Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

One team with a common goal – chemistry lessons from football at MAD//Fest 2024

How many footballers does it take to change a lightbulb? Frankly, no clue, but we do know how many footballers it takes to have a lightbulb moment. NDA Editor Justin Pearse met former England and Chelsea star, Graeme Le Saux and his business partner, Chris Perry, co-founders of Machine Football, to talk about how technology has the potential to supercharge human teams. And not just footballing ones. 

While there are many parallels, football teams experience success and failure unlike almost any other brand. While marketers in FMCG or automotive trawl social listening or impressions to find out if their NPS is on the rise, football teams only need to use their eyes and ears on a Saturday afternoon to find out how well they’re doing. 

“There’s an instant feedback loop on the pitch,” Le Saux admits. “You’re applauded for doing well, booed for doing badly. You really do understand how to manage that feedback.”

Those boos may seem like the end of the world for the more timid, office-bound marketer but Le Saux suggests that feedback of every type has potential to build the brand. 

“The great thing about sport and football is there’s an energy that if you can enhance in the right way, really drives you on. It creates huge connection between you, your teammates and the fans, if they understand what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it.

“You live the highs and lows with the same scrutiny and desire to keep improving. The best football teams will continue to drive their performance, no matter what the results are. It’s very easy to translate that to brands.”

Le Saux admits that players’ and managers’ skins may well have been thickened, and their psychologies developed to not just withstand but work with negative feedback. While learnings such as not reacting to individual situations (“The worst-run clubs react to situations, they’re never proactive.”) make complete sense, acting on poor performance in business has to be carefully handled. 

“Feedback … it’s got to be taken without any prejudice or personal negativity,” he insists. “If you’re in an environment where you don’t feel vulnerable saying ‘this isn’t working for me’ and why, then you can really grow as an organisation.”

One way to take the personal sting out of feedback is to let the numbers do the talking. This is where Machine Football comes in, and has learnings for wider business beyond the pig’s bladder on the pitch. 

“It’s a complex business environment and there’s massive opportunity in how you connect it all together and find the areas of passion. That’s where there are parallels with brands,” Perry explains. “What’s happened in AI in the last 18 months has been really interesting. Google is using AI to predict weather and learn about climate and animal migration. When you shift that into football as a network, you get a completely different view of behaviours on and off the pitch, and how those things add to value.”

Perry explains that their nascent system can analyse activity on every metre of the pitch over the past eight years and the behaviours of every player over 16. This can then be modelled to understand the contribution they’re making to the team overall, as well as predict potential outcomes. Importantly, it can also suggest which player pairings might work best in future games. 

“You begin to say ‘these people work best with these other people. They achieve value together. That’s chemistry. So, performance contribution and chemistry together equals value. That’s something very interesting to look at for marketers to say ‘how do we evolve ourselves at player level and club level, as well as game level.”

Perry goes on to add that this can translate to anywhere where the sum of a team’s performance is greater than its individual parts. “Imagine if this were the board of a company or Navy SEALs going into battle,” he says.

That ‘chemistry’ can be plotted on a scale, with under 30 being low and over 60 being high. It’s not an absolute threshold. Various aspects of performance are analysed to show where areas of weakness are. “Not everything will be [perfect] but it’s about raising the aggregate level,” Perry advises.

This doesn’t just have important team implications, it impacts footballers’ commerciality too. Le Saux points out that, despite the professionalism of the sport overall and the huge sums involved, understanding player value and therefore the appropriate transfer fee is something of an inexact science. 

“There’s a lot of money and people involved, it’s very hard to put value on a player. We’re trying to create a football-driven system that has data supporting that gives insights and new knowledge as to how players interact on the pitch. When you understand how players perform together, you can have a conversation around their numbers, but it’s much more about the relationships.”

But then, it’s important to recognise again that the numbers are a means to an end, and it’s a human conversation above all. As to using those numbers to predict an England win at the Euros, Le Saux has his thoughts on the recent torrid times for the players and Gareth Southgate, but whether Machine Football can put together a championship-winning side? That may be a conversation for another time.