Is Germany’s 2014 World Cup “12th Man” Coming To The NHL?

John Graham

The whiteboards, marker pens, and grainy VHS tapes that came to define tactical preparation and analysis of soccer matches in the past now seem like a distant memory. Increasingly, match day dressing rooms and training facilities are being computerized, with systems collecting data during matches and training sessions that shed new light on individual performances and the effects of tactical nuances.

It was the 2014 World Cup-winning German national team that demonstrated and pioneered the use of data analysis technology to gain a tactical edge, with the Wall Street Journal naming a software tool as Germany’s “12th man” during the competition.

Following the World Cup, Germany and SAP, knowing they were onto something, collaborated to create a fuller package, which just celebrated its first anniversary. This innovation is now being used by FC Bayern Munich, TSG Hoffenheim, FC Nuremberg, and Xolos de Tijuana. Since the software’s launch, functionality such as penalty insights and statistical tools to analyze opposing players and teams have been added.

Some purists shudder at the thought of such precise analysis taking the intuition, unpredictability, and beauty out of sports, but as teams become more tactical and the margins of victory become tighter, shunning data analysis is looking like a suicidal option.

It’s not just soccer where tactical data analysis is building up a head of steam; as many Canadians know, ice hockey is ripe for equally intense numerical examination. Fittingly, this capability is coming to the sport soon.

To me, this is exciting. If NHL teams find the right balance of data analysis and old-fashioned experience and intuition, we could see a whole new level of quality and tactically thrilling encounters in the coming years.

No one is claiming that stats alone can win hockey games, nor will they ever. “Stats nerds” have never argued with the notion that goals win games. However, they do appreciate that stats can show you so much more than just goals, and there are oft-ignored underlying factors that do habitually prove vital to winning.

The sports industry is like any other in the business world. What would you make of a financial analysis firm that makes its decisions on instinct rather than based on real data insight? For sports teams using advanced statistics to gain a competitive advantage, this is essentially their version of Big Data.

The NHL has acknowledged the strong correlation between how a team uses statistical data and its likelihood of making the playoffs. The extent to which NHL teams adopt stats, however, remains in the hands of key decision makers. There are those who are already convinced of their value, and there are others who are either resistant or unaware.

Take the LA Kings and Chicago Blackhawks as perfect examples of believers in data analysis. It’s no coincidence that two teams among those most shrewdly using data to make decisions have ended up with the lion’s share of Stanley Cup success over recent years. Incidentally, the Blackhawk’s general manager used to be a business consultant, helping companies become more efficient using software. He saw no reason why those principles couldn’t be applied to hockey.

Naturally, other teams are noticing this trend and following suit. A lot of the successful analysis so far has been around puck possession. Coaches know that if their team doesn’t get much time with the puck, its chances of winning are low. The Kings used that to build a strategy based on keeping the puck. But is that how they won? Some would say yes, others would say it’s down to the never-say-die attitude—something we can’t measure with numbers.

Where hockey differs from a sport like baseball is that there are so many more variables impacting what happens, making events much harder to predict. The potential to analyze—or over-analyze— is limitless. Somewhere along the line you will always have to finish on a gut decision. The data never makes the call for you, but it can help.

For more on data analytics in professional sports, see The NBA Experience Starts With Live Data.