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Why Football Resists Technology

Applying behind the scenes analysis can be difficult

21Apr

Football has an incredibly strange attitude towards innovators. For a sport in which game-changers are so emphatically lauded, those involved in it can be incredibly resistant to change. The argument is one of protection, i.e., the beautiful game must be preserved as such and any additions that threaten its flow are attacked with all the ferocity of a white blood cell to an infection.

Thanks to restrictions on the use of on-field technology in football, there is something of a disconnect between the ever-increasing monitoring and analytics applied to training, and the real-time analysis of the chaos that is match day. In a controlled environment, measuring player fitness levels, positioning, exertion and impact is easy enough, as is post-match analysis. During the game, though, football managers and physio teams are forced to act more on gut instinct, more on the naked eye than numbers.

Football is notoriously slow to adopt technology, for fear of interrupting the celebrated flow of the beautiful game. The concern is simple and resounding - that more active technology will lead to more stoppages, something football is ardently committed to avoiding. Goal-line technology, for example, has very few detractors and has been around as a concept for decades. Why, then, was the first Premier League goal given by goal-line technology scored in 2014? Well, the same reason that video refereeing more generally has been entirely inhibited in football. Despite particularly successful implementation in rugby, football is desperate to avoid the seconds of delay necessary to ensure a correct decision - rugby is a stop and start game more generally, whereas football’s flow is its trump card. And, cynical as it may seem, perhaps football’s governing bodies actually value the drama caused by a wrong decision; the circus that surrounds refereeing performance is not only a topic of conversation, but a genuine draw to a sport that is so often decided on the finest of margins.

Perhaps technology’s most influential limiting factor in football is the current wide inability to translate an understanding of tech and data into results on the pitch. Maurizio Sarri’s work at Napoli has been a gleaming example of tech finding results - his use of a drone during training sessions has helped shore up a porous defence and the Italian side are reaping the rewards in Serie A. But he is something of an anomaly; other technology-minded managers have been struggling. A high-profile example is Roberto Martinez. The Everton manager is modern in every sense, but his side’s woeful league performance and at times embarrassing organization this season is testament to the difficulties of connecting the use of tech in training to match day brilliance.

Gary Neville, similarly, is an accomplished pundit. His work on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football has earned him plaudits, but his skills transferred poorly during his ill-fated time in charge of Valencia this term, and the United legend left Spain with his tail between his legs. Whatever grand plans he had for the club tactically, and despite his deep understanding of the game, the real, visceral, chaotic nature of sporting competition rendered it all but useless. The reasons for footballing success are particularly difficult to quantify; there are too many variables at play and a team can lose for a whole manner of reasons. You can bet good money, though, that Neville would have been very comfortable with the use of technology on the training ground, and he reportedly relied heavily on analysts in-game. It was, for some unknown reason, huge news that Neville had handed out iPads to his players to help convey his points - a sensible enough measure, given his lack of fluency in Spanish, but one that was met with pockets of derision typical of a sport unwilling to embrace new ideas.

Even so, the role of the analyst on match day is growing in importance. The more numerically-minded managers, short of sitting in the stands surrounded by an entire team, are beginning to invite an analyst into the dugout. We brought up the topic with England Women’s coach Mark Sampson in a recent interview, and his opinion was that the more data available to him on the touchline, the better. Data will never replace intuition; the role of the manager is not one that could be automated. Rather the numbers can be used to support a decision, to get the coaching staff on side with a particular direction and to reduce risk of injury, fatigue, etc. The real test for managers, then, will be in translating that data - utilizing the technology available to affect the only numbers that matter. And, for all the technological developments on the training ground, football’s relationship with tech remains in many ways dysfunctional. 

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