Friday TechMunch: Art or Science? Big Data in Football

Last year, IDC predicted that 44 zettabytes of data will be created by 2020 – to put that figure into context, it’s roughly the equivalent of 40 billion years of video. No wonder people talk about ‘Big Data’.

Thankfully, organisations around the globe are putting it all to good use and doing plenty of smart things with the stuff, even in spaces that you might not traditionally associate with technological innovation. A case in point: football.

Last week, the Football Association (FA) in England announced they were turning to data to improve national performance in the long term. In a bid to develop more home-grown players, clubs are now sharing information on growth and maturation to ensure that young, would-be stars are not discarded before they have the opportunity to realise their full potential.

Football doesn’t always come across as the most high-tech of sports. Sure, they recently installed on-pitch cameras to help determine when the ball actually crosses the goal line, but the most visible innovation this year has been the introduction of cans of magically-disappearing shaving foam into referees’ arsenal. The FA initiative to enhance player development, however, is just one example of how data is revolutionising the modern game.

When Germany won the World Cup in 2014, a number of commentators were quick to point out the somewhat unexpected 12th man the team had on their side: Big Data. Using tools which analysed video footage from on-pitch cameras and delivered advanced performance metrics, the Germans leveraged data-driven insights to perfect their play throughout the competition.

Their performance against Brazil, for instance, was a striking demonstration of the speed and directness which characterised the team’s approach. This was due in no small part to their behind-the-scenes analysis of possession time statistics, which drove a reduction in the team’s average time on-the-ball from 3.4 seconds to just 1.1.

Such innovation isn’t only within reach of national teams. TSG Hoffenheim, of the German Bundesliga, have incorporated real-time data measurements into training sessions by attaching tracking sensors to balls, goalposts, players’ legs, and anything else considered important. As a result, coaches are able to develop an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of individual players driven by statistics rather than gut feeling.

Adopting such a scientific approach is surely laudable, particularly when the alternative is to call for greater commitment, passion, and any number of other intangibles. However, as number-crunching looks set to become central to success on the football pitch, there has been criticism within other sports, notably cricket, of approaches that overly rely on insights from data. At what point, it has been asked, do you put your trust in people rather than numbers?

The trick, it seems, is in how the data is used. Technology will certainly not win a match on a team’s behalf. But, it can be harnessed effectively behind the scenes to analyse, inform, and enhance what teams do. As the growing volume, richness, and accuracy of data enables coaches to take tactics, training, and development to new highs, data analytics applied intelligently can only be good for the sport.