Data and Defenders: How Zenit Saint Petersburg Found Their New Center Back
Data and Defenders: How Zenit Saint Petersburg Found Their New Center Back
In part one of this three part series, get the inside word on how back-to-back Russian Premier League champions Zenit Saint Petersburg use data and analytics to sign the right players. Interview extracted from Championat.com.
For Zenit’s head of analytics department Nikita Vasyukhin, it is critical that his team run the rule over any potential signings, with their conclusions providing key information for the decision makers at the club.
Put simply, there are two directions to Vasyukhin’s work.
Firstly, he identifies players in all positions who fit Zenit’s style of play and will strengthen the team. Then secondly, his team will analyze players that are suggested by director’s of the club.
Using Video to Scout Effectively
With the best defence in the Russian Premier League in last season’s title winning campaign, Zenit know a thing or two about defensive prowess. Starting defender Branislav Ivanovic joined West Bromwich Albion in the offseason, demonstrating a common challenge when squad planning and Vasyukhin explains some of the metrics they used to assess defensive reinforcements.
“Naturally, we are trying to analyze the positional defense of space,” said Vasyukhin. “We divide the field into zones to determine which area the defender is responsible for (based on where he makes most of the touches), and see what the accuracy of the passes inside his zone, what proportion of the passes are transformed into shots within a few 10 seconds — also important for us as an indicator.”
Just using the ‘eye test’ from watching players live is never enough for an effective scouting department to analyze a player and video provides the concrete visual evidence needed to make an assessment. “When studying central defenders, video viewing is much more important than all the statistics,” said Vasyukhin. “Things like dynamics, speed, the ability to defend space, the level of decision-making — all this can be assessed only visually. Therefore, we are looking for wide-angle cameras so that the player is always in the frame and we can evaluate what decisions he makes when passing behind the back, how he unfolds the body, how he moves in general, what kind of dynamics he has, and so on.”
The Power of wide-angle Cameras for the Modern Analysis Department
Wide-angle cameras are a relatively new development in modern analysis, allowing a full tactical view of the pitch and a live feed that is superior to the ‘old solution’ of television footage that is obscured in many ways.
“Wide-angle recordings can really replace what you see live in the stadium,” said Vasyukhin. “The player is in frame all of the time, and even warm-ups are often filmed by us. What do we look at? How does he warm up before the match? How good is his attitude? Wide angle recordings are an underrated source. Hopefully, over time, there will be more and more video from such cameras.”
What Tools Do You Use When Analyzing Data?
Wyscout is the choice of software for the Zenit analysis team. With 270+ leagues available on the Scouting Area platform, Vasyukhin explains the opportunity for his team to underpin subjective opinion of a player through video evidence.
“The advantage of Wyscout: there are videos from some championships that are not presented anywhere else,” said Vasyukhin. “The championships from South America also have better recording quality there (than other suppliers). Wyscout also provides wide-angle formats (that is, not a TV picture, but a self-filmed technical recording) not only for the Russian Premier League, but also the Professional League (second division) — of good quality and for each game. For us it is very important.”
“Just using the ‘eye test’ from watching players live is never enough for an effective scouting department to analyze a player and video provides the concrete visual evidence needed to make an assessment”
Wyscout data combined with video provides a comprehensive assessment of potential target players. “When it comes to data, our work with Wyscout is even more substantial than ordinary users,” said Vasyukhin. “Zenit buys an API from them — this is a transcript of each match, in which all actions, their timelines, who performed them and in which zone are recorded one after another. Having an API for each game, you can create more complex metrics — for example, our non-shot xG model, which is very important for us.”
The beauty of the Wyscout API is that it is adaptable to any team depending on their personal needs. “Using the API from Wyscout we can also split the match into possessions the way we want (according to our own algorithms), and collect information that is not on the platform,” said Vasyukhin. “For example, we created crutches to handle picks and rebounds there — and we do it more accurately from our point of view. Wyscout has the best API in terms of price / performance ratio, very good coverage, even the minor leagues we are interested in are covered.”
Case Study: Dejan Lovren, the New Center Back.
Lovren is the latest high-profile transfer to Zenit. The central defender essentially replacing Ivanovic in the squad. The analysis team took a deep dive into the former Liverpool defender’s performances and attributes before the signing was made.
“I’ve studied a lot of Lovren’s matches over the past year, including wide angle recordings, which were far more revealing. The player was analyzed according to the classic format, according to all of the data that I listed: non-shot, physicality, single challenges, defensive spacing — all of this was important. Usually the conclusion consists of a statistical report and a video of the player with comments, where his typical actions, pros and cons are analyzed.”
Lovren famously made several high-profile mistakes during his time at Liverpool, but Vasyukhin believes that this doesn’t tell the full story of the player’s true talent. “In the 2017/2018 season, Dejan generally became one of the best central defenders in England, then he started to play less,” said Vasyukhin. “If we take a sample for the last two seasons, then his non-shot metrics are in the region of the median.”
It is also important to understand that Liverpool’s style has also changed, which affected Lovren’s statistical output. “When Van Dijk joined the club he took over starting attacks much more often,” said Vasyukhin. “Lovren was less involved in this stage as van Dijk took most of the promotion passes from central defence, performed fewer difficult passes, and in general the team more often promoted the ball using the two full backs. If Lovren played right center back, then he mostly gave simple passes to Alexander-Arnold, and the right back himself promoted the ball along the flank. Accordingly, the passes to the neighbor on the flank do not bring real benefit — that’s why Lovren had modest numbers. But we understood that a player’s non-shot cannot drop so sharply as a whole for reasons that depend on him.”
“I’ve studied a lot of Lovren’s matches over the past year, including wide angle recordings, which were far more revealing”
Vasyukhin’s positive assessment of Lovren turned out to be correct and he has so far provided great value in the Zenit defence. “Lovren is still a player who is good on the ball and visually, this is confirmed through video analysis,” said Vasyukhin. “Lovren has a good first touch, he can move the ball and perform different types of passes that penetrate between the lines, plus he also possesses a good long throw. In almost every match we see these actions. For example, the first goal against CSKA came after a good throw from Lovren and in the same game, he showed his creative skills in another good attack, where he passed between the lines to Dzyuba.”
This concludes part one of this series: Part two of this series will focus on how Zenit use analytical reports and data to scout opponents.