Sheffield United: The previously untold story of how academics at Harvard University have helped place Bramall Lane at the forefront of a new footballing trend

The Star's James Shield discovers how a pioneering collaboration between Sheffield United and one of the world's finest universities has placed the Championship club at the forefront of a new footballing trend

Tuesday, 20th November 2018, 1:42 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th November 2018, 1:49 pm
Researchers from Harvard University are working with Sheffield United

Every single morning, Dr Carl Wells sits behind his desk, fires up his computer and begins filling in the gaps on an array of spreadsheets.

It is an arduous task. Even for someone whose curriculum vitae details research into physiological profiling and, perhaps most confusingly, pulmonary oxygen uptake and its associated kinetics.

Their work could eventually bring benefits back to Bramall Lane

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But because the data is so important, because it could shape Sheffield United's future for many years to come, Dr Wells has made sending the email part of his daily routine. Its destination is North America, Cambridge, Massachusetts to be precise, where experts from Harvard then begin crunching the numbers and disseminating the information before sending back their findings.

"It's a long-term project," he acknowledges. "And we're at the very beginning now. It's all about building predictive models, trying to keep up with the rest and more importantly get ahead. We also have SKYPE, telephone calls and some good in-depth conversations with the people over there."

Dr Wells, head of elite performance at United's Steelphalt Academy, is the most visible face of this collaboration between the Championship club and academics at the one of the world's most prestigious universities. It is a pioneering, potentially game-changing project for folk at Bramall Lane. And intriguingly, unlike many Premier League teams who have paid for the privilege, the access they enjoy to some of the sharpest brains on the planet is being provided for free after Tareq Hawasli, a former United director and Harvard Business School student, made the necessary introductions.

"We're still at the embryonic stage but, because we're doing this on a daily basis, by Christmas there should be a real bank of data there," Dr Wells says. "And the more there is, the more insight they (Harvard) are going to be able to have.

Sheffield United are working closely with the academics from the United States of America: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

"There's records of the physical output and also tactical analysis on things like crosses and entries into the final third. What we want to do is get a big enough set of data to be able to say if we do 'this' physically, then it leads to 'that'. We should be at that stage within the next few months."

Football's obsession with statistics is becoming increasingly appararent, even to those with only a passing interest in the game. GPS signalling devices and heart rate monitors are now as much a part of a player's appareil as shirts, shorts and shinpads. Many are required to record their calorific intake on bespoke smartphone apps. The strange thing is, with a few notable exceptions, most of the figures 

collected seemingly go to waste; saved without thought on memory sticks and hard drives where, as time passes, they become out of date and redundant. It is a bizarre situation United, with Harvard's help, aim to remedy.

"This type of work is becoming increasingly important," Dr Wells explains. "Recruitment, as we've seen at places like Wolverhampton Wanderers and Fulham, can be heavily influenced by artificial 

Chris Wilder, the manager of Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

intelligence. If its used correctly, it can bring real benefits. There's value there."

"Every single training session, measurements are taken on how far players run, the intensity of their sprints, their decelerations, a whole host of information is being gathered right now," he adds. "We're putting it all down on the spreadsheets and that, in turn, increases the bank of knowledge and information at our disposal.

"What, for example, would be our ideal week in terms of getting ready for a specific match or helping the players develop in general. 

"How do we best structure certain weeks? Are the certain hypotheses we want answering? When the data increases, they can possibly help us with that too."

Former President Barack Obama attended Harvard.

Of course, football is still about human beings and the judgements they make. Managers and coaches can still read a game better than a laptop. Logarithms will never capture the imagination, or seduce its followers, in the same irresistible fashion as a wonderful piece of skill. But, as Dr Wells explains, the point of United's exercise with Harvard is to help those in positions of influence make better-informed decisions. Provide them with the security of knowing their instructions are based on something more than just a hunch.

Arsenal were so impressed by the work of StatDNA, a US-based data analytics firm, that four years ago they bought the entire company.

"One of the things they are looking at is the transition of players from the under-18's to the under-23's and then onto the first team," Dr Wells says. "Have they got the physical capacity, for example, to step-up? It's not a perfect science but the premise is there.

"It could give us a head start in terms of helping to prevent injury. It could also allow us to tailor the physical output of the players to specific opposition. Prepare in the most effective way possible to try and maximise our chances of success."

 Initially, the focus is on improving results, both in a sporting and development sense, within a youth programme widely recognised as being the region's finest. But if the partnership proves a success, as those involved suspect it will, Carl Shieber, United's head of football administration, believes other departments could eventually benefit from Harvard's insight.

"The people there have spoken about the commercial side of things too," he says. "Predicting season ticket sales, analysing the patterns and how to keep improving them, could be another aspect. First, though, we want to nail down what we're doing at the moment properly."

Sheffield United are known for blending tradition with pioneering thinking

"It shows we're not a narrow-minded club," Shieber adds. "We're actually trying to be better, smarter and more effective at what we do. It can be good for everyone as a whole."

United already work closely with their two local universities but the agreement with Harvard is an exciting development. Visitors from the institution attended a recent event at the English Institute of Sport as guests of the club.

"We've got good relationships with Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam and also the EIS already," Shieber confirms. "This is another string to that bow. To begin with, we had a few conversations and you thought 'this sounds interesting' before becoming more excited as you discovered more about what might be possible because, on the most basic level, having access to even more great minds should lead to natural gains for us."

It will be fascinating to observe, as the idea is rolled-out, how others within United exploit the insight of Harvard's researchers.

"Here, it's all about player development," says Dr Wells. "We want to optimise our performances in that area and also the games themselves. If you can give yourself even the smallest of advances, that can make a big, big difference."


Sheffield United and the Harvard Laboratory for Innovation Science are collaborating to explore how the application of data analytics can improve performance both on and off the pitch, a leading figure at the renowned American institution has confirmed. 

Karim Lakhani, Professor of Business Adminstration and Primary Investigator at Harvard's Laboratory for Innovation Science (LISH), revealed its researchers expect their work with the Championship club to shed new light on areas such as strength and conditioning, talent identification and patterns of play.

"To work with an organisation like Sheffield United Football Club is a great opportunity for our researchers," Prof. Lakhani said. "The study of competitions is a cornerstone of the lab's research, specifically investigating motivations, effort and optimal design to create extreme value.

"Nothing gets more competitive than football at the professional level and Sheffield United has given us access to a truly robust dataset that should provide some ground-breaking insights."

LISH began working with United at the beginning of the season. The partnership, which is scheduled to continue throughout the present campaign, could be extended if it proves beneficial to all parties concerned. A delegation from LISH, including its programme director, visited Sheffield last month.

Former United director Tareq Hawasli, who is studying at Harvard Business School, said: "This collaboration is designed to deliver our long-term vision for the club and will better position us to respond to and take advantage of changes in the professional football landscape in the UK. I look forward to seeing the club become a world-leader in football innovation."


What is the Harvard Laboratory for Innovation Science?

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, LISH has worked with NASA and other federal government agencies since being founded in 2010. It describes its mission as "Spurring the development of a science of innovation through a systematic program of solving real-world innovation challenges, while simultaneously conducting rigorous scientific research and analysis." This focuses on three main fields: Incentives and governance, creativity and problem solving and organisation and processes.

Founder and co-director Professor Karim Lakhani is known for "his pioneering scholarship on how communities and contests can be designed and managed to achieve innovative outcomes" according to LISH's website.


Sheffield United:

1889: Sir Charles Clegg establishes the football club at the Adelphi Hotel, Sheffield.

1890: United wear red and white striped jerseys for the first time.

1898: Are crowned champions of England, finishing five points ahead of Sunderland.

1899: United win the first of four FA Cups, beating Derby County in the final at Crystal Palace.

1925: Fred Tunstall scores the only goal of the game as United beat Cardiff in their first final at Wembley.

1931: Jimmy Dunne claims a club record 41 goals in the old Division One.

1953: United are crowned champions of the Second Division.

1982: Gain promotion from Division Four.

2017: Under Chris Wilder's management, become only the fourth club to win titles in all four divisions.

2018: Enter the international break on top of the Championship.


Harvard University:

1607: The college's future namesake, John Harvard, is baptised at Southwark Cathedral, London.

1635: Harvard graduates from Cambridge University, England.

1636: The first college in the American colonies, later called Harvard, is founded in Massachusetts Bay.

1638: Harvard bequests his library and half his estate to the college, which is duly renamed.

1642: The first nine students graduate from Harvard.

1755: John Adams, the second President of the United States, graduates from Harvard.

1776: Eight Harvard alumni, including Adams, sign the Declaration of Independence.

1875: The first Harvard versus Yale football game is staged.

1940: John F. Kennedy graduates from the university.

2009: Barack Obama becomes the eighth Harvard graduate to serve as US President.

Harvard University's insights have been utilised by a number of agencies across the world
They have worked closely with NASA