The data-driven revival of Union Saint-Gilloise in the Jupiler Pro League

Union Saint-Gilloise’s remarkable journey from the lower divisions to the top tier of Belgian football is a testament to the power of data-driven strategies. Leveraging advanced analytics under the ownership of Tony Bloom, USG has transformed their approach, leading to impressive performances and strategic advantages. Explore how data analytics facilitated this transformation and continues to shape their success in our detailed blog.

Club overview

Union Saint-Gilloise was a successful club in Belgium at the beginning of the 20th century, winning 11 championships, the first one arriving in 1904 (not many years after the club’s foundation) and the last one in 1935. After the second world war, the club didn’t repeat the same success and eventually got relegated to the 2nd division in 1973, from then on they would struggle to get back on track reaching as low as the 4th tier of Belgian football.

However, USG’s fortune turned around when the club was taken over by Tony Bloom, already owner of Brighton in 2018. After getting very close to promotion for two years, they finally made it during the 2020-21 season. After 48 years of absence from the Belgian top flight, Union Saint-Gilloise returned with a bang concluding the regular season in first place. During the playoffs, they would eventually be surpassed by Club Brugge, who would go on to clinch the title. Had USG managed to win the championship, they would have been the only newly promoted side to manage this in a top-tier league in this century.

Creating competitive advantage

Even if no trophies were won, it became apparent that USG was no fluke and how impactful Bloom’s takeover had been. Through extensive use of data, they are able to gain a competitive advantage over their competitors which finds its fullest expression in the transfer market. It is undeniable that Bloom’s team is able to uncover hidden gems in minor or lower leagues, put them in the right conditions to perform, showcase them on a bigger stage and eventually sell them on.

On top of that, this ability to uncover hidden talent also allows his clubs to run on a much thinner salary budget if compared to other clubs (Brighton have low salary spending when compared to other Premier League clubs). To put this into further context, Union Saint-Gilloise has the second lowest annual payroll in the Jupiler Pro League (estimated by Capology).

Deniz Undav, Victor Boniface and Mohammed Amoura are just a couple of examples of players (forwards in this case) brought into the spotlight by USG but there are many more and even more to come.

How is this possible? This is mainly due to Bloom’s and his team’s expertise (which goes back to Starlizard) in creating and managing cutting-edge analytics models (applied to multiple club functions). The results are clear, as the clubs become stronger and stronger as time goes on. However, due to UEFA regulations, the qualification of USG to the Europa League meant that Bloom had to step down from the ownership of USG and became a minority investor of the club in favor of Alex Muzio who increased his investment in the club. However, the club still runs in the same manner and things are looking brighter than ever for the future as suggested by their performances.

Current season

Union Saint-Gilloise ended the regular season in first place. Taking a look at the underlying numbers, it looks apparent that Club Brugge and USG have been the best teams, with Club Brugge massively underperforming their xPoints during the regular season.

However, after a convincing regular season where they finished 7 points ahead of 2nd placed Anderlecht, USG now find themselves struggling in the Championship playoffs, having lost their first 4 matches.

This means that the race for the title has become very interesting, with 3 clubs still in the race. Club Brugge have been on an impressive run of form during the playoffs, managing to tie Anderlecht at the top of the table with 46 points (The Jupiler Pro League Championship playoffs features the top 6 teams, who face each other twice after their points from the regular season have been halved).

Tactical perspectives

At the beginning of the season, Blessin was appointed as Union’s new manager. Blessin has proven himself to be particularly focused on high pressing (measurable through GPI or Gegenpressing Intensity) and disrupting the opposition’s build-up phase (BDP or Build-up Disruption Percentage).

Union Saint-Gilloise have consistently played with 3 central defenders during the last seasons, mostly with a 3-5-2 system, however slight variations have also been used. Lately these type of systems have seen a resurgence in European football with also many top tier teams proposing it (the Europa League final between Atalanta and Bayer Leverkusen will feature two teams using this system). As previously mentioned, the club from Brussels has a focus on pressing, which sees them rank among the most intense and efficient pressing teams in Belgium.

An high and active pressing system has two main implications:

  1. The positive aspect lies in the fact that gaining the ball high up the pitch leads to higher quality chances given that the opposition defence isn’t prepared. This is highlighted by Union’s 0.19 xG from Counters P90, which is the best in the JPL. On the other hand, this also means that they actively try to prevent their opponents from gaining ground, the fact that they have conceded the fewest amount of touches in their own box to their opponents suggests they succeed in doing so.
  2. The downside is that high pressing can leave some space in behind which can be exploited if the defensive line isn’t coordinated or the timing isn’t right. This has been a common trend in the recent drop of form (space was left in behind by a defender who stepped out of the line to press an opponent).

Offensive style

Union Saint-Gilloise tend to play with a 3-5-2 system in which width is provided by the wing-backs (mainly Castro-Montes and Lapoussin), while upfront Ammoura can make runs in behind thanks to his speed while Nilsson serves more as a focal point. Puertas serves a fundamental role in link-up play and chance creation leading the team and the league for Assists and Expected Assists. He also is a consistent dribbler, ranking 3rd for dribbles completed in the JPL.

While Union tend to play from the back, the team has at times a direct approach (38% of passes go forwards, only Cercle Brugge have a higher percentage), given their possession under 50% (however their Field Tilt of 56.7% is the 3rd in the league).

USG also have a very solid offensive production from set pieces, averaging 0.49 spxG P90, a tally bettered only by Cercle Brugge. An overview is given by the image below which is included in our advanced team reports.

Final remarks

In this newsletter we have given an overview of how the use of analytics in football can provide a competitive advantage. The case of Union Saint-Gilloise is particularly significant as they incorporate data and analytics in almost every process in the club. The results are also very tangible, both on the pitch, where results have even surpassed the expectations of long-term and outside the pitch where Union are becoming a more solid club thanks to their success on the transfer market. Clubs should really start to incorporate data in their decision-making processes to complement and aid their strategic decisions. In our view, clubs who fail to do so will eventually be left behind in an increasingly competitive environment. Our mission to drive and foster innovation in football analytics aims to do just that by providing tailored services such as detailed match reports, match previews, consulting services and much more.

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The Soccerment Team