“You’ve read money ball?” Adrian Hanauer, the then owner of the Seattle Sounders, a Major League Soccer (MLS) team from the United States, asked a young Sarah Rudd (Massachusetts, 42 years old), who was pursuing a master’s degree in Business and looking for a job entry into the world of football. The book tells the story of how the manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, Billy Beane, managed through data analysis to put together a winning team in the 2002 season despite economic adversity. Although Beane’s story has already become paradigmatic, it took many years for the use of these metrics to become the norm in the sport. When he started working as a data analyst in 2011, this discipline was still unknown in football. Today it is an essential part of the big clubs and national teams. Rudd’s work was pioneering.
But this is not a story of someone who started at nothing and rose to the top; at that time, Sarah had already graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Computer Science and had landed a position at Microsoft as a software engineer. software.
“Adrian Hanauer was the first person who gave me the idea of mixing statistics and soccer,” Sarah explains by video call from her home in Houston, Texas. The use of numbers to make strategic decisions, despite having no place in football at that time, was a phenomenon with history. It can be dated back to the 1940s, when the American engineer Earnshaw Cook published a series of statistical studies on the performance of players in baseball. Decades passed in which the data remained only in theory. It took Billy Beane in baseball and, later, football, Kevin Kelley, a Pulaski Academy varsity coach who innovated with the use of statistics, to be taken seriously.
Rudd began reading everything he could find on the subject and created a blog posting his own analyses. The perfect opportunity to demonstrate their ability came when the StatDNA company, which was dedicated to selling its analysis services to teams, held an open contest in which it made its database available for those interested to develop new studies based on them. . Rudd developed an evaluation model for soccer player actions, such as passing or shooting on goal. With this he impressed StatDNA and landed a position there in 2011.
In this company he learned everything about how numbers could be put to real use in football. This work implies a complex marriage between the mathematical and the sporting, between the knowledge of soccer and the software, in which it is necessary, in his words, “to convert the metrics into a football concept”. A data analyst must understand the game, as well as the difference between the different leagues and the styles of play that are used in them. “If a player comes from another system, he must learn how to transfer his performance to the football club that has signed him,” he says. “The most important thing is recruitment. With the performance data, you analyze the players and identify the ones who are going to complement the squad, ”he points out in fluent Spanish.
In 2012, a year after Sarah joined StatDNA, the company was bought by Arsenal FC. The English Premier League team wanted to develop a powerful data analysis system. That was, according to Sarah, “something new for everyone”. “Now you say xG (calculation of possible goals) and people know what it is, but at that time they didn’t and we had to work a lot. Naturally, if you don’t understand something, you’re not going to trust it,” she says. Arguments about the meaning of the numbers were constant, but Rudd points out that the data team had a very good relationship with then-coach Arsène Wenger and that this allowed them to advance their projects.
Rudd spent nine seasons with Arsenal and rose to become director of analytics and development for software of the team. She did it by working out of Houston and only going to England four times a year. She believes that the results of her work are still there, still relevant. “Our models contributed a lot. 10 years ago, there were simply no complete profiles of the players as there are now, ”she insists.
In 2021 he left Arsenal. “He wanted to look for new experiences after having learned everything that can be learned in a team”, he relates. Despite her difficulties — she confesses with a laugh that the mistrust stemmed more from being an American than from being a woman — she fondly remembers that stage of her career. She is particularly pleased with what they achieved with Arsenal’s youth academy, which produced the likes of Bukayo Saka – current franchise player for the North London team and an England cap – during her time at the club.
Twelve years after Sarah Rudd began working on ways to apply the data to the world of football, FIFA would be showcasing elaborate and innovative statistics obtained with big data Live during the World Cup matches in Qatar. The responsible? His former teammate Arsène Wenger, now the federation’s director of world soccer development. The data was the topic of conversation during the tournament. Luis Enrique’s Spanish team, for example, boasted about how his team big data carried out in-depth analysis to define the best strategy. Following his stint at Arsenal, Rudd tried to apply his knowledge to a smaller team. Thus, he had a brief stint at Blue Crow Sports, company that worked with the Club Deportivo Leganés. The experience there was negative: “There were some good things, but it was not what I wanted.” In September 2022, she and her partner and husband, Ravi Ramineni, announced her departure via tweet without giving further details. “I was lucky to get out of there quickly,” she says.
At the end of that year, together with Ramineni and Cole Grossman, another colleague of both, he founded the company SRC ftbl to sell its services to soccer teams that are beginning to implement data analysis in their system. They recently announced their new alliance with the Houston Dynamo and they are already finalizing others that they still do not want to reveal. After spending a decade working in European soccer, she is very excited to start a new phase with the American MLS.
Rudd believes there is still a lot to learn about the use of data in football. He believes that the development of artificial intelligence and the machine learning It will be very positive for this discipline, which in the last decade has undergone a dizzying evolution and now represents an industry valued at least 4,000 million dollars (about 3,700 million euros), according to Forbes. Despite the fact that her work was her predecessor, Rudd says he feels embarrassed when he hears her referred to as a pioneer. “I still feel like a simple Microsoft engineer.”