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  • Writer's pictureGODVERSITY

How Christian Faith And Data Analytics Are Guiding Nathan Jones And The Premier League


** Nathan Jones - Credit MATT WATSON/SOUTHAMPTON FC VIA GETTY IMAGES



There's a tattoo of Jesus on Nathan Jones's shoulder. Across his back is inked an angel, a cross, part of the Sistine Chapel. Religious imagery is scrawled everywhere over the Southampton manager's body.


Galatians 6:17 is the reasoning behind it: "From now on, let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body the marks of Jesus."

Jones is a proud Christian and has used his faith to guide him every step of his career. It's one of life's quirky coincidences that he has found his first Premier League managerial job at a club nicknamed The Saints.


But much faith is required now, in possibly his most challenging moment: in the fierce spotlight of top-flight football for the first time, desperately trying to steer the South Coast club clear of a first relegation in a decade.


Faith in his own methods. Faith from the owners to stick with him. Faith from the fans, some of whom were unimpressed by his appointment and are already fast losing it.


Like all statistics, there are different ways of looking at Jones's first seven games in charge since his appointment in November. Three wins, four defeats. Two victories have come against Crystal Palace and Manchester City, although both were in cups. The third was against League One struggler's Lincoln. All four defeats have been in the league, leaving a club that was 19th when Jones took over the bottom of the table.


Saturday's match away against Everton pits two Premier League regulars against one another in what has already become a crucial survival match. Three points can mean an awful lot come to the end of the season.


How has it come to this for ¬Southampton? There's a certain irony to a club entrusting its future to cold, hard numbers and statistics, to complicated databases and organized spreadsheets, punching their metrics into an algorithm that threw up Jones – who has spent his whole life trusting in divine faith – as statistically the most likely manager to glean the most value from their squad.


The start of the year ushered in the one-year anniversary of Sport Republic buying Southampton with the backing of Serbian billionaire Dragan Solak. It's long been a club bursting with potential, but one passed among owners unable to realize it fully in recent years.


The approach of Sport Republic, co-founded by Rasmus Ankersen, formerly a sporting director at Brentford – who themselves beat the odds to reach the Premier League – is driven by data and innovation. Ankersen, 39, is something of a statistical guru in football and is now Southampton's director of football.


The London-based firm is tech-focused and has investments in several football-related ventures, including Tonsser, a player app with a huge following around the world, and Sport Buff, engaging younger sports fans with real-time gamification of sports (your guess is as good as mine).


At Southampton, they are targeting younger, hungrier players. They have not already established pros taking a sideways or downward step who often don't end up representing value for money. It was noticeable last summer when six of their 10 signings were aged under 21.


Incidentally, this is also the new ethos of Everton since owner Farhad Moshiri ordered a complete strategic review of the club a year ago and brought in highly-rated Kevin ¬Thelwell as director of football to target young and hungry players.


"[Sport Republic] are very much focused on data and have said they'd like to do a little bit more in this area within the football side of things," Saints' managing director Toby Steele told Off The Pitch in September.

"There haven't been wholesale changes, just a few minor tweaks, particularly around the summer transfer window. Data was heavily involved in how we assessed players, but we just slightly tweaked some of the outputs around the data we're already collecting. "We're not starting from a low point – we've already got a very mature process – so it's about changing a little bit of what we do rather than necessarily revolution."


The club enjoyed regular sixth to eighth-place finishes before Jao Jisheng took the club over in 2017 since they have more regularly worried about relegation than dreamt of playing in Europe.


But while data and innovation will run through the club's core, much will remain the same under the new ownership. Southampton will still ostensibly be a selling club – an approach that many thought would have had them relegated by now but has, so far, worked.


Much of the transfer revenue previously came from unearthing enormous talent from the fertile soil of their academy pitches: Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gareth Bale, Luke Shaw, and Adam Lallana.


It remains a focus, and though the latest crops have not been so rich, it's thought that it is simply the way it sometimes goes, as opposed to a drop in the academy's quality.


Their ability to identify, buy and develop slightly older players for significant profits had also been vital to their financial success. Sadio Mané joined from RB Salzburg for £11.8m in 2014 and left for Liverpool two years later at a profit of almost £20m. Virgil van Dijk signed for £11.5m from Celtic in 2015 and left, again for Liverpool, at a profit of more than £60m in 2018.


In footballing terms, what they have achieved back in the Premier League has bordered on the miraculous. In the next five months, we will see if the manager trusting in Jesus on his shoulder can prove the science right and beat the drop.



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