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About football and data, without a single mention of VAR

Written by McCann Helsinki
July 1, 2021

The very first data we used from a football match was probably the score. Who wins and how. Size of the pitch, goal, ball and teams are negotiable still today. I will not dive into those. Just google the conversation around rules. It’s never-ending. So let’s dive into something else instead. 

Every team has been using data since day one in one way or another: weather data, information about your opponent, some stats how your players ran, and so forth. Today you just got loads and loads more of it. In a July’s issue of the Stuff magazine Englands manager Gareth Southgate, while embracing tech as a part of modern management, said: “We’ve actually got too much data now, so we spend a lot of time sorting what’s relevant”. Englands national team alone has eight different departments from medical to video analysis to the commercial team to support the squad with their expertise.  

From zero to hero 

It’s not always easy to say whether a decision is based on a gut feeling or calculations. But when you are familiar with your odds, it is at least easier to weigh the risks. That’s the case with Matthew Benham. Ten years ago he invested into his childhoods favourite team Brentford who were playing in lower leagues and struggling financially. As a club owner he helped lift them up from 2nd league and all the way up into the Premier League this spring. Now Brentford will play in the top division for the first time since 1947, and the club is estimated to be close to 250 million euros in value. 

Before Brentford, Matthew Benham worked very successfully in banking and gambling, and is referred to be a statistical genius. During the years with Brentford he changed the strategy on many levels. His model was based on statistical analysis, like expected goals for example, and going after young, talented and under-valued players. A model similar to the one seen on baseball book ‘Moneyball’. How many of the decisions were pure number crunching and how many just brave choices done by qualified gambler, that I don’t know. But we all know it paid off.  

It’s not Zuckerberg tracking you, it’s your coach 

Another example is data that helps individual players to perform. We got StatsSports providing GPS tracking to elite players and coaches, helping them track performance with multiple metrics, like maximum speed, total distance, sprint distance, intensity and fatigue. Then you can combine player specific data with ball related data such as passes, shots and turnovers and so on. Top clubs are hiring big teams of data experts, and cheaper more accessible software means smaller clubs are getting in on the action too. And with the likes of Adidas GMR Pack and a specific GMR Tag fitted into the insole of a boot, anyone can be easily inspired by their own performance data. 

VRonaldo vs ARgüero 

Data and technology are here to stay. And maybe in the future they will have even bigger impact on our beloved sport. Maybe one day players carry contact lenses that also work as a small augmented reality screens. Every player will get tactical predictions and instructions from the gaffer in real time. They will know simultaneously whether a shot was a goal or not, or how to position, where to shoot and how to change a formation. This might not even be that far away: augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are already used in coaching and recovery training. 

So what happens to creativity? Will technology kill the game? Personally, I don’t think so. As long as the game is about kicking the ball with your boots, it doesn’t matter whether you read the instructions from a smudgy piece of paper or from a high-tech screen. And one thing is for sure: the never-ending conversation about the rules and the magic of football will continue regardless. I’m happy it does. 

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