Analytics Ruining Soccer


This one hurts to write because I love analytics and think it has a massive role in all sports, but I have to admit it has ruined soccer a little bit. The creative and chance-taking aspect of the game has disappeared. In the last few years alone, we've seen the slow elimination of the "10" and the long-range shot. The "10" was a coveted position reserved for a team's most creative player, but it disappeared practically overnight as tactics evolved to eliminate creativity and replace it with pragmatism.

The premier league provides the evidence we need. Teams now average five fewer shots per game than they did ten years ago, and the number continues to decline. Simultaneously, the percentage of attempts from outside the 18 declined steadily. And unfortunately, the primary culprit to all this is my favorite form of advanced analytics, Expected Goals.

Expected Goals tell you what area of the pitch most goals come from, and as the formula became more popular, teams catered their tactics to maximizing their XG per shot. It's great for analytics and self-proclaimed soccer nerds like myself, but at the same time, I miss the days when it didn't feel like every team was doing a slightly different version of the same thing. Don't get me wrong, the point of the sport has always been to put the ball in the back of the net, but now thanks to analytics, every team is trying to create their chances in the same way to maximize efficiency.

Creative freedom is leaving the game.

I miss the days when it felt like, at any given moment, a player might do something unpredictable. Now even when that moment comes, it feels scientific and manufactured, not creative and ingenious. For example, Kevin De Bruyne's signature out-swinging cross to the back post is enjoyable to see but loses its magic when you realize coaches instruct their players to play that ball because analytics say it's a great way to create a goal-scoring opportunity. And if you watch any game this weekend, count how many times you see teams try that same cross; it'll be plenty.

It's like the first time that one annoying classmate (apologies if you were that kid) told you Santa Claus does not exist. You still appreciate the gifts, but it hits differently when you realize your parents were behind it all.

Go look at the Premier League goals of the month from any random month in the early 2000s, and you'll see the difference in entertainment value to their counterparts from 2023.

I hope the next evolution of soccer marries creativity with analytics. There has to be room for both because otherwise, what are we doing this all for?

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