James Young: The role of data in Sunderland's brave new world
Written by Simon Austin — August 25, 2021
"You probably watched the Sunderland documentary on Netflix. When you watch that, it’s no surprise that they suffered a double relegation, it really isn’t. They put all their faith in one man, the manager, and as soon as it went wrong, said, ‘It must be his fault’. Why not look a bit deeper?"(Stuart Webber, Norwich City Sporting Director, February 2019)
UNDER the ownership of 24-year-old Kyril-Louis Dreyfus, Sunderland are now treading a different path.
Instead of putting “all their faith in one man”, as Stuart Webber succinctly put it, the North East club are trying to build a structure for success. At the top sits Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman, who arrived from Birmingham within hours of Dreyfus's takeover and who has overall responsibility for football operations at the Black Cats.
Head Coach (not manager) Lee Johnson is responsible for delivering success on the field, Stuart Harvey is Head of Recruitment, and Lewis Dickman has been promoted to Academy Manager.
Another newly-created position is that of Head of Data and Analysis, which is indicative of a new way of thinking at the Stadium of Light. James Young was recruited to the role in March, having previously been head of the performance analytics department at management consultants Deloitte for the previous six years, working with clients including the Football Association, Uefa and the Premier League.
Young says that if you had to distil his Sunderland job description down into a “very pithy statement”, it would be a "translator between what is a complex and nuanced level of analysis and turning that into something digestible and relatable for the coach to implement.”
Although he says he pays attention to “what goes on at clubs like Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool in terms of their use of data" and "it’s something we aspire to”, his early focus has been on "establishing the fundamentals”.
This means data engineering, which is essentially “moving data around and storing it in ways that can be leveraged.”
"There are a lot of exciting things on data and video analysis that we are exploring,” Young tells TGG, “but it’s an old adage that if you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out.
“Unless you have nailed down the quality of the data you are holding, you won’t get anything useful out of the other side. If anything, you could get something misleading.”
With this in mind, he has hired Akhil Shah, also previously of Deloitte, as the club's new Data Scientist. Shah started this month and Young says: “We are really excited to have Akhil in. He could easily walk into a bank in London and hold down six figures (salary).
“We are calling him a Data Scientist, but at least initially he will be more of a generalist and a more accurate description of his role would be full stack developer. He will be doing a lot of the data engineering work, building the cloud infrastructure, before starting to leverage the data to produce more insights.
“If you haven’t done that boring investment part of your data management then you’re not going to do a good job around the more cutting-edge stuff."
There has also been a lot of work - in the club as a whole - on establishing “who we want to be, how we want to play, the players we want to work with”, as this will inform everything that Sunderland do. Young will try to quantify this, helping people in recruitment, performance and coaching to make evidence-based decisions.
There are five "design pillars" he wants the club’s data and analysis work to “align to”, he says.
One is “actionable insights”, which means any piece of data or analysis “has to be something a coach can pick up and do something with.”
“You can do the best analysis in the world, something totally groundbreaking, but if the club can’t pick it up and do something with it, it’s meaningless,” Young explains.
Another is “short feedback loops” - the ability to answer questions quickly. “The longer you take, the less valuable the answer is.”
This is why there has been an initial focus on data storage.
“If data is on the cloud rather than someone’s laptop or hard drive, then you can immediately get access to it, which is a lot more powerful.”
It’s also why Young has introduced the Kairos planning and communication platform - used by teams including Norwich, Stoke and Scotland - to the club.
“We were previously working off PDFs for schedules and as soon as that changed,you had to send a new PDF to a massive group of users,” he says.
“It was an inefficient process, especially when you're trying to get that short feedback loop. Even something as basic as the time of lunch changing - you want the whole club to know about it straight away.
"Extrapolate that out to training, travel arrangements - the ability to do things instantaneously and to keep people up to date in real time is very powerful. That’s why Kairos was a no-brainer for me.
"Their core product is scheduling, but you are getting tertiary benefits as well. The messaging app is massively powerful. We are using it at all levels, down to the Under-9s, and we can send messages not only to all of the players but to their affiliated guardians as well.
“It’s so useful for saving management and admin effort and freeing up people who would otherwise have to spend hours of the day managing schedules and booking appointments.
“With Kairos you’re minimising that to probably half an hour’s activity a day, which is an incredible win for us.”
As I write this piece, Sunderland are fifth in League One after winning three and losing one of their opening fixtures.
Young says the club are only on “phase 0.5 of our rebuild,” but that “things are moving quickly and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”
“It’s such an interesting project as a whole, with the new ownership, with Kristjaan coming in, with Lee,” he says. “All these things are coming together really nicely now.”
Sunderland fans have suffered too many setbacks in the past to get too carried away now, but at least the current strategy involves more than “putting all their faith in one man”.