If you’re interested in analytics and potentially following a career in it this interview with Sam Jackson (@Sam_Jackson94) is for you. Sam is currently Head of Research and Analytics at World in Motion. He started off with his own blog and got his job through that. He has also presented at the OptaPro Forum which is worth a watch, as well as recently appearing on Sky Sports. Sam’s niche is Goalkeeper analysis, something you don’t see often enough.
- What Team do you Support?
Stand by for an unusual answer! I don’t actually support a particular team. I like and respect the way quite a few clubs are run e.g. Southampton, RB Leipzig, and there’s clubs I’ve been geographically close to at various points in time, e.g. Portsmouth & Brighton (South Coast controversy alert!) whose results I look out for, but I’m really not a tribal person. I used to think I supported Liverpool based on Michael Owen being my favourite player as a child, but this sort of dissolved as I got older. I’d rather watch a great game than force myself to arbitrarily hate a group of players based on them playing for the ‘wrong’ team.
- What is your current role and job title?
I’m the ‘Head of Research & Analytics’ at World in Motion, a global football agency. We represent over 70 goalkeepers and goalkeeper coaches through our GK-specific arm GK1 Management. A lot of my work revolves around trying to improve how goalkeepers are analysed, and discussing such methods/findings with leading GK coaches. I also do player ID work across all positions, which is lots of fun.
- Is this your first job in football?
I’ve done a couple of small bits of consultancy with clubs, but yeah, this is my first full-time job!
- How did you get this job?
Through Twitter which was cool!
- What is World in Motion?
We’re a football agency, and have about 15/20 agents around the world. We represent players, facilitate transfers, etc. As I say, we represent a lot of ‘keepers and goalkeeper coaches through GK1 and have had a ‘keeper in every England squad dating back to Ian Walker, so GK1 is the go-to agency for ‘keepers. We represent a lot of outfield players too, and moved Goalimpact-sensation Martin Hinteregger to Augsburg in the summer, for example.
- How did you get into football analytics?
I’ve always been fascinated by sport, and, within that, challenging convention and critically thinking about how to improve & increase the efficiency of high performance processes. Other than tinkering with numbers when playing Championship Manager & Football Manager growing up, the real epiphany came when I read Soccernomics, and then about a year and a half ago I became aware of Brentford’s approach, which fascinated me. I think I e-mailed Omar Chaudhuri of 21st Club in the Summer of 2015 to ask about how to get in to the industry & he recommended doing a lot of reading, and starting my own blog. So that’s exactly what I did, and it’s sort of snowballed from there!
- What is an average day at work for you?
I do quite a lot of player profiling, and discussing various players with various agents, and I’ll talk to a sports director and/or a goalkeeper coach probably once or twice a week. We also produce a magazine for professional goalkeepers and goalkeeper coaches, and I do quite a lot of work towards that. It’s a very varied job, so there isn’t really an hour-by-hour breakdown of what I do.
- What Uni did you go to and what course did you take?
I went to the University of Sussex where I got a First in BA History & Politics in 2015, and then I stayed on for a year whilst writing my blog and got a Distinction in MA International Politics. History & Politics might seem totally irrelevant to what I do now, but there were modules on quantitative research methods, which have given me a solid understanding of the ‘quant vs. qual’ philosophy of science methodology debates which are as pertinent to football’s ‘proper football man’ v ‘stats nerd’ false dichotomy as they are to social science/humanities. Although my blog focussed on ‘keepers, my most read piece was an examination of these processes. And aside from research methods, more or less every single essay I wrote during my degrees was in some way related to sport, i.e. ‘socialist’ revenue distribution in the NFL, governmental funding of sports ‘mega-events’ in countries ranging from Germany to Kazakhstan, China’s ‘football revolution’ etc… Fundamentally, I’m a huuuge sports nerd.
- Do you have or plan to have any coaching badges?
Not yet. I think they’d probably be useful to do, though. Talking the ‘language’ of football is essential. To paraphrase Hoffenheim’s 29 year-old head coach Julian Nagelsmann’s thoughts on what it takes to be a good manager, being a good analyst probably depends 30% on the quality of analysis and 70% on communication.
- What are your future plans and ambitions?
First of all, I’m really enjoying my current role, but eventually I think I’d quite like to be a sports director or head of recruitment, something like that. I also might like to go back to the politics of sports at some point and do a PhD. Life’s full of exciting possibilities, but as long as I’m allowed to think deeply about sport in some capacity then I’ll be pretty happy!
- What advice do you have for people new to analytics and new writers?
Read what’s already out there, think about what might be missing, or how existing ideas might be able to be connected, learn the technical skills, and communicate your ideas. A blog is a great way to do this, though maybe there’s a bit of survivorship bias in me advising that just because it worked for me. But there are a lot of people it’s worked for.
- How did you grow your site and twitter to where it is now?
On Twitter I had a bit of a head start, as I wanted to be a pro cyclist until I turned 18 & went to uni – but this meant I had around 500 followers before I kicked off my blog. Followers sort of trickled in once I was blogging, but getting to present at the OptaPro Analytics Forum last February was the game changer, and got me to 1000. Another 1000 have come in fairly steadily since, with an uptick every so often if a big account links to a blog post, or when I was on Sky Sports News, for example. There hasn’t really been a strategy to growing my twitter or blog, other than hopefully posting interesting content, though these have both tailed off a bit since I got my job, particularly my blog.
- Can you tell us about your current projects?
Player ID & improving methods of analysing ‘keepers. Can’t give it all away though 😉
- How important is coding in your job?
It’s useful. It’s a time saver more than anything, though I’d be the first to admit my strengths lie elsewhere. It’s such a good skill to have though, and I’m fully aware of the benefits of learning more!
- What coding languages do you use and how did you learn them?
Bits of R & Python. I’m entirely self-taught, though one of my housemates is doing a PhD in Machine Learning & Robotics, so he’s a useful trouble-shooter!
- How important do you think height and build is for goalkeepers?
Hmmm. What’s important is that a goalkeeper is a good shot-stopper, distributor, interceptor of through-balls, commander of their penalty area, and communicates well with their defence. If height contributes to any of these attributes then great, but there’s no absolute correlation. There’s a lot of top quality ‘short’ (they’re still nearly or just over 6ft) keepers, and a lot of tall ones who are quite bad. I’m 6ft 3, for example! In short, I think a lot of people overrate height. It would be a classic sight-based prejudice to overrate someone who is tall and therefore ‘looks’ like a goalkeeper.
- Who are the best three GKs in the world in your opinion?
There’s definitely a lot of top ‘keepers under the radar. But the obvious choices like Neuer and Buffon are genuinely top drawer. Then there’s a large chasing group filled with players like Jan Oblak and David de Gea, though it’s important a keeper is a good stylistic fit for whoever they play for. E.g. Oblak or de Gea probably wouldn’t work for Guardiola, though de Gea’s distribution has improved a lot.
- How do you see football analytics advancing in the future?
I think there could well be increased competition for Opta on the data collection side. In terms of implementation within clubs, I think we’ll get to a point where smart clubs see the value of hiring genuine data scientists on competitive salaries, though within a department who feed through somebody seen as a credible ‘football man.’ Communication is everything, but there’s definitely a huge amount of value to be untapped.
We really hope you found this insightful and interesting. I’ve done a similar interview before with @MessiSeconds here if you’re interested. We’re grateful to Sam for this interview so make sure you follow him here.
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