x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Ahli using data analysis to reap advantage on Arabian Gulf League rivals

Al Ahli chairman Abdullah Al Naboodah has put the club at the forefront of the AGL's analytically-minded sides, enabling their performance analysts to feed the club the best information possible, writes John McAuley.

When Grafite's contract expired last summer, Al Ahli studied his performance data and determined he was one of the team's hardest workers, and kept him with a new deal. Satish Kumar / The National
When Grafite's contract expired last summer, Al Ahli studied his performance data and determined he was one of the team's hardest workers, and kept him with a new deal. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // In Al Ahli’s pursuit of domestic and regional dominance, the smallest details can provide the greatest gains.

The Dubai club, flying high at the Arabian Gulf League summit and with two cup finals on the horizon, are not just soaring on the pitch, but off it, too. The background endeavour, in the shape of a dedicated performance analysis department, has pushed them to the forefront of UAE football.

“We’re fortunate that our chairman is very forward-thinking,” says Roy Aitken, the Ahli director of football. “He wants to bring success here and will leave nothing to chance. So he gives the players and staff every opportunity to be successful.”

Nothing left to chance has been a familiar refrain throughout the past four years. Determined to deliver Ahli to the pinnacle of the game, both in this country and beyond its boundaries, chairman Abdullah Al Naboodah has been the catalyst to the club’s stride into the 21st Century.

Ahli are one of only two league sides who at this season used a specific analyst – Al Ain, the reigning champions, the other – to examine series of data and video research designed to improve players’ performances.

At Ahli, four key tools – Sportscode, Prozone, GPS, and Wyscout – have helped guide the club to its present position; the various strands of performance analysis utilised at the top by Al Naboodah, through Aitken to coach Cosmin Olaroiu and his players, and now to the reserve and Under-19 teams, as well.

Ahli have created a culture at the club. Put simply, crunching numbers and examining video footage adds up to impressive results on the pitch.

“Everyone has their own way to work, their own style, but for me it’s very important,” Olaroiu says. “It’s helped a lot in my success. All the details are very, very important. You have to know everything, both about you, and the other team.”

The theory is quite straightforward. Research reveals players and coaches recall only 30 per cent of performance correctly, so performance analysis is employed to make up the rest. It is a pretty considerable portion, all right, and has the expense to match. Prozone alone costs £90,000 (Dh550,000) per year. And last summer, Ahli paid around €30,000 (Dh153,000) for an antigravity treadmill, which has been crucial in nursing Saad Suroor and Majed Hassan back to full fitness.

“We obviously have to justify each and every system we request,” says Chris Loxston, the head of Ahli’s performance analysis. “If there’s no performance gain it’s not worth having.

“But the chairman is very data driven. He understands how it helps, so that’s why he has put all this money into it. I genuinely believe we’re seeing improvements in performance, not just in bringing in new players but in improving the ones we’ve got.”

It is a long way from Loxston’s introduction to Ahli in 2010, when the club used VHS to record matches. Now, information is collected and analysed live during a match, as a training session takes place, and following both. Ahli see it as little coincidence the constant flow of data had precipitated a steady trickle of trophies. This season could yet supply a landmark haul.

“We’ve improved; the proof’s in the pudding,” Aitken says. “Albeit the team’s got better in terms of personnel. But the information has definitely helped. It’s a proven platform in terms of what it gives: factual information to better educate the club and its players. That’s why we have it.”

If it is so patently positive, then why don’t the rest of the Arabian Gulf League also implement it? Cost of equipment and lack of resources are two obvious barriers, but performance analysis has at one time been implemented by some of the strongest clubs in the division’s professional era: Ahli, Al Ain, Al Jazira, Al Wahda and Al Nasr.

“It doesn’t necessarily surprise me,” Aitken says. “Again, it depends on how proactive the chairman wants to be; how much he’s willing to invest.

“The clubs who do have it are the more successful ones. In recent years, if you look at the clubs winning trophies, they’re probably the ones investing in performance analysis.”

Having invested heavily, Ahli have tailored the system to best suit their needs. Prozone is regularly used to provide players with concrete evidence of their strengths and weaknesses, while it can assist the scouting of opposition teams, and new signings.

It even contributed to Grafite’s contract extension last summer. With his deal to expire, the club studied the 34-year-old striker’s stats and found he worked harder than anyone in the first team. He was promptly offered another year. It was anything but blind faith.

“That’s the big thing – if all this equipment we’re using, and all this data we’re measuring, is not right it instantly becomes useless,” Loxston says. “It’s got to be wrong only once and you lose the trust of everybody using it.”

Loxston, ably supported by Michael Lawson, the club’s first-team sports scientist, has come to understand the information so well that he trusts it wholeheartedly. In the vastly experienced Aitken, who has implemented it during his time coaching in the English Premier League, he has an enthusiastic ally.

“It’s the way forward,” Aitken says. “All these things contribute to the success, no doubt. Ultimately, the players bring you the success, and the coach and all the staff give them the tools to work with and set the standard.

“But we now have systems in place to provide everyone with as much information as possible. The club relies on the first team doing well, that’s what gives us the biggest profile, and the chairman’s vision is for us to be at the same level in terms of professionalism as the top teams in Europe. They all use the same performance analysis tools.

“The UAE wants to progress. Everyone here’s playing catch-up, but with this club, we believe we’re setting a trend.”

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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