Footballers teach business how to improve

The Life: Thomas Grund, a post-doctoral researcher, devised a way to discover how businesses can perform better by watching lots and lots of football.
Arsenal's Carl Jenkinson, centre, employs his passing skills during a match against Chelsea in the English Premier League last month. Adrian Dennis / AFP
Arsenal's Carl Jenkinson, centre, employs his passing skills during a match against Chelsea in the English Premier League last month. Adrian Dennis / AFP

Thomas Grund may be a postdoctoral researcher, but he also happens to be a very big football fan.

So when he devised a study about teams involving players in the English Premier League he was rather pleased with himself.

"I just wanted an excuse to watch lots and lots of football," says Mr Grund, an Arsenal fan on a fellowship at ETH Zurich university in Switzerland.

And that he did.

Mr Grund examined 283,259 passes between players in 760 matches for his research, which he undertook as part of his PhD in sociology at Oxford University.

The lesson for business, he says, is that teams that involve more interaction and more equal input between individual members tend to put in stronger performances.

How did he get there? By watching a lot of football - but it wasn't all fun and games. Some of the data was on paper and the work involved many complicated equations.

"I looked at this data set in front of me and it was a bit like watching The Matrix," he says. Indeed, this may mark the first time the footwork of Kolo Toure has been subjected to crossed random-effects Poisson regression.

But why football, aside from Mr Grund's interest in the sport?

"In football … we can really look at how teams perform. It's just really clear and in other contexts it is so hard," he says.

The game, as he explains in his paper, which was published in the journal Social Networks, is ideal because it is governed by clear rules; teams have well-defined boundaries; all team members are present and the strength of interaction between members of the teams can be studied objectively.

He was particularly interested in the different types of shapes that the passes created, which helped him map the relationships between teammates.

"I looked for certain types of events. In this study I looked at, OK, who is the next person who gets the ball? Is it this player or is it that player?

"Does this pass form a triad or does this pass form a circle with lots of other passes before it? Or does it create other network features like a star or whatnot?"

The data showed that Premier League teams that made more passes scored more goals, as did teams that made more passes equally between their players.

"It's not just one player who always gets the ball," he says.

The finding confirmed conclusions about team dynamics in earlier studies.

"Teams are better when there is not such a central person, where there are many routes they can take.

"And teams where there is a lot of intensity and a lot of contact between individuals, in that team they are more efficient as well," he explains. Next Mr Grund plans to study what happens to the performance of teams when they bring in or get rid of players.

"I have some preliminary results which suggest that you want to have some turnover but not too much," he says. "That is something you could expect. You want to have some new elements in a team but you don't want to rip the team apart."

Studying football teams may seem alternative, but it is nothing compared with his previous research into criminal networks.

"They fascinate me," he says.

Mr Grund studied a youth gang in London to see who offended with whom using CCTV camera footage, police data and information from undercover investigators looking at ethnicity.

"It doesn't really matter which ethnic group the gang members are from. They will do any sort of crime. But at the end of the day ethnicity matters with whom they co-offend," he says.

"You could think of a youth gang as a team, sort of," he adds.

Published: October 3, 2012 04:00 AM


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