Head of Data Ian Graham leaving Liverpool after a decade
Written by Training Ground Guru — November 24, 2022
LIVERPOOL’S Director of Research, Ian Graham, has resigned from his role and will leave Anfield after more than a decade.
Graham joined Liverpool in July 2012 and became a key figure at the club, building the leading data science department in the Premier League and perhaps even in Europe.
The Welshman, who has a PhD in physics from Cambridge University, handed in his resignation in June and will work a notice period until May, as reported by David Ornstein of The Athletic.
A big part of the reason for the success of Liverpool’s data science department is that it is truly integrated and impacts football decisions. This isn’t a club that just pays lip service to data, as some do.
Graham was, for example, involved in the selection of Jurgen Klopp as the successor to Brendan Rodgers as the club’s new boss in October 2015. This was despite the fact that Klopp's Borussia Dortmund side had struggled the previous season, eventually managing to climb to a seventh-place finish in the Bundesliga.
“The German media said, ’It’s all over for Dortmund, Klopp’s lost it, there’s no way back for them,’” Graham recalled.
“Our analysis showed something quite different, which was that they were still clearly the second-best team in Germany. But the performances did not match the results.
“So I analysed 10 seasons of Bundesliga performances, and Dortmund were the second-unluckiest team in that 10-year history. It was just some terrible luck that cost Jürgen that one season.”
This probably helped to get Klopp fully on board with data - which he undoubtedly was.
“Jürgen is very open and receptive to our area,” Graham later revealed. “In terms of our week-to-week relationship, I don’t have very much interaction with him, but that’s not a bad thing because he knows the analysis we do and how it feeds into the various reports and the weekly work that him and his team do.
“Just the fact that he is open to it and intuitively understands the numbers, that’s enough. And if there is anything in particular that needs addressing, we’re there for the coaches.
“They’re aware that we can help out with stuff and give an opinion on it, which is great. Jürgen is really open to it and understands it. He doesn’t work too much with it day-to-day or week-to-week, but that’s not a bad thing at all."
Graham’s Liverpool data science team - which comprises Lead Data Scientist William Spearman, statistical researchers Tim Waskett and Dafydd Steele, and data engineers Mark Howlett and Mark Stevenson - is involved in every football department at the club.
This is in contrast to the situation Graham had experienced at Tottenham, where he worked as a consultant for a company called Decision Technology before joining Liverpool. This was where he got to know Michael Edwards, the Head of Analysis at Spurs who became Liverpool's Sporting Director in 2011.
Graham recalled: “At Spurs, it very much was ‘can you tell us your opinion on these players?’ We would rarely work on anything else, but I think with being inside the club you can help out with different departments, it’s not just recruitment.”
However, he admitted that recruitment remained the main area of influence for his Research team at Anfield.
“The place where it (data science) really can help is the acquisition of players in terms of helping our scouting process,” he said. “In Premier League football and European football in general, there’s a worldwide free market of football players.
“So if we spot a player that we would like to play for Liverpool and we can pay the price that the selling club demands, then we can buy him. And the real power of data analysis is when the data set is large. We have detailed data on hundreds of thousands of players.
“Maybe only 5% of those would be anywhere near a Premier League level player. But that’s still 5,000 players, which is too big a set of players to scout everyone in depth and in detail. So we can really help that filtering and identification process.”
This system helped Liverpool unearth many gems under Klopp and Graham picked out one in particular in an interview in November 2019, a few months after Liverpool had won the Champions League.
“One of my favourite players is Andy Robertson, our left-back, one of the best left-backs in Europe, and now European champion of course,” he said.
“So Andy Robertson’s problem was his background as much as anything. So he only started playing English Premier League football maybe at the age of 22. And he played for Hull City, which was not a very good football team.
“They got relegated from the Premier League. And he was the best young full-back in Britain at the time. He was a really strange case of a really attacking full-back playing in a really poor defensive team.”
Graham is the latest football executive to leave Liverpool in recent months. Sporting Director Michael Edwards departed after a decade at the end of last season and his replacement, Julian Ward, is now leaving too.
Meanwhile, Non-Executive Director Mike Gordon, the conduit between the football club and owners Fenway Sports Group, is stepping back from his duties.