Everybody's been talking about Moneyball. But could that stats driven approach to sport ever really cross the Atlantic?
IBM think so, and have brought to bear the power of their super-computing know-how and analytics expertise to cast a new light on team performance in the Premier League. Having enjoyed some success in the tennis world with their SlamTracker application, the tech giants have turned their hand to the beautiful game - processing more than six years of Opta data to help create a first-of-a-kind application for the world of football. Ever wondered why teams win matches? The analysis geeks might have the answer...
Of course, the obvious point worth making is that a team wins a game because they score more goals than their opponents. But why did they score more goals? What key battle did they win that helped to ensure victory? These are the issues that IBM hope to address.
In order to do so, they have identified a variety of playing styles evident in the Premier League. Some teams opt to play a short passing game. Others look to play the ball long, while some sides do their damage on the counter attack.
What the analysis of years of data hopes to tease out is what needs to happen on the pitch for one style of play to succeed against another. It's not quite scissors-paper-stone but throw in some mightily complex algorithms developed by IBM's finest and you might not be far wrong.
And what's more, IBM believe that by looking at those styles of play and the stats that go with them, they can not only identify what will help one team succeed against another - but that the likelihood of that success can be tracked down to individual areas of play on the pitch.
If a team hits a particular benchmark they have a much greater chance of winning. If they miss it - it's going to be a long old afternoon.
They've described those stats as the Keys to the Match and it's an approach that's been unerringly successful on a tennis court. But could it work with football? And more importantly, could it work this Sunday...
CHELSEA v ARSENAL
It's a London derby with an edge as Chelsea host Arsenal at Stamford Bridge to kick off Super Sunday.
Arsene Wenger and his players are under the spotlight as the Gunners are in danger of finishing outside the top four for the first time since the Frenchman arrived in 1996. Chelsea interim boss Rafael Benitez, meanwhile, can only dream of such a lengthy stay with the Blues. His side have won nine of their last 13 games but the focus has still been on three high-profile defeats and Wednesday's home draw with Southampton.
Benitez has a reputation as a tactical obsessive who enjoys a fair bit of number crunching himself. But what do the computer bods tell us are the Keys to the Match?
Much was made in the autumn of Chelsea's attacking midfield trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. Although Benitez may opt for a more defensive-minded set-up here, the stats suggest that neat interplay in the final third is the key to unlocking the Gunners defence. When the Blues succeed with more than 72% of passes in the attacking third, they win 67% of their matches. When they fail to hit this target, they win just 45% of the time. Perhaps a brave team selection from the Spaniard could reap dividends at Stamford Bridge.
It's a damning indictment of Fernando Torres but even the numbers are saying that Chelsea have a better chance of success if their opportunities are not falling to the team's centre forward. The arrival of Demba Ba may change things but the statistics suggest that getting players in support of their striker is the key for the home team. With efficient finishers such as Frank Lampard in the squad, that could make sense.
This has been identified as the more important factor that will determine Chelsea's success in this game. Closing down Arsenal to prevent their short passing game is crucial and Benitez knows it. Roman Abramovich may favour a more free-flowing style but on Sunday the priority should be disrupting the rhythm of the opposition.
Arsene Wenger's teams have often been accused of wanting to walk the ball into the net over the years. But they do say you should play to your strengths. And the statistics show that working the ball into the box is crucial for Arsenal to beat Chelsea. If they hit this benchmark, they win 71% of their matches. If they don't, that drops alarmingly to just 45%. It's not so much about passing in the final third for the Gunners - they'll do that anyway - the vital thing is that they create the space to shoot from close range.
And yet, passing remains at the heart of Arsenal's play and as such it retains significance. If Wenger's team can get their short passes going then not only will the home fans become agitated but the Chelsea players could become frustrated at being starved of possession. The temptation to hit the ball long for Theo Walcott to chase will be there. But the data analysis indicates that Arsenal must stick to their tried-and-trusted strategy if they are to triumph.
Staying in the game is always important for an away team and Arsenal are no different here. Although the Gunners came from behind to win 5-3 in the corresponding fixture last season, that was the exception rather than the rule. And they had Robin van Persie. Wenger backs his players but the suspicion remains that they can be fragile and so the analysis indicates that keeping things tight early on is essential.
Jamie Redknapp's view
"Without Robin van Persie Arsenal need a talisman to help them reach the Champions League spots this season. Theo Walcott has done well, but Jack Wilshere is their shining light. He played a more advanced role against Swansea in midweek, with Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin covering behind him in midfield and that's the system I expect them to use on Sunday. It's a role I like Wilshere in, where he can make things happen and play off the second ball, as he did when he scored from Olivier Giroud's knockdown against Swansea. Diaby and Coquelin will also help Arsenal cope with Chelsea's small, technical midfielders such as Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar - however, their defence is still a concern and I reckon, with Demba Ba up top for Chelsea, they'll struggle to go 90 minutes without conceding to the Blues."
TOTTENHAM v MANCHESTER UNITED
Tottenham will be looking to do the double over Manchester United as these Premier League heavyweights clash in front of the Sky Sports cameras at White Hart Lane. And that would cap an historic season in the rivalry between these two great clubs.
Spurs picked up their first win at Old Trafford in 23 years in September when Andre Villas-Boas' side stunned the home crowd in a memorable 3-2 triumph. Remarkably, it was United's only home defeat of 2012 in the Premier League.
Will lightning strike twice? Here are the Keys to the Match according to the boffins...
The fitness of Nemanja Vidic would appear significant here. The analysis suggests that Tottenham need to have some joy in the air if they are to succeed and that task starts to look a lot more difficult with the United skipper at the heart of the visitors' defence. Throw in the fact that Emmanuel Adebayor is unavailable due to Africa Cup of Nations duty and this should be a key that is concerning Villas-Boas. When Spurs hit this benchmark, more often than not, they win. When they fail to hit it, more often than not, they don't.
With the striking duties falling to Jermain Defoe, the quality of chance the diminutive forward receives is of paramount importance for Spurs. With 16 goals for club and country this season, Defoe is in good form. But he is also prone to shooting from all angles and distances. The home side's success against the Red Devils could depend upon their ability to get the ball to Defoe in positions where he can be confident of converting.
Tottenham have something of a reputation as a counter-attacking side and their fast breaks can be devastating. But Spurs cannot become careless - they must ensure their passes connect in the attacking third. If they can be clinical enough about their business near the United goal then there are weaknesses that can be exposed.
It's often argued that passing ability is the hallmark of top sides. Barcelona are the blueprint for many and the Catalan club habitually eschew the opportunity to cross in favour of ball retention. But for Manchester United, crossing remains an important weapon - Ferguson's men have put in more crosses than any other team in the Premier League this season. If the delivery is good enough against Spurs, the analysis tells us they can expect another three points.
If you let Manchester United play, you're finished. That's the mantra that Villas-Boas should be drumming into his team. For the visitors, finding the space in the Tottenham half with their clever movement and passing will be key. When United achieve this target they win an astonishing 80% of their matches. So if his team can work those little triangles then Ferguson may feel that half the battle has been won.
Giving away free-kicks in dangerous positions is always best avoided. But for United at White Hart Lane this is deemed especially significant. With Gareth Bale capable of top-quality delivery, set-pieces offer a great outlet for Spurs. Furthermore, no Premier League team has come close to scoring as many goals as United from open play this season so the visitors should be willing to let the game flow and avoid a bitty contest.
Jamie Redknapp's view
"Width is key for Tottenham. Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale are their outlet and when Tottenham are playing well those two players are in the ascendency. Lennon has had some success against Evra in recent years and can cause anyone problems, while Bale, in the game at Old Trafford, was coming in from the left, with a bit of a free role, and running at United's centre-halves. If United can stop them, they will go a long way to stopping Tottenham. QPR managed to do that last week when Lennon was substituted and Bale was as ineffectual as I've seen him and they got a hard-fought 0-0 draw out of it. Going the other way, with Emmanuel Adebayor in Africa, Tottenham will go with Jermain Defoe up front, with Clint Dempsey off him. Dempsey will drop into midfield when they haven't got the ball and congest that area to stop United getting the ball through to Robin van Persie, their key man, too easily. If Tottenham can play to their strengths, and play to the best of their ability, they can get something out of this match; they're a good side."
Are the stats gurus right? Has the computer picked out the most important keys for you? What do you think will be the decisive factors ahead of Super Sunday?
Give us your own predictions ahead of a huge weekend of football on Sky Sports.