Few would have anticipated Hull’s eye-catching return to the Premier League as the East Yorkshire club comfortably avoided relegation and reached the FA Cup final. Even fewer, perhaps, would have anticipated that a large part of the team’s success can be attributed to pinpoint performance analysis.
The Tigers – who have faced off-field controversy over their owner’s desire to change the club’s name – finished the season four points clear of the bottom three, and only a dip in form at the end of the campaign prevented a higher-placed finish.
The FA Cup Final may have been one of the reasons behind a return of just one point from the last 15, but away from the cup the highlight was a 3-1 Premier League win over Liverpool at the KC Stadium, their first ever win over the Reds.
The January signings of of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long have given Hull’s attack a new dimension, while Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies have added a steady hand to the side. But while performance analyst Laurence Stewart has played a far quieter role, it has been an equally effective one.
Stewart joined the club in the summer of 2009 when Phil Brown was manager, and has served under Iain Dowie, Nigel Pearson, Nick Barmby and now Steve Bruce in aiding Hull’s rise. He believes the science of performance analysis is becoming ever more common.
“I think that football analysis is constantly evolving and moving forward as it is one of the boom industries within professional sport,” he told Footymatters.com.
According to Stewart, Premier League and Championship teams have stolen a march on many of their European rivals in using sophisticated analysis to inform their play, contrary to the common perception that the British game is tactically naive compared with foreign incarnations.
Stewart has witnessed an evolution in techniques for analysing what’s happening on the pitch with software such as Sportscode, as well as Prozone and Scout 7, used to catalogue the minute detail of a game and present them in a simple form, easily understood by most players.
On matchday, he sits in the stands with a radio link to the bench, recording and annotating a live feed of the game. At half-time he’s present in the changing room to offer a video review to the players, and feedback key stats to staff.
“The key is working out what information is key to your staff and what information can be provided to help decision-making live during the game,” he added.
Away from the KC Stadium, Stewart works rigorously with the players in training, breaking them into playing units of defenders, midfielders, and attackers to discuss the previous game in the early part of the week, and then study their next opponents in detail in the run up to the weekend’s match.
“As a newly promoted team I think one of the things we have done very well is continued with the working practices that we employed last season in the Championship”
Stewart’s role in studying the opposition has also been vital this season as so many clubs have used very specific tactics. Whether it’s Liverpool’s high tempo burst out of the blocks – his work helped Hull inflict one of only six defeats on Brendan Rodgers’ side this season – or Southampton’s pressing game. Frequent use of the same tactics have been a feature of the season.
“There are some trends within how certain teams play, but these can differ from game to game depending on formations, injuries and squad rotation,” said Stewart. “Many people would have outlined Liverpool as a possession team early in the season and more recently they have been a very strong counter-attacking side, so although teams can have a certain style they may change from game to game.”
He believes that a continuity in Hull City’s approach to match preparation has helped maintain the momentum built up during promotion last season.
“As a newly promoted team I think one of the things we have done very well is continued with the working practices that we employed last season in the Championship,” said Stewart, adding that it is important to fully understand a manager’s playing style and the players’ capabilities.
But while statistical analysis is a closely guarded process on the touchline, it has come to prominence in the media. Stats specialists like OptaSport have become Twitter hits while former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville’s in-depth Sky Sports analysis has found widespread praise.
Stewart said: “I feel that the use of stats and analysis by pundits is something that has generally been beneficial to the industry and magnified its uses. It has brought it into the homes of many more people.
“Some of the information that is presented may not always be the information that a club would be reviewing but I can see that it is interesting to the public. Many statistics regarding possession and passing are often used within the media to judge a player’s performance, but they simply do not provide enough context to adequately assess a player’s contribution.”
There’s little doubt stats and close analysis are now commonplace from football boss to blogger. Their impact has never been greater in the dressing room, and with the World Cup in Brazil fast approaching, intelligence on every major player around the globe will doubtless become vital.