Audi launch player performance app for MLS fans – but is it actually useful?

Adapting the sport for modern technology is perhaps football’s biggest challenge: the global game is an inherently conservative one. From its reluctance to incorporate video replays right through to the data it captures to shed light on player performance.

Football fans usually treat statistics with a great deal more skepticism than fans of most other sports usually do. That’s down to the conservatism, but in this area, the conservatism itself is down to the fact that most stats captured around football don’t always provide any insight to the game.

Audi, however, have launched a new app to bring MLS fans player-performance data in real time. The car manufacturer is a major sponsor of MLS, and it’s no surprise that a growing US soccer audience would wish to understand the game through a statistical lens. After all, that’s what they’re used to in other American sports.

The idea of the new app is to enhance fans’ experiences of the game by providing them with a metric to analyse player performances during the game using Opta stats and a series of algorithms to create a score rating that changes throughout the game. For example, a striker scoring from outside the box will add 545 points to his score: that’s the most influential action in the game, according to the decision makers.

The question isn’t whether this sort of ‘experience enhancement’ is necessary, but rather it’s what data should be captured and which stats are measured. Is a striker scoring from outside the box really the best action in the game? And how will these stats lead to a better understanding of the game, rather than simply muddying the waters even more?

The conservatism mentioned before comes from the fact that football is quite different to most other sports in that the only objective measure of player performance is usually goals and assists; but even these can inflate or deflate the perception of a player’s performance depending on the game or their position. A striker may have played terribly but managed to score a goal after a lucky break. Conversely, defensive midfielders rarely get the credit they deserve because they neither score nor create the goals.

That’s because the stats usually measured don’t show always show the details that were actually pivotal to the game. And one may reasonably doubt that any stats ever will.

Possession, passes completed, attempts and attempts on target, the number of corners and so on are all taken as metrics of how the game progressed. But in fact, they usually mean different things to different teams. In football, the aims of a team change game to game in a way that doesn’t really happen in most sports.

For defenders, stats like tackles won are often employed to show a player’s worth. Yet one of the very best defenders ever, Paolo Maldini, is often said to have made one tackle every two games, such was the quality of his positioning. Diving into tackles can be seen as a bad thing, a sign you’re not doing your job properly – and as Bobby Moore once said, ‘You can’t defend when you’re on your backside’.


The recent Euro 2016 stats provide a good example of the stats telling only half the story. England had more attempts per game than any other team in the tournament, even though they failed in a fiasco widely seen as the most humiliating event in English footballing history.

They averaged 20.75 shots per game. The next best was Belgium, who managed 19.6 – over one whole shot-per-game fewer. England attempted 83 shots in 4 games, a barrage by anyone’s standards, but the stats don’t tell you where the attempts were from on the pitch and how they were attempted. In the end, the number adds nothing to a fan’s understanding of the game, and it’s only in conjunction with other stats do they start to create a pattern.

Audi’s app measures different stats, running them through various algorithms and taking into account the player’s position in his team’s tactical set-up. Another new innovation in looking at football stats comes from German company Impect, who look at how many players are taken out of the game by each pass, reasoning that you have more chance to score if you take opposing defenders out of the game. The video below is in German, but the illustrations show quite clearly what they’re getting at.

It’s a start, but it’s certainly not perfect. The data points Audi have collected will still measure shots attempted and tackles made, even though we’ve seen that they can be misleading. Impect’s mechanism will benefit forward passes ‘Vertikalpasse’, even if they’re risky and not always the most productive. At the very least, these stats won’t tell the whole story. The whole story only becomes clear after watching the whole game with your own eyes.

Presently we can’t quantify performances, only qualify them. And so any objective measure of player performance is either doomed to fail or poised to change the face of the game, leading it into an era where only certain stats matter and context is lost.

Technology to enhance the fan experience is clearly a good thing, but we must remember that sport is enjoyable because it encapsulates so many different aspects of human life in one bubble, and these aren’t things that can be measured by statistics alone, though if it’s done in the right way, it can certainly be useful. You can’t expect to know everything about a football game from a set of numbers – but that’s what the player performance ratings seem to be trying to tell you.

About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 831 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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