Winning by numbers: the role of data analysis in World Cup preparation

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Almost 50 years have passed since England, the country who gave football to the world, last won the game’s most coveted prize: the World Cup.

In a bid to turn things around at this summer’s finals in Brazil, England’s manager Roy Hodgson has assembled the largest back room staff the country has ever known. It includes an array of nutritionists, physiotherapists and psychologists, and intriguingly, as many number crunchers as the playing squad has goalkeepers.

“England are taking three performance analysts to Brazil and you can bet the Germans and Dutch will be too,” says Paul Boanas, senior account manager at sports data expert Prozone. “In fact, I’d be shocked and a little horrified if all 32 teams at this summer’s World Cup were not using some form of data analysis to help improve their performance.”

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Popular wisdom dictates that it was the Germans who first began using data to get an edge over their opponents. Prior to becoming head coach of his national team, Jurgen Klinsmann moved to California and became friends with Moneyball sports data pioneer Billy Beane.

On his ascension to the German football throne in 2004, Klinsmann wanted to explore the benefits of using data in football and enlisted the help of Professor Jurgen Buschmann from the Sports University in Cologne.

At Klinsmann’s behest, Buschmann assembled a group of students and colleagues to start putting Beane’s Moneyball ideas into practice for Germany. The result – a secretive group known as Team Cologne – began providing data analysis for the 2006 World Cup and has long since outlasted Klinsmann.

“Ahead of each tournament, the German Football Association’s coaching team receives a book’s worth of reading material,” says sports journalist Olivia Fritz. “It includes information about all the other teams. Later they receive another 40-page document and a DVD illustrating various tactics.”

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Of course, not every country has the luxury of calling on a Team Cologne. However, between seven and 15 of this year’s World Cup finalists will be making use of the services provided by professional sports data companies such as Optaand Prozone.

With teams of analysts and cameras recording every pass, tackle and through ball in all the major leagues, Prozone and Opta are perfectly placed to help coaching staff whittle large pools of players down into the 23-man squads allowed at the finals.

“If you’ve got a lot of players to look at and they play in leagues around the world, you will scout some of them live but a lot will be done via video,” explains John Coulson, Optapro’s head of professional football. “We use data to index videos and make it easy for coaching staff to search not just for their players but also to narrow it down to things like if they’ve touched the ball in the final third or regained possession.

“The other main way data is used is through statistics on all sorts of things like passing accuracy and switching the play. When they’re planning their squads for the World Cup, coaching staff can use our database of metrics to compare their players and assess their opponents.”


This is an excerpt from the cover feature of Factor Magazine for iPad. Get the Factor app to read the full article and more World Cup-themed features.

Images courtesy of Adidas.


Changing the game: Diving detection system could transform football

A system similar to the goal line technology that will be used in the upcoming FIFA World Cup could in the future be used in football to determine whether a player has dived.

The practice of diving, where a player intentionally falls in the hope that the referee will think they have been fouled and award their team a penalty or free kick, is common in football.

Attempts have been made by FIFA to stamp out the practice, which is also known as simulation, and the number of yellow cards handed out to players for the offence has increased. However, there is little evidence that diving is any less common than it has been previously.

This could change if research by Dr Peter Weyand, associate professor of applied physiology and biomechanics at Southern Methodist University, Texas, is successful.

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Weyland is researching methods to identify the differences between intentional and unintentional falls during sports games, however the sport he is researching for is basketball, where the practice is known as flopping.

A flop is extremely similar to a dive; a player intentionally falls in the hope of getting an official to call a personal foul against his opponent, and attempts have been made to stop the practice, including recently-introduced fines for guilty players.

The research project, entitled ‘The Physics of Flopping: Blowing the Whistle on a Foul Practice’, has received $100,000 of funding from basketball team Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban.

According to Weyland, the research is in progress but has a long way to go before a workable solution can be developed. “We have developed a custom force and motion data acquisition system to specifically investigate the physics involved in flopping,” explained Weyland in an email to Factor.

“The project and line of research is not far enough along at present to fully identify technological options and feasibility.

“Video is the most obvious candidate, wearable motion sensors such as accelerometers would also be theoretically viable, but whether these approaches will have the sensitivity and robustness required is not yet known.”

Weyland does believe, however, that whatever solution is developed will have the potential to be used in football. “The soccer applications should be very similar in viability to those that are potentially usable in basketball,” he said.

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If a solution were to be developed for football, it could have a serious impact not only on the game itself but on how fans watched and enjoyed it. Dives make for excellent post-match discussion points, and offer fans of the losing team an opportunity to claim “we was robbed”. Without them football could lose some of its charm.

Some have also argued that diving plays a positive role. Gary Neville, former Manchester United player-turned Sky Sports pundit famously argued that diving let players flag up fouls that were missed by referees, and so were an essential part of the game.

However, others believe technology can only improve the game. Following the introduction of goal line technology, Arsène Wenger, who has managed English Premier League club Arsenal since 1996, said that he hopes more technology will be introduced to aid referees.


Featured image courtesy of Lario Tus / Shutterstock.com.
Body image 1 courtesy of Natursports / Shutterstock.com.
Body image 2 courtesy of JM Rosenfeld.