TORONTO – How do you make heads or tails of the endless stream of scores, points, and figures that pour into a professional sports league each and every week?
Or, look at a player’s stat sheet and discern potential quality?
The task may seem daunting, but it’s all in a day’s work for Oliver Gage.
The Canadian Premier League has appointed Oliver Gage as its Head of Recruitment and On-Field Analysis, with the Sheffield-born sports analyst most recently working at the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer.
Gage started off his career in Sheffield, where he worked as a more traditional scout for Sheffield Wednesday FC, breaking down opposition set pieces and looking for weaknesses to exploit in opposition teams.
The newly-promoted English Championship followed one mandate – survive relegation, a mission Gage proudly recounted they accomplished.
He later moved to the University of Virginia, where he helped the Cavaliers to a national title, before taking a role with the Dynamo to help with long-term succession planning and comprehensive, data-driven player scouting.
With the CPL, Gage will working with the league and with all clubs to educate coaches on best practices in conducting data analytics on their own teams and those of their opposition.
But, he explained, there’s no one-size-fits-all method or process. He’ll be adapting the systems, processes and output to each of the club’s individual specifications and needs.
“What we don’t want to do is get caught up with just one report across the board and everyone is meant to use the same thing,” Gage told CanPL.ca. “It’s going to be my job to tailor everything we do to these individual clubs.”
Building a network
Another part of his job is getting the country’s soccer analytics scene up to standard. Gage admitted data analytics in Canadian sport is “still in its infancy” but offered that growing it won’t be as tumultuous as past efforts, due to an abundance of high-quality data soccer analysts in North America, and because other leagues have already laid a foundation for Gage’s work.
“I’m excited to help grow and develop a network of professional level analysts within Canada. Eventually, we see every CPL club having their own team of analysts to support scouting and recruitment as is commonly found in many clubs across Europe.”
Gage recently launched educational courses in the field through his CoachTech Soccer website, and all 7 CPL clubs have already enrolled staff on the courses, along with technical directors and heads of coach education at the provincial level.
His message to aspiring analysts: “Please get in touch! Let’s create a personal development plan for you and assist you in any way we can. You are the future of Canadian soccer in this field.”
“It’s a weakness but it’s also a strength,” Gage said of the current analytics climate in Canada. “We can skip over some of the mistakes that have been made by Major League Soccer or the game in Europe. Inevitably, when you’re guiding yourself through a new field, the way you learn a lot of lessons is by making mistakes, but those mistakes cost your club points, or money, or both, and they cost people jobs, which is not good.
“So, what we can do is learn from other people’s mistakes and in three years, get ourselves to where MLS was is in 10 years, and in five years, get to where MLS is now. We can gain an awful lot of ground on competing leagues very, very quickly.”
A database for Canada
Gage also sees value in creating a large database of available players, an initiative that the Canadian Premier League has undertaken as it scouts the country for talented potential signings.
Gage said a database of this sort was “really important” to Canadian soccer as a whole, adding: “Anyone who has any knowledge of statistics will know that the more data, the bigger your sample size, the more reliable your conclusions can be.”
An important part in building a database is identifying young talent. Gage hopes he can also help identify hidden gems among Canada’s unearthed talents by finding “unusual” data points.
“If you take a central midfielder and they score average in tackles, interceptions, passing rates, and amount of shots, he’s probably not going to win you many games but he won’t lose many, either. He’s a squad filler,” Gage explained.
“But if you have a central midfielder who has a really high metric for key passing or creative passing or switching the play to long balls with lots of successful completions – something that is very unique about the game which is hard to coach and hard to change in a player – then that’s something that makes you jump off the spreadsheet and get noticed right away.”