As football’s European Championship opens in France this June, we look at the ways in which teams all over the continent are using technology to help them beat the opposition.
Towards the end of this year’s English football season, Southampton football manager Ronald Koeman announced that he had arranged for his players to have weekly lessons in communication and social interaction. The former Netherlands and Barcelona star claimed that modern players spend too much time on their iPhones and social media, wearing headphones. He believes this hinders their on-field communication and encourages players to think more about themselves and less about interacting with teammates.
Footballers need to be excellent communicators both on the pitch - where players work together to deal with situations defensively and create opportunities offensively - and also in the changing room and on the team bus. One look at how Leicester City stunned the world by winning the Premier League this year and how Atletico Madrid reached the Champions League - both against wealthier and allegedly more talented opponents - shows the value of camaraderie and team spirit.
It’s the European Championship this June and July, but as the four weeks of competition between Europe’s best national teams will no doubt show, it’s not just the quantity of communication that counts, it’s the quality.
To be effective and purposeful communicators, footballers need sound information that supports them in making the sort of decisions that will outwit opponents and contribute to the team plan. This is where technology can actually help the communication process.
World Cup holders Germany are one of the pre-tournament favourites, along with Spain and host nation France.
Germany won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after several near misses at previous tournaments. They lost in the semi-final and the final of the last two European Championships and in the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup.
Two of those defeats came against Spain, who went on to win all three tournaments. Spain played a new brand of football, dubbed ‘tiki taka’, where quick-footed players wore teams down with short passes and off-the-ball movement. When an opponent finally got the ball, Spanish players would seek to win it back as quickly as possible with frenetic pressing.
In 2010, German players took on average 3.4 seconds to release the ball - plenty of time for opponents to ready their defences. The traditional German offensive strategy, where midfield maestros like Michael Ballack, Stefan Effenberg and Lothar Matthaus supplied clinical strikers, was no use against Spain. Not enough time with or on the ball.
Analytics in training
German coach Joachim Low realised that his team needed to pass the ball more quickly. To help them do this, Deutscher Fussball Bund, the sport’s governing body in Germany, turned to technology company SAP.
Try telling a top international footballer that he’s holding on to the ball for too long though, and even the most respected manager could easily get an indignant shrug or a resentful glare. Show the player the precise number of seconds he has the ball before passing to a teammate, however, and even the proudest prima donna can’t argue.
The SAP Insights performance analysis app enabled Germany’s coaching staff to analyse thousands of pieces of real-time data of their players’ performance during training.
Eight cameras surrounded the training pitch and the software tracked players’ movements. The coaches collected the information on players’ strengths and weaknesses, their skills, tactical behaviour and effort.
The system gathers data that helps coaching staff measure key performance indicators such as the number of touches, average possession time, distance travelled, movement speeds and directional changes.
“A coach can analyse sequences of movement for a particular player, collect the data and provide qualitative results, on which decisions can be taken,” says SAP executive board member Bernd Leukert.
SAP’s Sports One solution is powered by its HANA (high-performance analytical appliance) platform. This is a relational database management system designed to simultaneously handle high transaction rates and complex query processing.
“In just 10 minutes, 10 players with three balls can produce over seven million data points,” says Germany national team manager and former star striker, Oliver Bierhoff. “The SAP HANA platform processes this data in real time, enabling our coaches to customise training and prepare for the next game.”
Bierhoff adds that at the World Cup, the Germans put up a big screen in the players’ lounge at their training camp, with all the data on it. “You can place all this data on a cloud or a central platform and transmit this in real time to players and other users on their own devices,” Leukert adds.
In Brazil, Germany got their average ball retention time down to 1.1 seconds. No one could match them. They progressed easily through the group stages and the early knockout stages, before thrashing the hosts 7-1 in the semi, combining quick passing and movement with traditional German efficiency and directness. Germany then beat Argentina in the final to win their fourth World Cup and became the first Europeans to win the trophy outside Europe.
Virtual reality in the Netherlands
If Brazil underperformed at their own World Cup, the Netherlands punched well above their weight, particularly in their first game, where they thrashed the existing champions, Spain, 5-1.
Before the World Cup, the Dutch team had been using a virtual reality (VR) training program that helped their players make better and quicker decisions in accordance with the team’s plan and the coach’s tactics.
Things move so quickly in a top-level football match that there isn’t time for players to daydream or ponder. A split-second late with your thinking - and an opportunity is lost or a potential advantage conceded.
The VR system, devised by Dutch company Beyond Sport, enables players to relive specific moments from a game through the eyes of any player on the field. This helps them see the possibilities any player had at any point of the game, but also to challenge what they could have done differently during specific important passages of play.
“In each scenario, players view a 10-second game situation through the eyes of a player,” says Beyond Sports business director, Sander Schouten. “At the end of the 10 seconds, the player has to make the correct decision as quickly as possible. Pro players aim to do this within 0.5 seconds.”
Schouten adds: “The player then receives feedback on the decision as well as a score. They can also analyse the situation from different perspectives and from an aerial shot from above, which enables them to better understand the whole picture of the game and the coach’s intentions.”
Players use a game controller to communicate their decisions quickly. The controller also enables the player to switch perspectives and navigate the menu without taking off the headset. The Beyond Sports system uses cameras around the pitch, combined with data about players’ physiques, to recreate the match situations.
Football is big business these days. Leicester City banked £92m for winning the Premier League this season. Whoever wins the Champions League can win up to €55m. Aston Villa, Norwich City and Newcastle, relegated from the Premier League this season, will lose out on next season’s £200m TV revenue.
There’s money up for grabs at the Championship this summer too. All 24 teams will receive a participating fee of €8m. During the group phase there are also performance bonuses of €1m for a win and €500,000 for a draw. Once the tournament enters its knockout phase, the teams participating in the round of 16 will receive €1.5m, the eight quarter-finalists get an additional payment of €2.5m and the semi-finalists, €4m.
The 2016 European champions will receive an additional €8m and the runners-up, €5m. This means that, if the winners of the title have also won all three of their group matches, they will earn €27m.
It’s no wonder that teams have turned to technology to give them the edge over their rivals. Much of the technology clubs and national teams use is hidden away from the prying eyes of rivals. Not all, though.
German club Borussia Dortmund has a training room to improve players’ passing skills. Balls shoot out from four parts of the room and the receiving player controls and passes to one of the many surrounding targets. Manchester City coaches use strobe sunglasses to test their players’ speed, agility and reaction. Chelsea use MiCoach, a GPS tracker, to monitor their players’ fitness and performance levels. The English FA has an anti-gravity treadmill that uses Nasa technology to customise body weight to aid rehabilitation after injury or surgery and a simulated high-altitude training environment.
Everton use drones to provide aerial video footage of training sessions. US club the Seattle Sounders are trialling a technology that will notify medics when a player is at risk of developing an injury. There’s an app created by current Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez that helps coaches get messages to players who speak different languages.
Shoot to score
During Germany’s 7-1 World Cup semi-final demolition of Brazil, the South American team actually had more shots on goal than Germany. Yet according to a group of Disney Research scientists, more chances don’t necessarily mean more goals.
The researchers gathered data about a season’s worth of shots on goal, 9,732 in all, from an anonymous professional league. The data came from the passage of play just before the shots were taken.
During a game, footballers are constantly on the move. The role they play at any given moment depends as much on the context as it does on their designated role in the team. “We needed to align the tracking data so it told us which role a player is taking up in each frame, rather than just their position,” says Patrick Lucey, who led the research team.
To work out the probability of different types of chances turning into goals, Lucey’s team used role representation software to analyse what players were doing, where and with whom. “This enabled us to capture the nuances in general play, counter-attack and work out what role a player is performing during the 10-second segment being analysed,” Lucey adds.
The researchers also clustered each play into specific match contexts. The highest percentage of goals, they discovered, came from counter attacks, then corners, open play and finally free kicks.
For Euro 2016, SAP has added analytics that will allow the German team to gain additional insights into how opponents play and on how best to take penalties.
Schouten won’t say whether the Netherlands are still using Beyond Sport’s VR system. It could be because the World Cup semi-finalists didn’t make it to the Euro finals this summer, and put in some pretty ordinary performances in their qualifying group. Things got so tense in the Dutch camp that before one game, Memphis Depay and Robin Van Persie allegedly got into a fight during training after Depay refused to pass to Van Persie.
Technology may help footballers perform at their best. Yet no amount of technological expertise can create success when too many players perform badly, or influential individuals get injured or are suddenly past their best. Nor when new managers come in and fail to inspire the team.
Perhaps the Dutch football authorities should pick up the phone to Ronald Koeman. If they can get him away from Southampton to manage the team, Koeman, part of the only Dutch team to ever win a major championship, Euro 1988, might be able to get the players speaking, rather than fighting when things don’t go to plan.