Emirates stadium

Programmed to win

When the World Cup kicks off at Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium on 11 June, the 32 sides will be the best prepared in history, backed by an array of IT, science and technology.

Back in the 1960s, the Egg Marketing Board were promoting with the slogan 'Go to work on an egg'. The glorious England 1966 World Cup-winning side certainly took that to heart with their staple diet of poached eggs for breakfast and steak for lunch.

But in the 36 years since England last lifted a major trophy, football is a game that has changed beyond recognition. Modern players will feast on a variety of bars, gels and isotonic drinks as they prepare for this year's World Cup in South Africa, under the watchful eyes of team nutritionists and doctors.

It is not just the eating habits that have changed. Preparation for 21st century football matches includes a dazzling array of technological aids that would, at first glance, appear to have more in common with a stock market analyst than a traditional football coach. Terabits of data are collected by GPS systems; camera tracking and medical monitoring allow coaches to dissect every part of a player's performance and fitness.

According to one premiership manager,'football has been taken over by geeks and data analysts', and it is hard to argue with him. Buzz words such as 'outcomes' and 'success potential' can be heard reverberating around the corridors and training rooms at football clubs around the world.

The most advanced system available to teams is Prozone 3. This system uses eight high-definition IP cameras installed around the football stadium, giving various camera angles. These cameras can recognise individual players and record their actions every tenth of a second as they perform more than 2,500 pre-designated actions. The information is delivered in user-friendly video clips and data screens, multi-layered graphics and 2D animations. The detail is so complete that a manager can track every single run, pass, tackle and shot over the entire 90 minutes. There is no hiding place.

When you watch Prozone playback in action on a myriad of screens, the first thought is simply how cool it is. It is akin to a high-tech version of the popular 'Championship Manager' computer game - with regular match footage running on one screen while others overlay details and plots.

Using the animations generated by the system, the analysts can tell a manager pretty much anything: from tracking a player's runs and ability to shake off tight marking, to the number of passes made, distance and effectiveness.

However, the cool animations are not what allows Prozone to supply a cutting edge to teams. By careful study of the data, a team's strength and fitness coaches can decide if a player has recovered from an injury, susceptible to an injury or is even hiding an injury.

In addition to the Prozone 3 software, the company also supply Matchviewer, which uses TV footage to deliver technical scouting on opposition teams and players and trends, which analyses multiple games to spot trends and developments. This year has also seen the launch of Recruiter, a system that will allow managers to scout players using statistical data accrued by Prozone systems worldwide.

The first appearance of Prozone in top flight football came at Manchester United in early 1999 when Steve McLaren was appointed head coach to replace Brian Kidd. 'Steve McLaren got the job and convinced Sir Alex [Ferguson] it was something they should have,' Barry McNeill, Prozone managing director, said. 'Because of United's success, word got around the industry. Prozone doesn't make you win matches, but it helps.'

'Lots of people think they know about Prozone. They say things like, 'it tells you how far players run, right?' That's actually the last thing it is. Top managers today won't even look at things like distance covered. He's much more likely to ask 'what did the left-back do when we were in possession of the ball in our defensive middle and final thirds?'. They want to know what he did while he had the ball, how many sprints did he make, what shape were those sprints and what was the average distance? And finer details, like were these sprints leading or explosive ones? Which are very different things.

'I even remember one time when we found out that a player had been hiding an injury from the club. He'd kept it quiet as he wanted to keep playing as all players do. To the naked eye, you couldn't tell that there was an issue as he was being carried by nine other outfield players.

Analysis in action

Mark Boddy is one of the lesser-known members of Sunderland's backroom team - but he's charged with helping keep the Premiership club one step ahead of the rest. The infinitely customisable nature of the data means Boddy is often inundated with requests from the coaching staff.

'After I've fed the data provided by the system following a game, I will produce a report for each member of Steve's coaching team, plus one for the manager himself,' he says. 'That will give them the info they need to know about the game. Then they will sometimes come to me and ask for specifics. I have to carefully select what I give to them because a full report of all the stats would run into hundreds of pages.'

Away from match days, Boddy lays on analysis sessions for the players with fellow coach Eric Black guiding those involved in the game through key incidents and highlighting important stats combined with the video evidence. 'Eric is a technical coach and we often use the facilities in the Academy to put sessions on for the players where we use Prozone to review games, show them positive clips and say what worked and how we can improve.

'If the coaches want to watch a game, the footage is customised to cut out all the time the ball is out of play. That's very efficient, as a game can now be viewed from start to finish in around 50 minutes.

'It's non-stop. In the run-up to a game I will be working on preparing for that, then after the game's finished it's all about getting the analysis done and presented before moving on to the next one. Then there are tasks like looking at upcoming opposition or dealing with any other games which we want to take a look at using the system.

'More clubs are involved now than when I started out. It's a lot more intense - things used to be very basic but it's constantly improving and you'll find managers talking about it in the press.'

The role of performance analyst has grown in importance over the past decade and now analysts form a vital part of a coaching team along with strength and fitness coaches and nutritionists. 'A full-time job as a performance analyst didn't exist in football 10 years ago,' Simon Wilson, head of Performance Analysis at Manchester City FC says. 'In the last few years, there has been a real maturing of the industry as coaches, managers and club executives have begun to recognise the value of accurate performance analysis. 'I head up the Performance Analysis Department - we have six full-time analysts working across all our teams. It's always been my goal to provide breadth and depth of support to the club at all levels.

'We split our analysis into four key areas - post-match, pre-match, recruitment and player development. We have one analyst who owns each area and focuses on that. As a group, we know that 50 per cent of work is analysis and 50 per cent is the delivery of the insights we provide. We must have detail in our analysis and energy in our delivery.

'We support our coaches by giving them accurate information that they can base their work around, and we're lucky enough to work with people across the club with the intelligence and imagination to build sessions that use the information to meet the needs of the team.

'I think we'll see a movement towards a more 'player centred' approach that profiles the exact needs of the player and the interventions needed for their development. When you consider that most clubs spend upwards of 75 per cent of their turnover on their players, I think there will be an increased need for effective due diligence through analysis during the recruitment process.'

Real-time data

At present, Prozone is restricted to post-match analysis as Fifa regulations prohibit players from wearing any sort of transmitter or sensor during games. As the reliance on technology within football continues, there is an increased need among both broadcasters and clubs for 'real-time' access to on-field performance data, such as physical information derived from player tracking.

To work within the rules, non-invasive tracking technologies where the tracking is done remotely are needed. One solution would be radar tracking, a technology that Prozone is actively looking into. Radar tracking is a non-invasive technology that could potentially be used to determine player position in real time. Put simply, a radar system employs a transmitter and receiver. The former transmits radio waves, which are reflected off an object - such as a player - and detected by the receiver.

Player ID would remain a manual process, but could be monitored while a game is underway. In principle, the tracking data could be outputted via software application and made available in less than 10 seconds.

Key benefits of using radar tracking over other real-time systems include improved accuracy of positional measurement, a significant level of tracking automation and a true real-time physical performance tracking solution.

Training solutions

When it comes to training, there are a variety of options available, primarily because players are allowed to wear monitors and instrumentation. The Activio Sport System is a telemetry heart rate system that enables coaches to collect and analyse heart rate data for the entire squad over a distance of 250m. The players wear a transmitter chest belt, and digitally coded signal ensures transmission to a portable receiver, which takes its power from a laptop.

The heart rate data is transmitted every second and displayed on the laptop both numerically and graphically. Up to six players's heart curves can be viewed at any one time, giving coaches real-time access to ensure that players are training at the correct intensity.

Another innovation for the training ground are GPS monitoring systems, a popular one is the catapult MinimaxX. Players wear a chest belt and, through a series of sensors and a GPS transmitter, important parameters can be monitored up to 100 times a second.

Standard GPS devices record position once per second (1Hz), giving only an approximation of athlete's location, but the modern systems sample this information ten times a second (10Hz). Coupled with the information from sensors - accelerometers to measure linear motion, impact forces, jump height, airtime and acceleration; gyroscopes to measure angular motion and rotation; and magnetometers to measure direction and orientation - coaches can analyse every element of performance.

Nutrition

As far as food goes, those days of steak and eggs are long gone. Player's intakes are carefully controlled to maximise performance, avoid injury and assist recovery.

Most people are familiar with isotonic drinks that are designed to quickly replace the fluids lost by sweating and provide a carbohydrate boost. But things have moved on and top sportsmen use isotonic gels that go straight into the bloodstream via the stomach lining and give a vital 20 minute boost.

Another popular product is caffeine gel, which provides both a mental and physical stimulus. It also contains an anthocyanin, which is a potent antioxidant. Together, these functional ingredients will improve blood flow, protect against oxidative stress, improve alertness and reduce cramp and muscle strain.

'Towards the end of a match is when mistakes are made, goals are scored and injuries occur because fatigue sets in and that is partly related to energy levels,' Mark Blowers, marketing manager at Science in Sport explains. 'If players can take a gel, it will support them mentally and physically.'

In addition, there are drinks that contain electrolytes and PSPs, as well as recovery drinks. The drink contains high levels of Tryptophan proteins, an amino acid used by the body to make the sleep hormone melatonin, slow-release proteins that repair muscle tissue throughout the night. Key to this is the production of haemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood and aids the absorption of vitamins and minerals. It also helps with a common sporting ailment, restless legs, associated with magnesium depletion.

All a far cry from the days when Geoff Hurst famously scored his hat-trick at Wembley to beat Germany in the 1966 World Cup final. But only time will tell if the mix of technology and science can end 36 years of hurt for England supporters and emulate the success of the Hurst's eggs-and-steak.

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