James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: New approach is a load of old moneyballs

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I’m not sure it was quite what Bruce Springsteen had in mind nearly a quarter-of-a-century ago but football definitely needs a human touch.

Mathematical modelling, statistical analysis and algorithms might fascinate the Moneyball generation. Matthew Benham, the Brentford chairman and majority shareholder at FC Midtjylland, is an avowed devotee.

But, as Kieran Wallace’s rise to prominence at Sheffield United this season demonstrates, sometimes you can’t beat a good old fashioned hunch. Or, as manager Nigel Adkins puts it on these pages, there “always has to be the element of the eye.”

“The sports science is there now and the technology,” he says. “When a player reaches a certain level with his ‘loading’ for example, which you can track with GPS, you know there’s a high probability he might suffer an injury. It’s there to be used so use it. But you’ve also got to get a feeling for the match.”

Wallace owes his emergence as a regular first team player this season to precisely that. A hunch. Well, a hunch and a pre-season selection crisis to be exact. Being short of defenders ahead of their friendly against his former club Ilkeston, United were forced to play the 20-year-old midfielder at the back. Fair to say, Wallace acquitted himself pretty damn well because, three months later, there is no sign of him being shunted further up the park.

Happenings such as this are likely to become increasingly rare if the number crunchers get their way. Why, even Forest Green Rovers have adopted the ‘Midtjylland Model’ - where data is also used to determine what coaching staff say during a half-time address - as owner Dale Vince attempts to apply the skills he learned as a energy trader to player recruitment and development.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a spot of innovation as anybody who witnessed some of my Saturday night outfits as a teenager will know. Hearing old professionals talk sneeringly about “non football people” confirms the beautiful game can often be too insular for its own good. It also likes a cause célèbre as the desire to replicate systems at Clairefontaine, then Ajax, then across the Bundesliga proves. (Why, in England, can’t we get ahead of the curve by simply doing our own thing?)

Adkins, Andy Crosby and Dean Wilkins seem a pretty open-minded trio ready to borrow ideas from other disciplines. They enjoy the appliance of science. Thankfully, Wallace and The Boss will doubtless be pleased to hear, they recognise the importance of a human touch too.

Twitter: @JamesShield1

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