Personality profiling: The holy grail for football transfers?

CLUBS spend millions doing due diligence on potential signings, but have never been able to properly analyse personality before.

Legions of analysts have immediate access to video clips and stats on thousands of players from around the world. They can only analyse what they can see or measure though - like headed clearances, distances covered, or regains in the final third - and what remains the holy grail is not visible on the screen.

A player’s personality can be as important as technical or physical attributes, because if a club signs a ‘bad egg’, he can damage team morale - or even worse, the club's brand. Personality has often been regarded as intangible or unmeasurable.

Yes, you can ask a former team-mate or manager for their opinion on a particular player; you can look at their body language in video clips; or you can look for news clippings about them. But this isn’t easy if it’s a youngster or little-known player you're considering. It’s also an inexact science, which is something analysts hate.

So step forward Watson, gameshow host and star of the health and financial sectors. IBM’s supercomputer may be able to help answer football’s recruitment problem, with its ability to process 67 million pages of text in a second.

"Teams invest a lot of time & money on understanding performance - but one simple character issue can impact the team and organisation" Farhang Farid

Farhang Farid, IBM’s associate partner of global business services, told TGG: “In the last 10 to 15 years there has been a lot of focus on an analytical approach to the athlete performance and most of this has been focussed on structured data – measuring movement, resting heart rate and so on.

“But there is a lot of data out there that is unstructured – any text, images, videos – and this is shaping up to be the next horizon of data analytics. A lot of content is being generated by most athletes – pictures they are putting on Instagram, Tweets, Facebook posts, interviews with clubs websites or other publications, psychological tests they have participated in and so on.

“We can feed this data into Watson and he has the ability to decipher the language, the context and create connections and provide insight. We are working on creating overall sentiments for coaches and scouts that can help them decide whether a player will be passionate enough, whether he will gel with the team, or if he will have any issues of character we are going to have to be aware of.

Andre Gray: Tweets from 2012 came back to haunt him after signing for Burnley

“Teams invest a lot of time and money on understanding performance but one simple character issue can impact the team and whole organisation. We can use Watson to give them that sentiment. We can also look at historical players and try to identify players who are similar from a character perspective.”

Watson - named after IBM’s founder Thomas J Watson - is a Cloud-based tool which can be integrated into a club's or company’s products. It has already been widely adopted (the company believes a billion people will have used it by the end of the year) but its use in the field of sport is relatively new.

Farid explains: “One of our experiments is to go through Instagram photos of potential College draft players and map that against team schedule and try to derive insights. If we see pictures of an athlete partying the night before a game on multiple occasions – which involves teaching Watson what partying looks like – that is a sentiment we can communicate to team managers.

“The ultimate goal is to define any small piece of information that could be useful for consideration of a potential signing. There’s a ton of data out there. In the recent NFL draft, a player [Laremy Tunsil] was being picked at a high round and someone dug out a picture of him on social media smoking a bong.

“That could have multiple levels of impact – it could tell you something about the character but also have a huge impact on the overall perception value or organisational value of a club. Those are things you want to look at and see how you want to manage it."

As they say, knowledge is power. If a club is aware of potentially damaging information like this, they have options - perhaps not to sign a player, or at least carry out damage limitation, by getting them to delete the information for example.

2011 Jeopardy show

IBM Watson:

  • Development started on it in 2005
  • Won gameshow Jeopardy (and $1m) 2011
  • Named after IBM founder Thomas J Watson
  • Can process 67m pages of text in a second
  • Processes unstructured data (which is 80% of data)
  • Will have been used by 1bn people by end 2017

This is something Burnley might have appreciated before they signed striker Andre Gray, who had posted a series of homophonic tweets while playing for non-League Hinckley United in 2012. The tweets led to widespread condemnation and a four-match FA ban last year.

Farid says: “Among new players there is this general ignorance toward privacy and how data may be used, either for or against people. My 12-year-old cousin puts everything out there, not realising how it may be used in 10 years.”

Probably a warning to us all. Does this risk clubs assembling teams of robots who are frightened to go ‘off message’ or ever say anything controversial though? After all, haven’t some of the greatest players of all time been mavericks?

"There are always the Cantonas and Suarezs of this world," Farid admits. "There are always exceptions. Our goal is not to say there are players you should absolutely not consider, but we want to point out the potential grenades that could have an impact to your team.

“There are those all-stars you simply cannot say no to – but you try to manage them. For all the other players you want to make sure your decision takes account of other areas.”

There is also an ethical issue - of whether people should not be damned for a tweet they posted eight years ago, when we all make mistakes and have the capacity to change. Does this also seem a bit 'Big Brother' - that all of our public utterances are being collated and analysed?

Farid, who is based in Toronto and has worked for IBM for the last 10 years, considers this carefully before giving a definite response.

“My personal perspective is that everything is fair game," says. “If I am applying for a job, it’s fair game for everyone to look at those things. I can explain the circumstances that led me to publish that thing.

“And the masses of data will define if it was an anomaly or routine occurrence. Your behaviours and natural traits are things that are being used every day by every platform. I agree this is a massive ethical area.

"But when you are looking at a player you are hiring someone you could potentially be paying millions of pounds to. If you look at player contracts, there is a lot of discussion around this and even beyond this.

"And I would never say that a signing should be based purely on this data. It should be a part of the decision-making process and not everything."

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