How Tifo Football is making soccer analytics easier to digest

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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Soccer –  or football, as most of the world calls it – is the most popular sport in the world. As in other major sports, advanced data analytics are being used more frequently in football, both in the front offices and by the media reporting on the sport. Football clubs and journalists alike are always searching for an upper hand, be it in squad-building and scouting or in commentary and analysis – and analytics have the power to do so when used properly.

Enter Tifo Football, a media company that attempts to distill a large quantity of complex data into easily digestible videos on YouTube. They discuss team tactics, individual player breakdowns, and tell long-lost stories from football’s colorful history using healthy doses of data, analysis and animation. As of today, Tifo Football is now part of The Athletic.

Storybench spoke with Joe Devine, creative director at Tifo, about how advanced analytics are changing both the way the game of football (as will be used throughout to refer to soccer) is played and talked about, as well as how Tifo uses data and visuals to tell their stories.

Can you tell me about your role at Tifo, as creative director?

My role is two different things because we’re a very small team; there are only four of us full-time, not including the designers. My role is to oversee the YouTube channel, and oversee the creative direction of any of the videos we’re creating. I do all of the commissioning for the scripts that are written by freelancers, or I write the formats for the scripts that are written in-house. I do some writing but not so much anymore. I do the voiceovers for the videos and I host the podcast. The rest of it is kind of admin-based, or lots of meetings, that sort of thing. All of us do crossover roles; the job titles are not particularly descriptive.

What did you do before Tifo?

Beforehand I had a short spat at freelance writing, but I wasn’t particularly successful. I wasn’t working for that long before I joined what became Tifo. The company used to be called something different at the time (uMAXit Football before November 2017), and I joined as the social media person. My role has developed since then, and the company has changed in name and direction. Before that I worked in a pub, I ran a pub for about six years.

Advanced analytics seem to be changing the way people talk about sports, either online or in the pub. How do you contextualize analytics in football? 

Obviously it’s great that fans are becoming more versed in the language of analytics, and it might be talking about expected goals. To be honest though, out of context, those sorts of metrics don’t really mean anything, and I think unless fans can understand what clubs are using data for and how they are interpreting it, it’s almost useless really. I think the important thing is to understand what would be useful to the backroom staff of a football club, as an example of using these statistics, what they’re getting out of it, and that it’s always used in conjunction with more traditional forms of coaching and scouting.

At the moment we’re running a video and podcast series called “Sensible Transfers,” in which we look at a particular team, try to identify where the problem areas are, and suggest new transfers that might solve those problems for the team. (Data) has to be used in conjunction with things, and explaining that to fans is the easiest way to get rid of some of the friction of introducing more analytics to the game.

A screenshot from “Sensible Transfers: Manchester United” breaking down Lorenzo Pellegrini. Credit: Tifo Football.

How do you confront those difficulties in a game that’s as wide-open as football with so many more factors contributing to a player’s game?

It depends what context we’re talking about. If it’s for football clubs, then absolutely (context is the key). I will say that (data is) definitely making a difference. We’re seeing this season in the (English Premier League), Liverpool are streaks ahead of everyone else, and that’s not a coincidence. They have a big data and analytics department, they’re doing things in a different way. It definitely has an impact, and I think we’ll see more clubs go in that direction. So yes, if you are a football club, contextualizing is important. Within the media itself, it depends what your aims are. If your aims are to get people retweeting particular statistics, which is a popular thing on Twitter, like number of goals and number of minutes, things that are completely out of context, they might get 1,000 retweets. For a media group like Tifo, I think the fundamental basis of what we do would be worse if we weren’t trying to contextualize (data).

What was the impetus behind creating the “Sensible Transfer” series? 

I’ll be honest with you, it’s a little bit cynical. We try to pride ourselves at Tifo with not talking about rumors or getting sucked into the news cycle, being as authentic as possible, letting the story lead, and all of that stuff. However, transfer business is so huge in football media that it just seemed ridiculous to not be doing something in that realm. The first series we ran of it was in the summer of 2019, and it basically came out of us trying to work out how to legitimately, and as authentically as possible, make content about transfers without it being the same way that everyone else was doing it.

It’s certainly much different than the sort of transfer content you’d find in the tabloids.

It definitely is. The other thing to say is that the players that we talk about in “Sensible Transfers,” obviously they fit the club, but they are players that we would be talking about anyway. In a way, it’s kind of cheating people into watching the videos. They’re ostensibly about transfers, but they’re not really. They’re about players that we think deserve a move, or if you’re interested in watching leagues outside of the Premier League, you might want to pay attention to. It sort of follows the trend that we have on the channel anyway of occasionally making a big tactics video about either a “Top Six” club in the Premier League, or a Real Madrid or Barcelona, etc., and then the next video being more niche and being ostensibly about football, but in the case of some of the more geopolitical videos that we make, they’re not really about football. I like to think sometimes that people are almost tricked into learning things, because they think they’re going to watch a fun football video, and they may not be quite sure what happened but they know a lot more about Greece than they did before.

Do you see a sort of irony in the coexistence of Tifo’s data- or geopolitical-oriented content with more “clickbaity” content, like “All Goals and Skills” player videos? 

You know what, I definitely watch those videos from time to time. And I often think about, especially with the original ones that aren’t just ripped off of another site, the hours that must have gone into compiling those different edits. Either someone is paying a lot of money for a Wyscout account and ripping it off, but a lot of hard work goes into it. But I like it, I think it’s great. It’s one of the things I like about YouTube, it can be educational and silly in the same measure.

Is Wyscout the go-to service at Tifo for the information you use in the “Sensible Transfers” series, among others?

Alex (Stewart, writer and developer at Tifo) does most of that. I think he gets most of it from WyScout now. We used to have an Opta account as well. I’m not sure if that’s still live, but the stats particularly will be from a paid provider. It’s probably WyScout at the moment, because I know Alex does most of the video scouting on WyScout as well.

Can you describe the video-making process for a “Sensible Transfer” video? How do you choose which clubs to focus on?

The club thing falls half into the cynical category and half into the “what is actually interesting?” category. From my understanding, what Alex is doing is picking a team, let’s say it’s Manchester United. The first thing he’ll examine is the most recent results, have a look at how the team is doing this season, have a look at how the team has been playing. We’ll then identify two or three areas that could do with refreshing. That’s normally pretty obvious to even just regular supporters. And based on the way the team likes to play – if it’s Manchester United it turns out to be a bad example because we’ve got no idea – but if it was Arsenal we know that they like quick interchanges of passes.

We know that under (coach Mikel Arteta) they’re going to be playing positional play, so you’re going to need people that are more adaptable, versatile, and who are good with the ball at their feet. (Alex) will come up with a short list of metrics that he will want to use to narrow down search parameters. Once he comes up with that list, he will then search the databases. If it’s using Wyscout for example, he’ll establish a list of players, and from there he’ll see who fits the bill in terms of quality and narrow down a shortlist. Then he’ll spend a day or two watching as much of those players as he can before deciding which players he thinks will make the cut.

Do you think there’s more resonance with your videos because you are visualizing the data?

Definitely. For example, we did a podcast recently with a guy called Nick Tyler-Hicks who works in the analytics department at (Millwall F.C.). He talks about how important it is to visualize and contextualize the statistics for some of the higher-ups at the club, particularly the people who are the decision makers, who actually don’t understand the metrics in the same way as the analytics team does.

I think Tifo struck a big hole in the market there. There’s been a lot of very good tactics writing for a long time. Jonathan Wilson is probably the best as it relates to the history of tactics, Michael Cox is great, and I’ve enjoyed reading their works for a long time. But there’s something about putting it into animated videos. Without wanting to blow our own trumpet too much, I think in the UK and in football media it kind of changed the way people saw the viability of tactics writing. This goes along with a lot of other writers as well, and other publications too. But certainly I think we were there as part of that movement that changed people’s perception of tactics writing as something that was a little bit nerdy, a little bit niche, to something that actually definitely has mainstream appeal. If it’s entertaining and understandable, it turns out that suddenly lots and lots of people are interested in it.

Other than the data-driven pieces, you also make videos about moments from football history or football and geopolitics. How do you choose those?

About half of the videos that we release, maybe more in certain months, will be pitched to us and written by freelancers, most of whom we’ve worked with for a while now, so we’re lucky in that they understand the format, they get the tone, they know what we’re going for. Most of them come from, say, if one of us is reading a book and there’s a particularly interesting story that we either hadn’t heard before, or slightly niche, we’ll explore that.

We did a series called “A Brief History Of…” that ended up being, in a way, almost a non-plagiarized rehash of a Wikipedia article. “A Brief History Of David Beckham” really was just that, and it was almost sort of a historical document more than anything, and nobody watching it was going to learn anything new about David Beckham. But because of the way in which it’s presented, the illustrations and the style and the music, people still seem to enjoy watching it. We notice that those sorts of videos tend to get a lot of legacy views as well. We did one on Samuel Eto’o recently. And that’s just because he’s a fascinating player, and there’s been a lot of incidents and reporting around racism and football in the UK and Europe, and Eto’o certainly experienced that in his playing time and was pretty great about responding to it. So it just seemed like an interesting part of the story that maybe not too many people know about.

What sort of data do you have on your audience?

It’s safe to say that probably about 50% of our audience are Atlantic, it’s mostly UK but there’s a portion from the U.S. as well, but beyond that it’s totally international. The videos are viewed in a crazy number of countries. We have a lot of fans from places like India or Indonesia, places like the Philippines, which is really nice. Our audience tends to be a little bit older than the average user of YouTube, but also older than the average for other football YouTube football channels, which is also quite nice. I think our biggest demography is between the ages of 25 and 35, whereas the norm is to be between 17 and 24, so that’s interesting as well. It’s mostly men, unfortunately. We also know a large number of subscribers check back in regularly to watch new videos, which is nice, so I guess we’re keeping them interested.

How does Tifo maintain a competitive edge against other websites or writers regarding their use of data, the same way a football club may need to?

It depends what you want to do. There’s lots of forms of journalism as it relates to football that doesn’t really require a great understanding of the analytics or data. What really interests me about what I’ve seen in my time, which has really only been about five years, I’ve seen people who I follow on Twitter who are great proponents of analytics and the game and who have written their own blogs and are into the numbers side of things, they get jobs at football clubs. It’s a rapidly expanding market, particularly in football, and I love the idea that all you have to do is have a particular interest, see the game in a particular way, get started writing your own blog, and within a number of years you could be working for a football club. If you can get good at that, then you can potentially get work off the back of it.

Seamus McAvoy studies journalism at Northeastern University.

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