By Francis Nyamutsamba (Performance Analyst)
National team selection often sparks debate about whether the most deserving players would have been called up for forthcoming assignments and as Zimbabwe builds towards Afcon fixtures against Botswana and Zambia focus will once again be on squad selection as the Warriors battle for a 5th berth at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Before the emergence of data science national team selection was based on subjective impressions held by coaches but in the modern game data science and technological tools are now available to evaluate the performance of players in an objective manner.
Thanks to the emergence of performance analysis countries can now better evaluate players as well as assess whether a players style of play is in harmony with the tactical system the national team coach is expecting his side to produce.
Whereas for fans focus tends to be rather subjective and emotive, playing style distribution’s such as whether a side prefers to build up, counter attack, engage in direct play, effect a high press or play a fast tempo game all plays a significant role in determining a players suitability for earning a call up.
While there is often the tendency of highlighting statistics such as goals scored, or clean sheets kept, there is the need to fully understand the context in which such statistics are derived from as several other variables need to be considered when evaluating prospects for national team selection.
Information such as patterns of play in the build up to goals scored, a players possession value and expected goals ratio provide crucial data which could contribute in giving coaches more awareness of how players can fit into a given system. Expecting players to reproduce club performances when thrust into a national team possessing a style completely different from that of a players club could often lead to disaster especially in situations where chosen players are not too flexible in adapting to certain tactical approaches.
A typical example of a player that tended to struggle when called up to the national team despite possessing impressive figures at club level is Nyasha Mushekwi who appeared more suited to the role of a target man whereas the Warriors often appeared in dire need of a dynamic forward comfortable when operating a lot more deeper and suited to playing in half spaces. Despite being a very good finisher one could argue Mushekwi was not the kind of player best suited to ensuring fluidity in building up to a goal, a role famously played by Roberto Firmino at Liverpool. Whereas goal scoring figures at club level may have been the key number used in guiding selection, equally important metrics ought to be considered.
When looking at the selection of a goalkeeper there is the tendency of looking at clean sheets or the position of a players club yet other critical metrics need to be considered in the modern game. For example a goalkeeper playing for a relegation threatened club could be a more valuable player than a championship winning keeper when presented with data such as number of expected goals saved, number of clear goals saved, ball distribution, counterattacking impact, defensive organisation abilities and communication skill set.
Whereas the media often plays a huge part in highlighting the performance of players plying their trade abroad, having clearly defined roles for each and every position in a given system should serve to guide the selection process regardless of a players popularity. For example in the selection of midfielders a coach has to determine the type of midfielder best suited to their system. In midfield while one coach may prefer having a conductor in his side another could prefer a facilitator or a dynamo. Because there is a wild variety of midfielders each with their own nuance and detail, it ultimately boils down to style of play which may differ from game to game.
Key to getting the important information needed to assess a players performance could perhaps be making deliberate efforts to liase with the performance analysis departments of clubs so as to tap into valuable information relating to whether a player should be considered for national duty.
While matches involving players such as Marvelous Nakamba or Tinotenda Kadewere may be easier to access as their leagues are easily accessible on television, other leagues would require a lot more effort in accessing footage which can be coded into meaningful event data.
While there have been meaningful strides in engaging performance analysts in recent Warriors assignments, comprehensive data analytics also needs to be embraced as an important part of the selection process so as to get a better perspective on the performance of players.
Author: Francis Nyamutsamba
Qualifications: PFSA (UK) Performance analysis in football level 1, Zimbabwe Soccer Coaches Association – Level 2 coaching, Advanced Sports Management Diploma – ZOC, B.A Media Studies
Contacts: 07735486865 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook: Francis Nyamutsamba, Twitter: @fnyamutsamba