of a game that no serious fan can be without – echo the discussions coaches were having in Prozone’s early days; and echo the way it first arrived at Leeds.
“I’d worked with Terry Venables through the ITV media use of Prozone, and when he first came to Leeds we had some data on when Leeds had played away. So I helped him what during what was quite a tough time – he was a big believer in the animations of the team’s shape and dimensions.
“When Terry left Peter Reid came in, and Peter was quite well known to the Prozone owner at the time, so we got a meeting and I presented it to them. I’ve never really presented Prozone to a coach who hasn’t got it, and see the value in the animation piece specifically, but maybe what they can’t resist also is that everyone else has got it.
“I think Sam Allardyce has been a master of this, and to be fair to Sam he’s a huge advocate of creating a philosophy at a club, of sports science and innovation. He was a pretty uncompromising central defender, but he did play out in the States, and Sam was one of the biggest advocates for Prozone.
“So I’ve been in Sam’s office when I was at Bolton and opposition managers would come in, and he’d hoodwink them. Peter was one of them. He’d say, ‘Peter, if you think you’re a good coach, you’ve got to be using this – and if you’re not, you’re not a good coach.’ And he’d be that vociferous would Sam, and I think that word of mouth, by very credible individuals, was one of the biggest ripple effects Prozone had.”
Peter Reid, when he arrived at Leeds, was still a young manager and had been a relatively successful one at Sunderland; but he’d also allowed himself to be filmed in a documentary that presented him as a less than deep thinker about the game.
“I think Peter maybe did have a point to prove to be a bit more cerebral than he had come across,” said Barry. “And maybe he just was. Think back to Peter Reid when he was an Everton player, he was pretty industrious, and therefore if you think about that in his psyche he’s got Gary Lineker, Adrian Heath and Andy Gray who got all the glory, when actually he was the engine room. So maybe it helped him appreciate that players like himself were key integral blocks of the engine.
“I think Kevin Blackwell took that on a little. Kevin had a growth mindset, he was a young coach that wanted to prove himself – a goalkeeper, who viewed the game differently and therefore wanted to really stretch himself as a coach. I think he had that hunger to learn and he took Prozone as a tool to almost take himself on a journey – as for the usage with the players, it was like it is with most teams, it was limited. A post-match debrief, some stats on a piece of paper and a video, and then a pre-match preparation for the opposition.”
The cuts that followed when Bates arrived and Leeds plummeted into League One meant that Prozone dropped out of use, although it wasn’t entirely the case that Leeds had no Prozone at all; for one thing the cameras were still at Elland Road, they just weren’t switched on. Neil Warnock also used the Prozone scouting service that has been used by all Championship clubs for six or seven years.
“What now happens is any manager changes, they’ve probably had it, and where they go they’ll have it, so it’s part of just what you expect. And whether it’s the BMW 7-series or the BMW 3-series is the difference only. So I think there were some quite political comments from Leeds recently which said ‘We’ve brought Prozone back, we’re innovating again and we haven’t done that for some time.’”
What’s most important to Barry, though, is that innovation really is innovation, and that Prozone isn’t seen as just another stats service.
“24 shots vs 12, or a player covers a kilometre more – they don’t mean anything, and they never have meant anything, unfortunately. That’s the key point – we all need to take more responsibility to make sure we’re not as loose with the use of the data.”
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 08