"I've been at the forefront as captain and almost had to stand and apologize after the game. How do you explain it when it slips away again at the very end?" says Jeppe Grønning, the captain of Viborg FF.

Football is a passion for both players and fans, and undoubtedly connected to a plethora of emotions. The great engagement intensifies the experience, and fans are often not just spectators, but the team's twelfth man, which creates magic but also amplifies the frustrations after a defeat. For the culture bearer Jeppe Grønning, the green Viborg FF jersey has been heavier to carry at times than others. "We had four extremely tough years after the relegation in 2017, where I had to try to apologize and provide explanations to the media and fans, but there were no excuses. We simply didn't perform well enough," Jeppe remembers.

Photo: Sarah Rölli, www.roellis.ch

The frustrations and dissatisfaction create tunnel vision with focus directed directly on all the negative, and the fear that those emotions will take over and affect the performances still sits in Jeppe Grønning's body.

Football is a sport with few goals, with a lot of randomness and a lot of luck in misfortune, but with data, you have the opportunity to get and give some explanations.

- Jeppe Grønning

Jeppe Grønning reflects on the Helsingør defeat from last season, which just aroused the same feeling of frustration. He remembers how Tonni Adamsen controlled the ball in the middle of Viborg's half, put a couple of their players and sent the ball into the far corner. Shortly after, the referee blew the whistle, and Helsingør sensationally won 3-0 away, over the top team. With that result, Viborg suffered their second consecutive defeat - and the first at home in their otherwise very convincing season in the 1st division, and thus the top was again open for the pursuers.

We are back in April 2021.

"It was a game where everything went wrong," says Jeppe Grønning and continues; "with the experiences I had in my baggage, where promotion has slipped a few times before, I could be a little nervous about whether we were now going to throw it all away. After inexplicable defeats, we are often met with: 'But you don't want it enough, you don't put in enough effort or do you even live the life you should as footballers?' The disappointment was also great internally on the team, but when we used data and numbers in the evaluation, and could see a little more behind it all, it became clear that if we played the game 10 times, we would probably win eight of them. That's something that makes such an experience easier to get through, and that's why we didn't panic and could confirm to each other that we were right where we had been all season."

There are countless types of football data. Each type has its own potential, but also comes with its specific challenges. However, Jeppe Grønning is not in doubt that it can make a big difference mentally.

"Football is a sport with few goals, with a lot of randomness and a lot of luck in misfortune, but with data, you have the opportunity to get and give some explanations. It's not just me who cares if we win or lose. It affects a lot of people who support us. Those people also have an expectation of how our behavior after either a defeat or a victory should be. When you work every day to get better and constantly try to develop your game, it can be hard to be in. That means that a 1-1 game or a 1-2 defeat on the weekend will dictate the mental standpoint of the next week. Data can change that."

The fans and the media often seek a narrative to explain a bad result, and sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are wrong. It's the same when a team does well. For Jeppe Grønning, data provides an opportunity to find the right story behind the game.

Photo: Diego azubel
Photo: Sarah Rölli, www.roellis.ch


Opening your eyes to data

Mathematical models, key performance indicators (KPIs), and statistics have become a big part of professionalization in football, even though it wasn't many years ago that the idea of data being a crucial parameter for football clubs could make even the most seasoned fans choke on their hot dogs or cold beers.

Today, we cannot avoid that data has become an international competitive parameter, both in relation to the sports on the field, the traditional use within scouting, player development, and performance analysis, but also as a regulation of the mental tension level.

Jeppe found peace in being able to use data for more than just the physical development of his skills, and when a new sports director came to Viborg a few years ago, the numbers became clear proof that Viborg FF was getting better and better, and interest in data grew.

"It opened my eyes a bit.

I moved to Viborg when I was 21, now I'm 30. So I've been through both the really good experiences and the tough periods. A few years ago, a new sports director, Jesper Fredberg, came to the club. He laid out a completely new strategy and direction for where the club should go in the long term. We now follow the same strategy, even though the people in the club and on the team are replaced. It creates continuity, which is crucial, and we can constantly evaluate it based on data. Now we use data in many more ways."

Accessibility and acquisition are no problem, but for data analysis to create value, the art lies in the strategic application, explains Jeppe Grønning. The now 30-year-old cultural bearer has spent the past few years studying for a BA in Marketing and Management Communication at Aarhus University and investigating Viborg's strategic use of data analysis to learn more about how data can create value for a football club like Viborg FF. Data analysis is no longer reserved for top clubs with huge budgets.

The magic happens in the interplay between technology and people – also in football.

There are many players who still don't think data has anything to do with football. But the implementation of data has changed the mission of players and generally taught us more about our roles through the culture shaped by our actions and expectations.

- Jeppe Grønning

One of the most important experiences Jeppe took away from the task was the importance of communication. It is about translating data into answers to practitioners' questions in a simple language that they understand. Otherwise, no value is created.

"Few of the players have an interest in hard numbers, so it's necessary to communicate it on their level. The art is to constantly make it relevant for the players and make them understand why it's important for them. Clubs should make it simple and visual because that's how most people understand it," says Jeppe Grønning.

"The individuals who work with data in the clubs are also crucial. They must be able to find the right connections, and one shouldn't rely one hundred percent on data. Therefore, there must also be an understanding of how to use theory in practice," he continues.

However, the conversation with Jeppe quickly returns to the strategic use of data, and here, the Viborg captain cannot stress enough that data has created value by allowing them to evaluate whether the club is living up to its values.

"Of the available KPIs, we have selected those that fit the way we want to play. This way, we can see if we are true to what we promise each other and the world to be. If we say we want to be offensive, and it doesn't match up in reality, it's difficult to be credible. Therefore, it's essential to select the right KPIs based on the club's strategy and values," explains Jeppe Grønning. In Viborg FF's case, the use of analysis doesn't revolve around accuracy or accessibility of key figures, but rather the leaders', coaches', and players' ability and willingness to handle and receive data.

"It has to start from the top. As a leader, you must have a handle on what you want and the story you want to tell and show with your club. Then you can select the data that fits into it. We can evaluate it and follow our development. So if that knowledge is stored in the club and doesn't disappear with the coach or a single person, things add up to a higher level. That's certainly how we use data in Viborg."

Photo: Diego azubel
Photo: Sarah Rölli, www.roellis.ch

Jeppe Grønning is far from finished exploring data and its potential in the sport he loves, and he also believes that data will be an incredibly important teammate for all clubs both on and off the pitch in the future.

"There are many players who still don't think that data has anything to do with football. But the implementation of data has changed the players' task and generally taught us more about our roles through the culture that is shaped by our actions and expectations. Therefore, numbers and statistics will be crucial in the future."

Jeppe Grønning is not sure what it will look like in just a few years, but one thing is for sure: "right now, it means that I don't necessarily have to feel like a hero or a villain, depending on the outcome of the game and the instructions from the table, but can find peace in knowing that we are on the right track as long as the underlying data shows it."

Photo: Diego azubel


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