English Premier League soccer club Manchester City are well-known for spending big in their pursuit of trophies. Yet this winter’s key signing is not a new striker or a commanding defender, it’s a hedge fund veteran with a doctorate in astrophysics.
Laurie Shaw’s résumé is straight from high-brow science and finance. He studied such things as dark matter halos and galaxy clusters at Cambridge and Yale universities before moving to data science at Harvard via London-based algorithmic investment firm Winton Capital Management and the UK Treasury. Then soccer came calling.
While the marriage of sport and data in the pursuit of marginal gains is hardly new, Shaw’s move appears be the latest escalation in the battle among top teams for an edge in the world’s most lucrative competitions. It’s all the more striking because Manchester City is expected to close out the month-long transfer window for trading players on February 1 without making any significant on-field additions.
The 39-year-old Manchester native will lead AI Insights at parent company City Football Group. He will focus on building machine-based models to better manage player fatigue, injury and illness. His will also work on player identification, recruitment and individual development, pre and post-match analysis and recruitment of coaches.
“More so than ever, the plan for the team off the pitch is arguably more critical to success than any other element, said Trevor Watkins, global head of sport at Pinsent Masons, a law firm that recently advised on US investment company ALK Capital’s acquisition of Premier League team Burnley.
Shaw will work with the Manchester City group’s 11 clubs in five continents stretching from New York to Melbourne. He joins an expanding team that already includes a performance physicist.
Last season, City lost out to rival Liverpool in the race for the Premier League championship after winning it four times since the takeover of the club by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Al Nahyan, in 2008.
Liverpool has also pushed heavily into data science, a strategy seen as contributing to its first league title in 30 years. Bookmakers currently make Manchester City favorite to prevail this season.
Data-driven player investment has led to an “arms race for PhD statistics and physics talent, said Paul Conway, director of Pacific Media Group. The company owns second-tier English club Barnsley, where Billy Beane, the data science guru who inspired the book and film “Moneyball, is a director.
“We fully expect in the next few seasons—like it’s embraced in baseball—that these PhDs will also be on the pitch, in uniform and computer in hand, advising coaches on real-time match decisions, said Conway.
Manchester City, which typically unveils new signings with a slick media campaign, played down Shaw’s arrival. The club declined a request for an interview and didn’t comment on the details of Shaw’s role.
That’s not to say there’s no soccer pedigree, albeit from behind a computer screen. Shaw has been running a blog, called EightyFivePoints, dedicated to “two things I spend a substantial amount of my time doing: analyzing data and following football. He gets editing help from his brother—a Liverpool fan.
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