The German football team, famous for its meticulous approach to tournament planning and preparation, is using two new apps to help thoroughly prepare itself for the Euro 2016 campaign.
World champions Germany opened its Euro 2016 campaign with a comfortable 2-0 win over Ukraine. Germany out-played, out-fought and out-thought the opponents, but this German victory didn’t start when the referee blew his whistle to start the game. Nor did it begin on the training field.
The tactics that coach Joachim Low’s team used to defeat their first Euro opponents originated from data collected by team analysts using a new prototype app.
SAP Challenger Insights enables German coaches, analysts and players to analyse opponents in great detail. Designed by German company SAP, Challenger is similar to the SAP software Match Insights, which helped Die Mannschaft analyse their own game with great success at the 2014 World Cup Finals.
In 2014, Match Insights helped the Germans analyse their own performance in both training and matches by processing a vast amount of data. Analysts used video data to find and assess key situations in each match and coaches used the data to better prepare the players for the next opponent.
The Germans then designed training sessions that would reduce the amount of time their players spent in possession of the ball and increase the speed with which they released it.
The previous three international football tournaments - Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup Finals and Euro 2012 - had all been dominated by Spain, with their quick passing style. Using the new SAP software, the Germans managed to get their average ball retention time down from 3.4 seconds at the previous World Cup to 1.1 seconds. They believe this was a significant factor in their eventual victory, where they became the first European team to lift the trophy outside Europe.
The German football team, though, is not known for resting on its laurels.
Technology and tactics
So much is made these days of strategy and tactics. Fans talk about it, journalists write about it, managers and coaches are paid vast amounts of money to come up with it and then tweak or change things if their original plans are not working.
Coaches design strategy and tactics based on what their own team can do, but also on the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses. In Sunday’s game, Germany constantly tested Ukraine goalkeeper, Andriy Pyatov, with crosses towards the right-hand corner of his six-yard area.
Often, the goal keeper flapped unconvincingly at the ball. One free kick to that area, from the German right - the Ukraine’s left - ended up with Germany’s Shkodran Mustafi powering a header into the goal to give Germany the lead. Moments later, the same player bundled into the goalkeeper in the same spot, chasing another cross. Apparently, Pyatov had been less convincing taking crosses in this part of his penalty area during the warm-up game with Romania.
SAP Challenger Insights contains a database of all the teams that Germany might face at Euro 2016.
It starts with an overview of their strengths, weaknesses, how they set up and their likely formation. This information allows the German coaches to analyse the tactics opposition teams use. How the team takes its corners and free kicks. Whether it defends zonally, or prefers to mark man for man. Whether it prefers a possession or counter-attacking style. Whether goalkeepers are shaky when collecting crosses.
“The information helps the players know better what to do in certain situations against certain opponents,” says Christofer Clemens, Germany’s head scout. “We can use it on the bench or in the dressing room.”
Using the new app’s analytics and the video footage, players and coaches can make informed decisions about what to do, as Germany’s team manager Oliver Bierhoff explains: “If we are playing Slovenia or Kazakhstan and all of a sudden we find that their coach has made three changes, we can react to that.”
Bierhoff, himself a European Championship winner in 1996, where his two goals beat the Czech Republic at Wembley, adds, “I’ve already seen players dealing with these things in their rooms and in the dining room.”
Challenger Insights contains a similar analysis of individual opposition players. Italian goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, for example, is described as having good reflexes and positional play. However, he also gives opponents a chance by sometimes parrying long shots back into play, rather than tipping them away from the danger area in front of goal. The app suggests German strikers follow up their long shots when playing against Italy.
Similarly, the app describes Italian striker Simone Zaza as fast and agile, a player who likes balls to be played over the top and at corners Zaza tends to stand in front of the goalkeeper to block the keeper from moving freely.
“You’re not just analysing a position in the game or a set-piece [a corner or a free kick], but also setting up drills in training to combat what an opponent is likely to do” says SAP Executive Board member, Bernd Leukert.
Germany didn’t need technology to beat England in penalty shoot-outs to decide the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup or Euro ‘96. Today’s German team weren’t prepared to rely solely on the skill of their goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, and risk that another penalty shoot-out, or a penalty against them during a game, might go in the opposition’s favour.
The Germans have a one hundred per cent record in penalty shoot-outs at the World Cup, winning four out of four and missing only one of eighteen penalties taken. Germany’s only loss in a shoot-out at major tournament, came in the 1976 European Championship final against Czechoslovakia.
Before the 2006 World Cup quarter-final penalty shoot-out against Argentina, Germany’s reserve keeper Oliver Kahn famously handed a piece of paper to Jens Lehmann, the German goalkeeper for the game. On it were written instructions from goalkeeping coach, Andreas Kopke, about how certain Argentinian players took their penalties. Lehmann later said that he couldn’t read the notes, as the handwriting was in pencil and virtually illegible. Germany still won the shoot-out.
Germany’s other new Euro 2016 prototype app provides its goalkeepers and goalkeeping coaches with insights into their opponents’ tactical behaviour related to penalty kicks. There’s another database, again containing all the teams and players competing in the European Championship.
Whichever team Germany comes up against, coaches and players can search for the top five or more opposition players most likely to take penalty kicks. The app then shows the area of the goal each penalty taker usually aims at, specific shot characteristics - such as the player’s run-up towards the ball – and also watch corresponding video clips.
It shows how many penalties they’ve taken; how many they’ve scored; how many they’ve missed; how many have been saved by the goalkeeper and at which part of the goal each penalty was aimed at.
Penalty taking might look pretty straightforward. A player runs up and blasts the ball at a goal, eleven metres away. Unless they get something wrong, the goal keeper hasn’t got much chance of saving it.
There’s actually a lot more to it than that. Does a player give away how they’re going to shoot, and at what part of the goal, by the way they run up? Do they look at the goalkeeper when they’re going to shoot right, but down at the ball when they’re going to aim at the centre of the goal? Does a player side foot the ball confidently to the bottom corner when the outcome of the game does not ride on whether they score, but blast it nervously when the result is still at stake and the pressure is on?
“In the past we had to search painfully for data [about penalties], says Kopke. “Now we can look at individual players and prepare our goalkeepers in an optimal way.”
For one penalty taker, a stutter could mean a delayed shot, while the player waits for the goalkeeper to commit themselves before making their mind up. For another penalty taker, it could just be a sign of nerves.
With this knowledge, in the first instance the goalkeeper might wait a little longer, so the penalty taker has to act rather than react. The goalkeeper could capitalize against the second penalty taker by making a sudden but slight move to one side, to encourage the opponent into rushing the shot.
The data can be presented in real time, in training, to a player’s handheld device. FIFA and UEFA, the world and European governing bodies, don’t allow smart phones on the field, but coaching staff can hand printouts containing the data to their goalkeeper during the games.
“You get an idea of what the player’s favourite area is and what a player usually does when he takes a penalty,” says Clemens.
“I don’t want to say too much because many of our opponents will be watching what is going on, here in the German camp,’ he says. “So I give just an impression of what the app can do.”
German analysts will be at every Euro 2016 match, updating their two databases with new information about potential opponents. After the tournament, SAP plans to add Penalty Insights and Challenger Insights to its Sport One Solution.
Sport One already contains apps for team management, planning training sessions, monitoring player fitness and scouting. Bierhoff hopes that in the future the system might also contain similar analytics on how the best forty players in the world run at defenders and at goal.
Sports One is powered by SAP’s HANA (High-performance Analytical Appliance) platform. This is a relational database management system designed to simultaneously handle high transaction rates and complex query processing.
“We used to have many different service providers and often we found it difficult to manage and co-ordinate their output,” says Bierhoff. “That is now a thing of the past. We are now able to get the information to the right people, in the right place at the right time, in an interesting and easy to grasp way, that is nice to look at for the players and coaches.”
“How we deal with the daily tasks of collecting data is easy and was always happening of course. The question was always what do we do with that data, once we have it?”
Clemens explains that the idea of this technology is to make the game more predictable for his team. To keep some of Germany’s opponents’ unpredictability out of the game.
Unfortunately, for team planners like Clemens – although fortunately for football fans – knowing something is coming doesn’t necessarily mean it can be stopped.
It wouldn’t take a high-tech app and a team of highly paid analysts to inform the Romanian defenders that France’s Dimitri Payet likes to shoot at goal from the edge of the penalty area. They could simply have watched a West Ham game on Match of the Day last season to find that out.
In the tournament’s opening game, with the score at 1-1, Payet received the ball in that exact part of the pitch, but even the presence of four defenders in his vicinity didn’t stop the Frenchman from getting his shot away.
One second later, the German analyst in the crowd might have recorded something like this onto his analytics database: ‘Payet, Dimitri: France. Shoots left-footed into top right-hand corner of goal. Very fast, lots of bend.’
Not even Germany’s Manuel Neuer – one of the world’s best goalkeepers – could have stopped that one, however well-prepared he might have been.