Alex Greenwood signed a new three-year contract with Manchester City last month. And from the outside looking in, it all seemed conventional.
What was special about that particular deal, however — at least in women’s football — was Greenwood’s decision to commission a data report and present it to the club.
Greenwood’s previous contract was due to expire this summer, and the 2022 European Championship-winning defender was attracting interest from some top clubs on the continent. She wanted to stay at City, but the Liverpudlian also wanted a contract that she felt reflected her talents.
So the 29-year-old England international, who enjoys analyzing performance metrics, became proactive in turning to the stats. Along with her agency, Rept Sports, Greenwood used performance data (on the field) and market data (off the field) to demonstrate both her value and the overall growth of women’s football.
To get their message across, Greenwood and Rept Sports commissioned Analytics FC — a football data company.
Analytics FC has worked with men’s Premier League, A league and Belgian Pro League clubs, as well as the women’s teams at Bayern Munich, fellow Germans Wolfsburg and West Ham United. For Greenwood, it produced a data report for Greenwood — a service previously used by Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Barcelona’s ex-Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin.
Such individual data reports are becoming more common in men’s football but in the women’s game, it’s almost unheard-of for a player and their representatives to use a third party to prove their worth. It costs money but the women’s game needs this sort of professionalisation if it is to progress.
“We traveled up to Manchester to present our signature service in person to Alex,” Analytics FC chief executive and co-founder Jeremy Steele tells The Athletic.
“We attended a WSL (Women’s Super League) match in late January 2022 against Arsenal — Alex was named player of the match. The next day, we talked through our approach and really got to know Alex’s thoughts on her career and sporting objectives. ”
The report wasn’t produced just to show Greenwood’s footballing and business value to City; it also considered what she could provide to other top European clubs in the event she did move on.
Financial information and players’ salary data from other WSL clubs were used to compare Greenwood with her peers. Questions addressed included the impact of her absence on team performance and how much it would cost City to replace her in terms of transfer fees, salaries and bonuses.
The report, delivered to Greenwood in March last year and a summary of which The Athletic has exclusively seen, was based on Greenwood’s statistics for the 2019-20 and 2020-2021 seasons. It showed she rated first at that time among both WSL and England-eligible centre-backs.
It read: “Greenwood’s Goal Difference Added (GDA) contribution as a centre-back was unrivaled in the WSL.”
GDA, which is one of Analytics FC’s bespoke metrics, evaluates every action in a match and calculates the total contribution of a player per game towards the goal difference of their team, based on the positive or negative impacts of each individual action.
A contribution value per 90 minutes is a way to compare players’ net worth to a team offensively and defensively.
Greenwood’s biggest strengths were shown as her build-up play, progressive passing, line-breaking passes and ability to carry the ball upfield.
The report also found that without Greenwood on the pitch, using the data for the 2020-21 season as an example, the probability of City finishing in the top two and qualifying for the Champions League — at that time, only two WSL teams got into Europe — would have fallen by around five percent.
When comparing that level of output alongside other players’ salaries, some of Europe’s top defenders were paid more than Greenwood even though they contributed far less, according to Analytics FC’s metrics.
Another aspect of the report was to compare Greenwood’s contribution to the contribution of the best men’s centre-backs in the top five European leagues. “Her impact of her was unmatched even against her male peers,” the report stated.
For example, it said Greenwood contributed greater than +0.1 GDA per game more than Virgil van Dijk did for Liverpool across the same two seasons. Across a full WSL campaign, the report read, Greenwood’s contribution in terms of goal difference would be better than Van Dijk’s by +2 goals. That is a significant distinction between two elite-level international players.
Of course, there are caveats.
One could argue there is more scope to have a bigger impact in the WSL as there are more opportunities to dominate against weaker opponents than in the Premier League but it shows Greenwood’s importance to City.
“Adding the context and comparison of the men’s game, where salary structures and distributions have had more time to settle and mature — and the financial data is more robust — allowed us to assess the relative difference between the influence of an elite centre- back like Van Dijk at Liverpool versus that of a forward such as (his team-mate) Mohamed Salahand assess the salary differences between them,” explains Steele.
“Figuring out the relative value of the most elite centre-backs in the men’s game in comparison to top forwards was important to aid the benchmark process in the women’s game.”
At City — whose mantra is “Same City, Same Passion” — the style of play is the same across the men’s, women’s and academy teams.
The report also compared Greenwood’s profile to their men’s team to assess her relative value and stylistic fit.
The data showed that Aymeric Laporte‘s contribution in the 2019-20 season is the closest statistical match to Greenwood across the whole City Football Group stable of clubs around the world. Her profile also aligns with Laporte’s fellow central defenders John Stones and Ruben Diaz at Pep Guardiola’s back-to-back Premier League champions.
“It’s almost a perfect match,” Steele says. “She’s the women’s version of them.”
People are starting to appreciate the significance of defenders in the build-up play when their teams mount an attack and not just focus on the headline names who score or assist. Given the developing salary structure in the women’s game, such comparisons help highlight how Greenwood should be viewed, given her performance levels.
Market data was also a consideration.
Women’s football has enjoyed steady growth in clubs’ turnover, which is important as there is a soft salary cap imposed on WSL clubs by the Football Association, whereby they can only spend up to 40 percent of their turnover on wages. The report found that salaries in women’s football are growing by between five and 10 per cent yearly on average.
Factors such as the changes in revenue streams for women’s football, increased funding from the FA, the 2021 commercial broadcast deal and the same year’s WSL sponsorship deal with Barclays, plus analysis of the growth of the women’s game, were all used to provide insight into the knock-on growth of player remuneration.
Analytics FC’s data also provided guidance on contract length and yearly conditions, as well as ensuring the contract would remain competitive in a fast-growing market.
Footballers using data to illustrate their value in an attempt to influence contract negotiations with their club is a newer aspect of the women’s game.
We will no doubt see its savviest players doing it in the future.
(Top photo: Bryn Lennon via Getty Images)
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