December 15, 2017

Exclusive Interview with Shandong Luneng Taishan FC Technical Director Daniel Stenz

The numbers or analytics revolution that has transformed sports like baseball or basketball has undoubtedly reached our beautiful game as well. Most of the top teams in England employ entire analytics departments and the Bundesliga is certainly embracing this aspect of the game, be that data-driven scouting, expected goals and other stat-based models or new and exciting methods like Impect and Packing. One of the people who has been at the forefront of this big data revolution is Daniel Stenz. The 36-year-old founder of Evaluation Sports has an impressive resume, rising from the ranks of a video analyst at 1. Fc Köln to now being the technical director at the Chinese club Shandong Luneng Taishan FC that is coached by everybody’s favorite Felix Magath. Daniel has kindly agreed to an exclusive interview that details his journey from Cologne to China with pit stops in Berlin, Vancouver and Budapest, Hungary. Join us for the ride!

 

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Bundesliga Fanatic: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule (the Chinese Super League is 17 games into its season!) to answer our questions. Here we go!

From what I’ve read, you started out as a bit of an outsider in the footballing world, studying Robotics then Sports Economy before landing a video analyst job in Cologne? How did that come about and was that when you got into football\stats? Did you always have an analytical view? How did you make the seemingly big jump from video analyst to Chief scout? What are some of the things you learned?

Daniel Stenz: Indeed, I started kind of from the outside but I think at the time I started back in the days everyone was kind of an outsider as the job description of an analyst wasn’t really there. There was no tracking in league games or a real video feed for match analysis.

After I finished my apprenticeship I spent some time in Mayrhofen, Austria to think about the next step as I knew I wanted to work in sports. My choice became Sports-economy and luckily I was accepted by a leading University (Rhein-Ahr-Campus) to do so.  Shortly began I started an internship at FC Köln and by accident I got into analysis as I could operate a camera from the snowboarding times in Austria. From there it was quite a difficult road to work my way up from internship to full time. I spent countless nights working on analysis and had times were I slept in the car at the Geissbockheim (Trainingground of FC Cologne) to hand over the analysis before I drove back to Remagen to University. I got paid 80 Euros a month but
needed several times that amount for fuel only. At that point being paid or even make a living from this job was unthinkable. And I think that it wouldn’t have been possible any other way to come to where I am now.

I think I have a quite good analytical view of life and always wanted to know how things work, so that helped me a lot. I am eager to learn every day, which was also a big part of the decision to explore different markets in the world. Adopting to a new country teaches you a lot about yourself.

In Cologne my main influence was Frank Schaefer from whom I learned a lot about the game, but even more on how to be a good contributing part of a team. Frank still is someone that I think can lead any team and form a unit that is willing to do everything necessary to help each other. He created a great atmosphere.

The other person was Boris Notzon who founded the SportsLab and was ahead of the game at that time. He became a good friend over the years.

For me the areas of Analysis and Scouting are very close, as you have to be able to evaluate your team first to assess the potential strengthening of your team. So this was a natural evolution in my opinion.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Union Berlin and Uwe Neuhaus was the next step where you stayed for 5 years. How was your role different here? As chief scout who were some of the players you succeeded and\or failed to sign? (I saw Simon Terodde, but not sure if that was your decision.) It seems like the club struggled to get out of mid-table, was that one of the reasons for leaving. If not, was the 5 years just time to move on for bigger challenges?

Daniel Stenz: The move to Union Berlin was initiated through a player (Michael Parensen) that went from Cologne to Berlin. He knew what I was doing in Cologne and told Uwe Neuhaus about me, so he invited me to Berlin. Union Berlin is a very special club that I instantly fell in love with. At the time I arrived the club was just promoted to the 2. Bundesliga and was in the middle of upgrading the stadium and the facilities with enormous help from the fans. One of my first and strongest memories was seeing a family on Sunday coming to paint the fences. That really touched me and I think that the relationship between club and fans is a very special one. The club management around Presidents Dirk Zingler, Jörg Hinze and Dirk Thieme are doing a fantastic job in Berlin and I still follow the club very closely (I stayed a member as well). Leaving Union Berlin after almost 5 years was one of the toughest decisions I have had to make so far, but it was necessary for my development. I learned a lot in Berlin as we never had big budgets for anything so we had to come up with our own solutions. Oscar Kosche who was responsible for the finances at the club was a very tough person to negotiate with, but he is one of the pillars of the success of the club and prepared me for any future negotiations (Thanks, Oscar! ).

We established a structure of a pretty detailed scouting and every player had to go through an evaluation process and before the final decision was made every key member of the club had to make a statement. From sports to marketing everyone was involved by that way and so it always was a decision by many. In the case of Simon Terodde it helped a lot that he was a player of Frank Schaefer in Cologne so I knew a lot about him. A player we sort of missed out was Harry Kane who was offered on a loan but our restrictions at that time our thinking was that we don’t want to loan players without an option to buy.

Working with Uwe Neuhaus was great and he helped me a lot to develop by giving me more and more responsibility as we were a very small team and had to do lots ourselves. Uwe can lead teams (as he currently shows in Dresden again) and create a very good atmosphere on and off the pitch. It felt like family and was a very good time but also very exhausting as the club did grow very fast in every aspect. I was the youngest head of scouting in a professional league at that time and I had the feeling that it is necessary to see and learn different things to become as good as possible in my job. It was clear that although I had offers in Germany I needed to go abroad to gain experience, so I chose Vancouver.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Vancouver Whitecaps – How did that one come about? Also, the salary cap in soccer is an idea I’m fascinated by (maybe because I follow the NBA too closely) and I wonder if you think it could ever work in Europe? I saw Steve Nash train with the Whitecaps and have heard a few stories about his soccer skills\family history, so here is a fun question: how good could he have been if he chose football over basketball? And last, I see that both of your managers in Vancouver were 37-38, while the previous ones were all 50+, do you think that age mattered in coaching? Do you find it easier to explain your ideas to younger managers?

Daniel StenzVancouver came up when I met the new coach of the team, Carl Robinson, in London. He just took over the team and had heard of me and my work. Vancouver really wanted me and after my wife gave her blessing, we decided to go for it. North-American sports are renowned for having and turning more academic substance into practical use and I wanted to learn more. And of course Vancouver is not the worst place to live and traveling the States for almost 3 years was a good experience.

Two of the other owners of the Whitecaps are both IT People and were really committed to my approach of using new technologies to improve the performance in every aspect of the game. They didn’t want to spend big money on stars but rather find talent to develop into a working structure. Steve Nash is one of the owners of the Whitecaps and he trained a few times with us. Steve is a great athlete and I am sure he would have had a great career in football as well (his brother Martin was a soccer player). Beside that Steve is fantastic person that also invites you for a beer sometimes.

Before we started, the Whitecaps never made the playoffs and we managed to play the two most successful seasons in club history with winning the Cup and making the playoffs twice. The way the MLS is designed though is that you are kind of punished for success, as they want to create a parity in the league as soccer (how they call it) is still a developing sport behind football, basketball, hockey and baseball. Working in this league with great success was amazing and accomplished kind of the goal I set myself for this mission. From an economical view, the MLS is super interesting and it lined up a lot with my academical education in Sports Economy.

The age difference of Carl Robinson and Uwe Neuhaus didn’t affect anything. The Whitecaps job was Carls first one and he is still developing as a coach. Uwe was a very experienced coach that was very curious on new things. I would even say that Uwe was definitely more open to new methods than Carl.

Bundesliga Fanatic: On to Hungary then, and of course I’m fascinated by this brief spell as a Hungarian. You and the national team parted ways rather quickly. The articles I’ve read talked about tactical differences and downplayed it as a trial period. Could you elaborate on those? Similar to the Cologne days, who were some of the most\least receptive players to what you had to say? Stock has gone from savior and EURO 2016 hero to almost losing his job (losing to Andorra), where would you rank him from the coaches you worked with (Magath, Daum, Neuhaus, Robinson etc). Are there any other juicy stories you’d like to share about the Hungarian team, or living in Hungary?

Daniel StenzAfter the decision was made to not stay with the ‘Caps I first wanted to have a little break after the exhausting 10 years in the industry but had some talks with an EPL team.

Through Christofer Clemens of the German National Team I was introduced to the option of working for the Hungarian National Team.

I saw how Pál Dárdai developed this team before and in the Euros (there is a reason he is successful at Hertha as well) and as I never have worked for a national team I wanted to give that a try despite I was made aware of the many fluctuations in the functional team after Pál Dárdai left. Unfortunately, it turned out to not work on a personal level for me as well. As a person with an analytical view on things I am a big fan of straight decisions so moving on from Hungary was a logical consequence, although the environment that Mr Csányi and Mr Nagy created around the National Team is absolutely fantastic.

Working alongside Andy Möller and Holger Gehrke as well was a great experience, but I was even more impressed by the Hungarian people that I met. I am sure that Zoltán Szélesi for example will have a great coaching career ahead of him.

It was really a great honor to work for the national team of a country like Hungary and I wish nothing but the best for the team to get back to success in the near future.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Felix Magath is a bit of a cult hero (in the Bundesliga as well) at our blog.  What’s it like working with him? How is your job different from previous jobs? The Chinese Super League appears to be an excellent venue for many players, but there are some restrictions in terms of signing foreigners: do you think the league will compete with the big Euro leagues in terms of quality of play? Given thatyou’re one of very few people uniquely qualified to answer this question: how does the CSL compare to the Bundesliga, MLS, etc? 

Daniel StenzThe move to China was something that was up for discussion for a while. Beside the talks with England before joining the National Team I spoke at a few conferences around the world and by this got introduced to the Chinese market. Everyone is talking about the Chinese football at the moment, but if you just stop thinking about the crazy fees that were spent in the past, the league is (similar to MLS) super interesting. The government around President Xi is very forward-thinking and by implementing new rules the market becomes more and more protected to the big spending on short time success. The Government saw that for a country like China the way needs to be to develop talent. We have 1,4 Billion people in China. If the education is done properly, there must be talent to develop (you have to find that first of course). Shandong Luneng Taishan FC, the club that I work for now, also saw that coming and decided to be an early adopter. They saw what I did over the last years regarding player development, scouting and roster management and wanted me to join them to add some more depth into what they were doing. My goal was always to work my way up through different departments and cultures to be able to take more responsibility from job to job and this was the perfect fit.

Felix Magath did a fantastic job with the team from when he took over. You can see the change of the playing style and the fitness was improved significantly. Beside that I got to know Felix Magath as a very dedicated and polite person that wants to develop the club to further success.  My responsibility at the moment is to implement structures in Scouting and performance Analysis to help providing the best environment for the coach to keep improving the team. It’s a bit different to being an analyst in the coaching staff as now the structural development replaced the work from game to game. The CSL is a young league and China is a very different market so it is not always that easy to combine the immediate success with a strategical planning but I am very confident that we are on the right path.

(Daniel, third from the left at the prestigious MIT Sloan conference with Statsbomb founder Ted Knutson, second from the right)

Note: you can watch their discussion here:

 

Bundesliga FanaticObviously, the emergence of DATA and statistical analysis has started a revolution in many sports, though football is seemingly years behind NBA\baseball etc. I strongly agree with the opinion that you seem to share (Data is there to ask (better) questions), but why is it taking longer? Ted and the Statsbomb guys talk a lot about data people needing to do better in terms of explaining, but also coaches\players\management being more receptive towards it. Do you share that sentiment, or if not, what are some of the bigger obstacles to overcome and how should we go about it? Aside from off-ball tracking data, are there any big dark spots (unknowns) in analytics? We’ve progressed from shot counting to possession to TSRs and XGs. Where do you see analytics in soccer moving next?

Daniel StenzFirst of all, I think we need to talk about knowledge management. When I entered the football industry I could just about throw out everything that I learned in industry and university as it still is a micro cosmos of its own. In every small business, you do knowledge management to maintain knowledge in the business to prevent a loss if employees leaving. In football that’s still very different. Slowly people realize (not all …) that it is not healthy to give too much power to just one person, because you get in trouble if that person leaves. In my opinion, the times where the coach solely dictates the culture of a club or federation are over. The coach should be chosen based on the culture that the club or federation created. Therefore, a combined position of Coach and Sporting director is very difficult nowadays in my opinion. By implanting a strong corporate identity, you don’t have to change everything with a new coach arriving. A player or a workflow should always represent the club’s philosophy and strategy and shouldn’t be replaced too quick. If you for example have to replace players or a coach too quick then I would say that your strategy in first place might not have been the best.

The problem with data analysis is a bit more complex. First of all, you have to make sure that the numbers you have are right. I’ve seen so much bad quality out there and it has become a very big market so a lot of companies want a piece of the pie. Fortunately, I worked for small clubs with low budgets so I had to do a lot of things myself. That helped a lot in understanding the datamining processes.

After you have good numbers it comes down to understanding what they mean. You mentioned possession which is a good example. Johan Cruyff said that you need to have the ball to score a goal and if you don’t have the ball you cant score. Those are very true words, which made the industry assume in the beginning that possession affects the outcome of the match. That’s a wrong assumption if you don’t look a bit deeper to where exactly that possession is and some other factors around it. Ted Knutson and the guys from Statsbomb do a great job by investigating that deeper. It’s science and it’s developing. But saying that leads to the next problem. Some coaches (especially former players in my opinion) see a conflict between the art of traditional coaching and the science of it. That almost appeared to me as talking in two languages which made analysts become translators. You have to understand coaching and team dynamics on the one hand and understand the science on the other. Both fields are very complex which let the analyst become some kind of hybrid. I don’t think you can become a good analyst just by coming from university as you need to feel how a team works. It helped me a lot being in the locker rooms and on the bench for so many years to get a feeling on what works or what does not. There is a new generation of coaches (Julian Nagelsmann, etc) who learned more about the science while being educated to coach. The federations (especially Germany) also do a good job by implementing science more and more in coaches’ education. Here is an example on what the English FA is doing in coaches education.

The other big problem in my opinion is the role of the analyst nowadays. The analyst is normally hired by the coach as part of the coaching staff. That makes totally sense for improving the team by performance/video analysis and opposition scouting. But what about the analysis on team performance from the club’s perspective? If the analyst finds negative aspects of performance it will be quite difficult to communicate that to more than just the coach as he is his boss. That’s a very delicate situation and leads to conflicts of interest sooner than later.

Some clubs saw that and do a kind of analysis on a deeper level. FC Midtjylland with Rasmus Ankersen for example.

I think that’s the logical step as you do business analysis in a normal company as well.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Do you still have time to follow the Bundesliga? Where would you rank it among the big 5 leagues and what are some of your thoughts about the directions (50+1 rule falling soon, exploring Asia and the US in terms of marketing, “Bayernliga”) it’s taking? 

Daniel Stenz: Of course, I follow the 1+2 Bundesliga closely. I still have many contacts there and exchange thoughts a lot with Boris Notzon (FCK) Sven Mislintat (BVB) an Marcel Daum (Eintracht Frankfurt) for example.  Especially, Union Berlin is a club I follow almost every game.

I think the 50+1 rule helped Germany a lot over the last years to grow more fundamental without big money coming in. But opening the markets will be a necessary evolution of the industry and one should not be misled by negative examples. Football became a massive business and you can’t just ignore that. Uli Hoeness said in an interview a short while ago that every coach hates to go to China in preseason but it’s a necessary thing to do if you want to compete on a high level. The more important question is how you use that money. Going back to the MLS or China, now I think people realize that even if you buy one very good expensive player you still have to fill the other spots. And if you spend that much money on a player you also need to spend on the staff surrounding that player. From Physios to analysts. Which brings me to the next topic….

Bundesliga Fanatic: Finally, can you give some advice for young people who are trying to get into football analytics: what are 3 things they should be doing?

Daniel Stenz:It is a very tough business to get involved in like I said in the beginning. You sacrifice a lot
beside your job and you can’t expect to become rich doing it. 
Analysts became quite fashionable over the last years but no one really wants to pay for them. The first 2 years of my job I lived with my mom and she had to give some money for me to make a living out of it. But you cannot do it for the money. It means to work a lot of hours when others don’t. I missed so many things on a weekend as you have to work. In nights after the matches you do the debrief of the game just to finish next morning with opposition report. Nowadays things are a bit more easy as you have technology to help and maybe a few people.

In general, you should accept that if you go down this route you have to sacrifice a lot in the beginning. Almost every person that is successful in our job right now did long internships and then slowly grew. I also would recommend to visit conferences (the ones that I speak on are on www.evaluation-sports.com ) to listen to what’s going on and to network. The industry is a lot about networking.

Finally, you never should stop to be curious and never stop to build your own opinion. This job changed from just cutting videos to a way more complex task. For me it helped to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone.

Bundesliga Fanatic: Daniel, thank you so much for sharing your time and observations with us. It’s been a delight! We wish you all the best in China and beyond!

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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at www.bundespremierleague.com. Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL

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