For millions of fans across the world, video games — primarily the record-high-selling FIFA series from Electronic Arts, but also its rival series Pro Evolution Soccer and the more cerebral Football Manager — act as both a gateway drug to football and, later, another way of satisfying an established addiction.
Players rank among the most ardent devotees of all three. Andrea Pirlo has proclaimed that “after the wheel, the PlayStation is the best invention of all time.” Zlatan Ibrahimovic wrote in his autobiography that he “could go 10 hours at a stretch” playing football video games early in his career. John Terry used to host Pro Evolution Soccer get-togethers for his Chelsea teammates on the eve of each season.
Most elite teams now employ data analysts who provide a raft of metrics for coaches to digest, much of it based on initial figures from Opta. Slowly — and secretively — their work is growing ever more sophisticated, and ever more important to the clubs they advise.
The rise of the analysts — a seismic shift in an inherently conservative sport — may owe a debt to the success of Football Manager. As Duncan Alexander (From Opta) observed, many of the people working for clubs or for external advisers grew up “in the 1990s, when Football Manager was becoming popular.” “The chronology between the game’s popularity and the use of numbers in soccer,” he said, “is broadly similar.”