The beau­ti­ful game be­gins


Saudi Ara­bia’s goal­keeper Ab­dul­lah al-May­ouf makes a save dur­ing the first match of the 2018 World Cup, against Rus­sia, at the Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow on Thursday.

As ev­ery­one stopped to watch him preen, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin must have felt his wa­ger on one of the world’s big­gest tour­na­ments was pay­ing off, Cathal Kelly writes

The ad­vance in tech­nol­ogy at the World Cup is ev­i­dent in more than use of Video As­sis­tant Ref­eree. The 32 teams will have stats tablets to see ingame po­si­tional data on play­ers and the ball.

It’s an­other tool in the an­a­lyt­ics ar­se­nal that top soc­cer teams are in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing on.

“It’s nat­u­ral. An­a­lyt­ics is so tied in with tech­nol­ogy,” said Bret My­ers, a Vil­lanova pro­fes­sor who is an an­a­lyt­ics con­sul­tant with MLS cham­pion Toronto FC. “Why we have that term an­a­lyt­ics is be­cause of the data that tech­nol­ogy can gen­er­ate. In sports, in com­pe­ti­tion you want any kind of edge that you can get.”

Each World Cup team is be­ing of­fered two devices: one for an an­a­lyst watch­ing from the me­dia cen­tre and an­other for the side­line coaches.

The tablets, ap­proved by the In­ter­na­tional Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion Board (IFAB), draw in­for­ma­tion from two op­ti­cal track­ing cam­eras lo­cated on the me­dia cen­tre.

Pro­cessed data as well as live footage is sent to the me­dia tri­bune staffer, who can an­a­lyze player met­rics, re­view plays and high­light ar­eas us­ing an an­a­lyst ap­pli­ca­tion. Ma­te­rial can then be sent to the tech­ni­cal area at field level for dis­cus­sion via a ra­dio link.

The tech­nol­ogy can be used for anal­y­sis dur­ing half­time in the locker room. FIFA pro­vides teams with a post-match anal­y­sis.

Toronto FC hired My­ers as a con­sul­tant in 2014. The next year, My­ers helped bring Devin Pleuler on board full time to help the team es­tab­lish its an­a­lyt­ics frame­work.

“I do as much as I can from afar,” My­ers said of his work with TFC.

My­ers, 38, is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and oper­a­tions at Vil­lanova Uni­ver­sity, in Philadel­phia’s north­west­ern sub­urbs. He also teaches at the Columbia Uni­ver­sity School of Pro­fes­sional Stud­ies in New York.

De­fend­ing World Cup cham­pion Ger­many is no stranger to mak­ing use of tech­nol­ogy. It part­nered with SAP, a Ger­many­based soft­ware com­pany, ahead of the 2014 World Cup on a pro­gram called Match In­sights, which an­a­lyzes raw game data and video.

The tech­nol­ogy was im­proved ahead of Euro 2016. SAP said its “SAP Chal­lenger In­sights” pro­vided “data-driven in­sights sur­round­ing an op­po­nent’s of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive ten­den­cies, for­ma­tions, and more,” all of which could be re­viewed on tablets.

A “penalty in­sights func­tion” pro­vides goal­keep­ers and goal­keep­ing coaches with footage and penalty-kick ten­den­cies of op­po­nents.

SAP is also part­nered with English cham­pion Manch­ester City.

“When it comes to an­a­lyt­ics, you can’t re­ally prove the cause and ef­fect, but I think there’s an as­so­ci­a­tion,” My­ers said. “The teams that are man­aged well tend to want to in­vest in an­a­lyt­ics as well be­cause they feel like that could be use­ful in­for­ma­tion.”

The ad­van­tage of FIFA pro­vid­ing the in­for­ma­tion is that it lev­els the play­ing field, help­ing coun­tries that may not have the re­sources of big­ger teams. But the in­for­ma­tion is only as good as the per­son an­a­lyz­ing it.

Ma­jor League Soc­cer teams of­ten use tech­nol­ogy for sports-science pur­poses, re­ly­ing on GPS to track their play­ers’ work­load. It’s used to mon­i­tor play­ers dur­ing train­ing, but is usu­ally re­viewed only post­match, ac­cord­ing to My­ers.

Us­ing cam­eras to track play­er­po­si­tion data of­fers a dif­fer­ent wealth of in­for­ma­tion, with more tac­ti­cal uses. Toronto started us­ing it this sea­son, tri­al­ing the data to see how it can be used and whether it is worth the cost, which My­ers says is not cheap.

TFC is us­ing data and video anal­y­sis ap­pli­ca­tions from Met­rica Sports, a Dutch-based com­pany that said it was ser­vic­ing six MLS teams at the start of the 2018 sea­son. The in­for­ma­tion Toronto gets is not real-time but in­stead is pro­vided post­match.

In the past, teams made do with per­for­mance data – shots, pass­ing, tackles etc.

This new data source tracks all the play­ers on the pitch, re­gard­less of what’s hap­pen­ing on the ball.

It takes con­sid­er­able pro­cess­ing power to han­dle the data, not to men­tion time and ef­fort to “wrap your head around it,” My­ers said. But it can of­fer a rich vein of in­for­ma­tion for parts of the game such as de­fence, which of­ten re­volves around po­si­tion­ing.

My­ers’s first re­search pa­per on soc­cer was called “A Pro­posed De­ci­sion Rule for the Tim­ing of Soc­cer Sub­sti­tu­tions.” His con­clu­sion was that a team, if trail­ing, should make its first sub­sti­tu­tion prior to the 58th minute, the sec­ond prior to the 73rd and the last prior to the 79th.

My­ers played soc­cer with cur­rent TFC GM Tim Bez­batchenko at the Uni­ver­sity of Rich­mond. He also was an as­sis­tant coach there dur­ing Bez­batchenko’s time there.

When Bez­batchenko worked in the MLS head of­fice, he in­vited My­ers to come in and present his find­ings on sub­sti­tu­tions. That led to a di­a­logue on the use of an­a­lyt­ics and My­ers was asked to make an­other pre­sen­ta­tion to club coaches and tech­ni­cal di­rec­tors at the 2013 MLS com­bine.

That, in turn, led to a con­sult­ing job with the Philadel­phia Union, help­ing then-coach John Hack­worth – now coach of the U.S. un­der-17 team – with op­po­si­tion scout­ing. When Bez­batchenko left the league of­fice for Toronto FC, he per­sauded My­ers to join him.

Once again, FIFA is us­ing goalline tech­nol­ogy in Rus­sia, say­ing it “sup­ported the ref­er­ees” in three in­ci­dents at the 2014 World Cup and in as many as eight goal sit­u­a­tions at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.

The tech­nol­ogy pro­cesses in­for­ma­tion from 14 high-speed cam­eras and sends a sig­nal within one sec­ond to the ref­eree’s watch, in­di­cat­ing when the ball has crossed the goal line.

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