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. 

Zenit lift the 2019/20 Russian Premier League trophy for the second successive season.

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 departure of Branislav Ivanovic back to the English Premier League left Zenit with a defensive hole to fill.

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.”

Underpin subjective opinion with video evidence in the Scouting Area with over 270 leagues of video and data covered worldwide.

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.” 

Dejan Lovren has impressed since his arrival at Zenit, with the data-driven analysis that led to his signing being so far justified.

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. 

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