Over the last couple of decades the sport of football has evolved considerably, especially when considering the role that technology plays in the sport.
For managers as far back as only the 1970s, for example, they had to make do with human capital potential in order to make decisions about how a game should be approached, which often took a talented eye (often this being a number two).
This was usually the case with the legendary, yet albeit, controversial manager Brian Clough, who is the only English manager to win back-to-back European Cups (now the Champions League) titles with an English club; Nottingham Forest (1978/79 and 1979/80).
What many people did not realise in Clough’s early days, until he went to Leeds United and, ultimately failed, after such a great run at Derby County, is that he had a secret weapon, that did not travel to Yorkshire with him, but instead headed to the south coast.
It was actually Clough’s number two, Peter Taylor who was labelled as the biggest reason for Clough’s success. Taylor’s eye for spotting players and providing detailed analysis to Clough was a major contributor to why the duo enjoyed such great achievements at Derby, and then when they both teamed up again at Nottingham Forest.
In the 1980s and 1990s, managers could enjoy the use of video playbacks to analyse performances, with this being made a lot more affordable for managers to pour over hours of games and provide analysis for the next one.
A few years later technology, via the computer, allowed for football matches to be replayed at a manager’s own pace, where they could rewind and fast forward a lot more accurately, while even leveraging technology to zoom in and make use of different camera angles.
As we progressed further into the 2000s, we saw a major advancement in technology that allowed managers to make even more decisions, based on the tools that were becoming available.
Even in the gym, they were able to use data from the machines to measure a player’s specific performance, which would be run in realtime. This was in order to check for certain criteria such as how many calories were being burned, average pace, average distance covered during a session, which allowed them to compute this and translate it into how that particular player might perform during a game.
Indeed, one manager that was a big fan of the available technology and perhaps the manager that revolutionised certain aspects of the game, such as diet and fitness was Arsene Wenger, when the Frenchman arrived from Japan to take over Arsenal.
With university degrees in sports science as well as economics, in addition to a footballing brain, he was able to leverage his knowledge and also his passion for the use of technology to essentially transform an Arsenal team that had been lacking something until his arrival.
As such, the data analysis that he used in the gym at Highbury, was such that he was able to completely tailor the training regime of a particular player around their strengths and weaknesses, while also making highly effective tactical decisions prior to and during every game.
Although, this is essentially talking about technology in a broad sense, there are certainly numerous tools that have helped managers over the years and as a result, given them a significant advantage. Let’s take a look.
This essentially became the ‘go-to’ data company for every sports entity across the globe, with the London-based corporation, essentially leading the way for the compilation, breakdown and analysis of data.
Leveraging the power of AI (Artificial Intelligence), OPTA is now able to make predictions about events based on the data already collected, however, football managers and clubs have made use of this for years as a way of finding out information about their players in real time.
However, this doesn’t come cheap and can be a costly investment for a football club, which often means that lower league clubs cannot afford to utilise this. As such, those managers that do use this have, over the years, been able to take this data and apply it to players.
Though, it was more the case that the scouting department would use this more closely and then present a concise breakdown to the manager. As a result, it means that, because OPTA technology measures literally everything to do with a football game, managers then have the information there to make more accurate decisions for the next game.
This will include the number of runs that a player makes, split into the average distance and time of each run and in which direction, the number of passes a player makes that were successful, broken down into range and speed; the number of tackles and blocks, shots on target and wide – the variables are absolutely endless.
In the Amazon Prime series about Manchester City, we see that Pep Guardiola is a big fan of this, with him using an OPTA feed to make a presentation during a pre-match seminar to his players.
Another highly sought-after data software company that specialises in sport, this breaks down data even further that football clubs and managers can leverage. Arguably one of the cleverest components of Genius Sports, is that you are able to transform broadcasts and game streams in real time to the point where you can zoom in, pause and even highlight a player or a zone of the pitch while the game is still playing.
Should a manager be interested in watching a football game from home (perhaps his next opposition), he can use this software to input certain characteristics that he wants to record data for.
It could mean for example, that he has a particular player in mind – maybe a club’s striker, and he wants the software to pay particular attention to him, which means he could highlight that particular player in real time, so that you can see how many shots he has had, runs he has made, passess, duels won and so on.
Arguably it may well be the cleverest and most advanced program out there, especially for watching and rewatching games, with this providing accurate detail. It is understood that a handful of Premier League football clubs use Genius Sports, in addition to the A-League in Australia, which recently signed an exclusive data rights package with the company.
One of the most innovative software solutions in the world of football that is focused on individual players, this is primarily used by scouting departments and football managers in order to help them determine the type of player that they would be interested in signing.
With the software continuously collecting data on players, this data is then presented in a scoresheet that can help managers make decisions about transfers more accurately – especially if they fit their particular portfolio.
In addition to clubs using this software, it is also leveraged by agents to help them determine the value of their clients or even potential future clients. This then puts the agents in a stronger position when it comes to negotiating with the buying club, or the interested party that is pursuing their client.
If they are armed with stats about their client’s performances, it means that they are well equipped when it comes to brokering a possible deal. With more than 550,000 players on the database, it is used by many clubs worldwide, including Manchester United, Barcelona and Juventus.
Founder Matteo Campodonico explained the idea behind his business, stating: “The concept is: we must have any 90 minutes played anywhere in the world. Starting from La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, and going to lower divisions. We collect 2,000 games a week from every part of the world,”
“We buy video from the rights holder for this scope. Of course, there are leagues that give us these videos, because they want to be scouted. There are clubs that send us their videos.
“At the beginning we just collected video, today we collect and analyse video. From every video we select more than 2,000 events. We have data that means with a click you can ask the system ‘show me an under-18 player that has played more than 80% of minutes, made 80% of accurate passes and made at least one assist this season”.
“This is the potential of big data.”
There have been some famous examples of players that have been signed via Wy Scout, with Genoa, who were the first club to use the platform, benefiting considerably (both on-field and economically), from the software.
The club used the platform to discover striker Krzysztof Piatek, who was plying his trade in his native Poland at KS Cracovia, before the Italian club found coverage of him on Wy Scout and decided to pounce.
“Genoa bought him for €7 million and in the summer they sold him to AC Milan for €35 million,” Campodonico said.
“AC Milan now claim his value is €60 million.”
Meanwhile, the entrepreneur revealed that famous individual players have also noticed the benefits of the software: “We have players like (Giorgio) Chiellini using it and (Virgil) Van Dijk,” Campodonico said.
“The professional players are interested in preparing for a game. Sometimes it’s not enough what the coach is telling you.
“Ajax play Juventus in the Champions League. If I’m a central defender for Ajax, I will watch every single game of (Cristiano) Ronaldo, every single move. I need to train my mind on what Ronaldo is doing.”
It is highly likely that anyone involved in football has been playing Football Manager, since its predecessor, Championship Manager, with this being one of the most absorbing and also, comprehensive databases of football players in the sport.
Jose Mourinho is understood to have famously stated that he uses the game as a way of setting his teams up in the way that he wants for his following fixture to see how they might perform based on certain tactics.
Certainly, there are many reasons to suggest why this would be effective – after all, Football Manager employs the services of hundreds scouts and analysts worldwide to make sure that every single detail of a player is covered – not only their technical ability, but also mental, ranked out of a total score of 20.
In addition to game preparation, it has also proved to be an effective scouting tool for a manager’s recruitment plans.
Meanwhile, former Manchester United player and manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has also revealed that he is a fan of the Sports Interactive game, stating: “When I played for Man U I relaxed by playing Football Manager.
“It’s a fantastic game, I have learned a lot about football. I have learned a lot about players, especially young talent.
“It resembles real life, when it comes to who will be good players. They have done incredible research. I remember thinking the same then, that I do as a manager, you want to give young guns the chance, see them develop.
“You could push a few buttons and get extra millions to buy a player. I never enjoyed that. I would rather win in spite of, than because of.
“Many of my players play FIFA and Football Manager. I think it helps them to understand football better.”
How Much Influence Will Software Continue To Have On Football?
Over the next few years, especially given the major advancements in AI, this could well move the capabilities forward even further and while it will be true of many different industries, the same can certainly be said of sports – certainly football.
Although there are likely enough data companies in the sport right now, there is no reason why some of these won’t be able to find a way to continue to leverage the sheer potential of AI in order to help football clubs further.
It really is anyone’s guess as to what the next biggest data tool could be that football managers will look to make use of, however, as we have seen over the years, these certainly appear to translate into highly effective results.