The University of Southampton

AI insight identifies England U21s prospect as top Southampton FC transfer target

Published: 19 January 2021
Manchester United’s Brandon Williams would ideally fit Saints’ playing style and team chemistry. Image credit: AI Abacus.

Machine learning algorithms developed by computer scientists from the University of Southampton have pinpointed a transfer target that would most suit Southampton FC in the January transfer window.

The AI insight tips that England Under-21s’ Brandon Williams would be an excellent fit for the Saints and offer a long-term replacement to 31-year-old left-back Ryan Bertrand.

The analysis suggests that Williams’ playing style and chemistry with his prospective teammates are ideally suited to the Southampton FC, with the club being much better for his development than other reported loan options such as Newcastle United FC.

Brandon Williams has moved down the pecking order at Manchester United this season, however it remains to be seen if the club will be willing to let the English prospect leave on loan.

Southampton FC have also been linked with Manchester City's Oleksandr Zinchenko, but the AI scout warns the left-back would not be as good a fit and may require higher wages and fees due to his age.

Sentient Sports, a new company launched by postgraduate researcher Ryan Beal, has devised a set of algorithms based on cutting-edge AI research that can optimise the decision-making and scouting process when buying and selling players. These are being utilised by AI Abacus, another leading start-up founded by Ramm Mylvaganam who is a business leader in football analytics.

They are already winning business from major football teams across Europe. They use AI to analyse the player’s chemistry (how he fits in with the new teammates) and style fit (how he fits the new teams tactics) to provide decision making support to top teams.

Ryan’s research in the Agents, Interaction and Complexity (AIC) Group is focussing on artificial intelligence in team sports. His new business venture continues his close collaboration with Gopal Ramchurn, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Director of the Centre for Machine Intelligence, and former Southampton PhD student Tim Matthews.

"Professional team sport is a game of winners and losers and globally the stakes have never been higher," Ryan says. "Football, like other sports, has huge amounts of data associated with it, and some of this is already used by clubs to analyse the performance of their players. We are using our world-leading expertise to get more value out of that data and turn these insights into match-winning insights."

The Southampton experts are offering a teamwork algorithm that looks at how pairs and groups of players work together on the pitch to assess ‘player chemistry’; an algorithm that predicts the number of goals/assists a player will achieve; another that evaluates the suitability of a player in the style of play of a new team; and a final algorithm that looks at the cost benefit of players.

These algorithms are then used to predict how a player would perform if they were to play for a specified team.

"One of the key things our chemistry model shows for Saints is that the signing of Kyle Walker-Peters has been key this season,” Ryan says. “He has been shown to link up effectively with a number of the attacking players in the team and help boost the team overall."

Ryan is lifelong Southampton FC fan and is delighted with the club’s strong first half of the season which has placed the club in contention for European qualification. The club’s recent transfer dealings have all fitted well with Sentient Sports’ modelling.

"When Theo Walcott arrived on loan in the summer we looked at all the best options for him in the Premier League and Saints came out on top," Ryan explains. "We also identified Mohammed Salisu as one of the top young centre backs in Europe last season before he signed for Saints. So, I'm holding out hope that when he gets fit, he will be a very good long-term signing."

Read more about Sentient Sports in the latest edition of Re:action, the University's research and enterprise magazine. AI Abacus's work has been featured by the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail.

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