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A beautiful mind for a beautiful game

How data science could give football clubs the competitive edge

Anna Scaife

Anna Scaife

You might imagine that theoretical physics and football have very little in common – but the field of data science is changing all that. As the planet’s best players return from competing for the World Cup this summer, Professor Anna Scaife explains how data science could give their clubs the competitive edge.

‘Big data’ has to be one of the most hyped phrases of the past two decades. It’s used to describe the vast amount of information we generate in our digital age – data so voluminous and complex that traditional methods of processing are no longer sufficient.

Helping us to extract useful information from big data, the linked field of data science has emerged. Data science is the magic that makes big data valuable.

Compared to the data itself, however, data science is a much less tangible concept. Data science is heavily statistical, but it’s not statistics. Data science is very computational, but it’s not computer science. Data science is highly empirical, but it doesn’t fit nicely within the boundaries of the natural or social sciences. Which has to make you wonder: for something we talk about so much, what is data science, exactly?

In physics, we’re all about data science. We have to be, because in astronomy and particle physics we design, build and run some of the largest big data engines in the world. Why? Because it’s a big universe out there. To do big science with your big telescope, you need big capability to deal with your big data sets.

Moreover, for physicists working in what have traditionally been referred to as blue-skies sciences, where the immediate real-world applications aren’t easily apparent, data science has become a conduit for connecting our research with more earthly matters. Like football.

You might imagine that theoretical physics and football have very little in common. Certainly when we first sat down to talk with a well-known football club last year it wasn’t immediately obvious that the discussion was going to be productive. However, it quickly became clear that we could work together on a variety of statistically learning techniques to predict dynamic actions, from the movement of tiny particles to the actions of top-flight footballers.

The common language that we spoke was data science. Data science was what our new friends in the highly competitive, multimillion-pound world of professional football wanted to hear about. For them, it could provide the edge that would keep their elite team at the top of their game.

So, should you be watching any of your favourite team’s games next season, squint a bit and imagine the players as turbulent particles in a box.

Then ask yourself: “If we can predict the governing dynamics of interacting particles, can we also predict what’s going to happen next in the game?“

That would be big.

Professor Anna Scaife is Reader in Astrophysics; Head, Interferometry Centre of Excellence; and Co-Director of Policy@Manchester.

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