Why I joined The Athletic – The Athletic

Ask any football fan to name the first game they went to and they will invariably be able to relate it easily. For me, it was Coventry City against Liverpool on April 1, 2000 and, strangely, my most important memory before kick-off was the resounding chorus of “GERARD, GERARD HOUUUULLLIERR” in the men’s toilet. A rather odd introduction to football, all things considered, hearing a group of men bond over love for the Liverpool manager while emptying their bladders, but there you have it.

The game itself was a comfortable 3-0 win for Liverpool, with two goals for Michael Owen and the first of a long £11m run in signing Emile Heskey. I was lucky enough to witness the start of the successful Heskey-Owen partnership that helped Liverpool win a treble in 2001 and plagued Germany when England beat them 5-1 the same year.

It was at Highfield Road that my obsession with football started and it hasn’t waned since. If you had told my six-year-old self that he would later have a job dedicated solely to football, he wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s exactly what happened as I joined Athleticism as a data analyst, and I’m excited to make the move.

(Photo: Stu Forster/Allsport)

I may have looked a bit like Per Mertesacker, but unfortunately I couldn’t play like him, which shattered my dream of becoming a professional footballer. Instead, I have a research background, largely in an academic environment where I recently completed my doctorate in psychology. My research approach generally meant that I used data and statistics to increase our understanding of a topic in context. When I discovered this was a growing approach in football, I knew I wanted to be part of it. From starting my own blog to co-hosting a football analysis podcast, I can say now I am.

My father often quotes Bill Shankly’s famous phrase: “Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots”. Now who am I to argue with one of the greatest managers in football history? I shouldn’t, but maybe I would modify that sentence for the modern game, to “Football is a simple game…made even simpler by high quality use of data and analysis”. I know it doesn’t quite sound the same, but let me explain…

A widely debated topic is the “overuse” or “misuse” of data in modern gaming. Admittedly, stats for stats sake are of no use to anyone, but the effective use of data can be very helpful in better understanding how the game is played. At professional club level, it can mean the difference between lifting the silverware or ending the season empty-handed. On a journalistic level, the use of data in football can support what you see on the pitch – or better yet, bring to light something that goes against the ‘sight test’.

It seems the reason many people still shy away from using metrics like expected goals (xG) is that they’re not quite sure what it means or where it comes from. .

Therefore, much like the approach taken by our dedicated Football Analytics editor, Tom Worville, the best way to use data in-game is to speak the ‘language of football’. It’s the language we can all relate to, whether in the pub (unfortunately not recently) or at a professional football club. Use the data to support your explanation, but speak the language of football. “They’ve increased their xG by 90 by 0.2 from last season,” can quite easily become, “They’re getting better quality chances this season, and it shows in the data.”

And that’s why I’m so happy to have joined Athleticism, who I believe are unrivaled in their ability to break down the game and deliver high-quality footballing narratives. Following in Tom’s footsteps, my role is to provide data-driven insights that help you better understand what’s happening in the field.

So look for pieces that shed light on certain players, teams, or trends happening in the game. From attacking anomalies to set piece flaws, I’ll aim to cover as much as possible. All use data, but speak the language of football.


(Photo: Jon Buckle/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Sean N. Ayres