While team success at the highest level in sports involves a complex combination of player talent, strategy, coach leadership and team chemistry, alumnus William Spearman has proved that team success goes far beyond the players and the coach. The University of Dallas undergraduate and Harvard Ph.D. was hired by the Liverpool FC (football club) for data analytics in 2018, according to Bruce Schoenfeld of the New York Times magazine. Since then, Liverpool went on to win a Champions League title in 2019 and its first Premier League title in 30 years.
Statistical analysis is one of the key contributors to Liverpool’s recent success, but data-driven decisions are not necessarily the norm among soccer teams. Conventional wisdom among the sport’s greatest minds was that soccer is next to impossible to quantify, especially in comparison to other sports. In a soccer match, all actions are fluid as the ball is in play most of the game and scoring opportunities are rare. Measuring a player’s impact on score in these conditions poses a challenge, to say the least.
According to Schoenfeld, Liverpool followed conventional wisdom rather than statistical analysis until investor and businessman John Henry became a majority owner of the club. In 2012 Ian Graham, a Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, was brought in to lead the analytics department. Graham had worked for five years at another Premier League club, but the more traditional football minds working for the club did not seriously consider his advice.
In the 2017-2018 season, the team reached finals for the League Cup, Europe League and Champions League, finishing runner up in all three competitions. It was during this period of success that UD alumnus Spearman was hired by the club. As helpful as analytics have been to Liverpool, there are still a lot of limitations to how the data can explain the game. Spearman created a model that employs video tracking, assigning a numerical score to every action that takes place in the field, even when the ball isn’t involved, to help create new ways to approach the game.
With Liverpool’s newfound success, it’s only a matter of time until other major clubs in Europe begin using data analytics a lot more; Spearman’s model may transform the analysis and execution of the sport.
So, how did a UD graduate end up helping a team win two of the most prestigious soccer competitions in the world?
“As I went through graduate school, I became an increasingly avid sports fan,” wrote Spearman to The University News.
After graduating UD with a bachelor of science in physics and a bachelor of arts in mathematics, he briefly worked in Geneva, Switzerland, researching a device called The Roman Pots at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. He went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard University, writing his thesis on measuring the mass and width of the Higgs Boson.
After gaining interest in sports he applied to the sports-video company Hudl, where he worked on a variety of projects including basketball highlight detection.
“I particularly enjoyed working with spatio-temporal player tracking data from soccer games,” wrote Spearman. “That work resulted in our development of pitch control and a number of talks and papers extending our concept of computing of physics-based fields to represent control, value, and transition.”
Although he does play soccer casually, his main contributions have been off the field. What makes soccer attractive to him is the passion and unpredictability inherent to the sport.
“For me, sports analytics highlights that unpredictability and makes watching the game even more enjoyable,” Spearman explained.
Spearman credits his UD education as valuable for his career. What stood out to him at UD was how passionate the professors were in teaching and preparing their students for success.
Spearman explained, “In particular the mentorship of Dr. [Sally] Hicks and Dr. [Richard] Olenick was invaluable for me in developing the confidence to approach challenging problems and the clarity to identify fields that I found compelling.” He also credited the education he received here with giving him the ability to think in a cross-disciplinary way.
“There were numerous times I’d be using something I learned in a history class to make a point in a philosophy paper,” Spearman recalled. “This has proved invaluable in sports analytics as this work rests at the intersection of many different fields from mathematics to physiology.”