Analytics Assists Cavaliers' Preparation Process
Nov. 20, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — His title is operations assistant for University of Virginia men’s soccer, and Oliver Gage’s responsibilities include setting up schedules and helping solve logistical problems that arise for head coach George Gelnovatch‘s team.
But he also works extensively with video and performance analysis, and that’s a role for which Gage, 27, is well-qualified.
Before moving to the United States for the second time — Gage earned his master’s degree and played two seasons at Division II Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. — he was an assistant technical analyst for Sheffield Wednesday, a professional club in his hometown of Sheffield, England.
Gage, whose father, Kevin, played for Aston Villa in the Premier League, joined Gelnovatch’s staff last fall and quickly became an integral part of a program that has won six NCAA championships.
“When I hired him, I wanted [the operations assistant] to have some sort of analysis capability, and we were just very fortunate that we got a guy with his background,” Gelnovatch said.
At Sheffield Wednesday, Gage said, “I initially started doing it on a part-time basis, like a couple days a week, and it all just worked out.” He and his wife, who’s American, wanted to return to the States, though, and so he started looking for coaching jobs here.
“I was going to be a volunteer assistant at James Madison, and I was all set to go there to do what I do here, for free, and then just randomly I heard about the job here with George,” Gage said. “So it all kind of just fell into place pretty nicely.”
Most of the data Gage uses in the reports he compiles for players and coaches comes from Prozone Sports, a company based in Leeds, England. Prozone provides performance-analysis services to soccer and rugby teams around the world.
“Prozone is all about objectivity,” said Gage, who has a bachelor’s degree from Leeds Metropolitan University in England. “The easiest way to describe my job is, I sort of bridge the gap between what has genuinely happened in a game and what the coaches perceive to have happened in a game. Accurate coaching recall is something close to 40 percent after a game.”
Video of each UVa match is emailed to Prozone, which the other ACC teams also use. Within 36 hours, Prozone sends back to Gage a statistical breakdown of everything that occurred in the game.
“For each game, the package we get back has got roughly 3,500 to 4,000 events in it,” Gage said, “every touch for every player, where the pass goes, who it goes to, the distance, the time in the game, success rate, and so on.”
If, for example, UVa midfielder Eric Bird passes to forward Darius Madison, the pass “gets registered,” Gage said, “and then you can click on Eric Bird on the software program we’ve got from Prozone, and you can see his passing map. And each individual pass you can click on, and it links to the video so you can see it. It’s crazy what you can do.”
It would be easy to overload players with information, and Gage is careful not to do so.
“We tell the players the 1 percent they need to know,” he said.
Virginia used Prozone before Gage joined the staff, but the coaches, with a myriad of other responsibilities, could not devote as much time to analysis as he can.
“I would say we used less than 50 percent of the capabilities of what you’re paying for, basically,” Gelnovatch said. “Now I think we’re at capacity.”
Gage’s first season at UVa was a memorable one. The Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four — the College Cup — before being eliminated in 2013.
In this year’s 48-team tourney, Virginia (10-6-2) earned a first-round bye as one of the top 16 seeds. The `Hoos, who made the NCAA tournament for the 34th consecutive season, will face UNC Wilmington or Bucknell in a second-round game Sunday at 1 p.m. at Klöckner Stadium.
Gage’s analysis shows UVa, which finished 13-6-5 in 2013, has improved from last season in virtually every area. The Cavaliers’ record, however, doesn’t reflect that progress, because of the team’s glaring weakness. In 18 matches, the `Hoos have only 21 goals.
“In every category we’re better than last year, we just haven’t scored [as much],” Gage said.
During matches, Gelnovatch and his assistant coaches, Matt Chulis and Terry Boss, are on the sideline. Gage sits in the press box, with his laptop, next to another staffer who films the action on the field.
Using a software program called SportsCode, Gage said, “essentially what I do is find events in the game, like snippets of play, or passages of play, or certain movements that are happening, and get tactical clips ready to show players and coaches at halftime, so we can make adjustments.”
At halftime, while Gelnovatch is addressing the players, Gage meets with Chulis.
“I’ll usually have fix or six clips that I’ll show Matt and we will talk about together,” Gage said. “Then Matt will get up after George [is finished] and talk about it, if it’s a team thing, or pull an individual aside, or a couple guys, if it’s just a little thing between a few guys, and just change something here or there, however we can.”
In the offseason, in addition to his operations work, Gage seeks out data on what’s happening in the sport around the world.
“There’s information out there on world football, every league,” Gelnovatch said. “There are trends in world football, like the best way to score or defend, whatever it is, and he researches and finds all this analysis and data that’s out there. He always has a handout for me, almost every day, even in the offseason, of world football trends.
“Some you look at and you’re like, `Well, it’s not for me,’ or `It’s not how I want to do it,’ and others you’re like, `Wow, that’s really interesting.’ “
During the season, Gage produces video scouting reports on opponents and, using the Prozone data, analyzes the Cavaliers’ performances in matches.
“Some [coaches] think this is important, or that’s important,” Gelnovatch said. “So we’ve developed together a list of what we think are key things for a game. And everybody’s key things are different.”
Gage “does a really good job of getting all this data for our team, and individual staff, and he has experience doing it,” Gelnovatch said.
“He’s like a young coach. I can tell him after a game, `Here are the things I want to see. Pull for me this, this, this and this.’ And if it was just a film guy that didn’t really know the game, I’d have to spend hours going through it with him. Olly says, `OK, got it.’ He knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Gage said: “I do a postgame report after every game that shows how many passes were made. There’s some generic stuff in there, but also some really subjective stuff based on what we want to look for as a team, like what percentage of our shots we take are inside the box versus outside. It’s one thing getting 20 shots, but if they’re all from 25 yards out, [that’s not ideal].”
That Gelnovatch has embraced analytics makes Gage’s job easier.
“George has actually been great,” Gage said. “He’s been a lot better than my old coach at Sheffield Wednesday, who was a little bit sort of suspicious of the numbers, because it’s a new thing.
“A lot of people think football’s still about being tough and this and that, and it’s about moments of magic that win games. That’s true, I always say. Usually it is a great goal that wins games, but my job is to make sure we have more opportunities to score that great goal.”
And the players?
“They love it,” Gage said. “The more stuff we can throw at them, the better. After every game I have a very generic stats package I give to the players, like how many passes they made, what percentage they got, how many tackles they made, so they can see where they were compared to the usual performance.”
It doesn’t hurt Gage’s credibility with the players, Bird said, that he’s from the soccer-mad United Kingdom.
“Everything always sounds better [with a British] accent,” Bird said, laughing.