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Friday, December 17, 2010

Year in review: Sports website of the year

Sports website of the year:  Zonal Marking

If you are a regular reader of this site, then you probably appreciate analysis and insight more than most.  At least, that's what we try to provide.  You may be one of those people who watches sport with a more dispassionate eye, rather trying to understand why teams score, why space was created, why goals/tried are scored (as opposed to shouting at the referee through the TV set).  I'm certainly in that camp.  So, it should come as no surprise that my pick for sports website of the year is a site that provides analysis and insight quite unlike anything else I have seen before.

The site is Zonal Marking, a football (soccer) analysis site that I discovered during the 2010 World Cup, and which picks and analyses tactical and strategic aspects of various matches.

Performance analysis is incredibly complex.  The secret to effectively analyzing complex sports like football, rugby, American Football (any team game, really) is to tease out from hundreds of potential factors those which are most likely to impact on the result.  This is no easy task - I head up the UCT Performance Analysis Unit and we work with a number of different teams, mostly in rugby, and the biggest challenge is deciding what NOT to analyse.  Thanks to technology, and specifically written software like Sportscode, it is now possible to database just about every single occurrence on the field.

Every tackle, every pass, every error, every decision can be recorded and dissected.  Players can be scored for every single involvement in play.  This creates a data problem - there is too much of it, both for players and coaches.  This creates an interesting dilemma for a coach who is trying to instil a "like-mindedness" in the players by teaching them a system of decision-making, while still relying on their instinctive and honed abilities.  Perhaps the best way to describe what performance analysis is trying to achieve is that it's trying to make sure that 10 (or 14 in the case of rugby players) players can anticipate what will happen six seconds later, while still allowing flexibility for creativity. 

And sifting through the "clutter" is essential, particularly in continuous sports like rugby and football.  American football is comfortably the most advanced sport in the world in terms of play analysis, but the sport lends itself to structured play, whereas rugby and football do not, but still require continuous adjustments in shape/alignment and decision-making.  Good analysis doesn't mean measuring everything, it means identifying the right question to ask, then knowing what to measure to answer it - this is no different to good science, incidentally, where a hypothesis is tested through measurement.

One of our fundamental reasons for writing this site is to provide answers to questions like "HOW" and "WHY" things happen in sport.   Zonal Marking provides those answers for football.  Perhaps you watched the 5-0 demolition job that Barcelona did on Real Madrid (one of the highlights of the year).  The next step is understanding how it happened, and reading this analysis will tell you.

It's simplified, it's accurate, well written and it has immeasurably enhanced my football watching experience.  It's so simply explained that even those who are not followers of the sport will gain insight by reading it - the secret to truly understanding something new is to explain it in a way that makes everyone else feel superior for already knowing it!  Zonal Marking does this, and for that reason, it's the best sports website that I have discovered this year. 

Here are some of the better analyses from this year's Football World Cup in South Africa:

The final: Spain 1 - Holland 0
Spain's 1-0 victory over Germany in the semi-final
Germany 4, Argentina 0
Brazil 3, Chile 0: The tactical contest of the tournament

As always, if there any I've missed, please let me know!