FIFA’s adoption of Video Assistant Referees at the 2018 World Cup has been conspicuous. Play halts, the video board signals a review, and the losing side inevitably gripes about the decision. Over the 48 group stage matches there were 17 VAR match-stopping reviews, about one in three.
A second technology introduced at this tournament has been invisible to all but the most discerning eye. Yet it offers the potential to govern far more of each match than VAR and to have a huge influence on key coaching decisions. For the first time, FIFA has permitted electronic performance and tracking systems (EPTS) to be used during World Cup games.
Each national team competing at the World Cup received two tablets from FIFA—one for an analyst sitting high in the stadium, the other for a coach on the touchline. These devices allow teams to access player tracking data and communicate via voice, text messages, still images, and tactical drawings.
“There is quite a synced relationship between the technical staff and the analysis department already, and I think this just allows that instant feedback to the coaching staff,” said U.S. Soccer high performance director James Bunce.
ChyronHego’s TRACAB optical tracking system has been installed in each stadium at the World Cup, and teams are also able to access data from GPS or LPS (local positioning system) wearable devices from makers such as Catapult and STATSports.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB)—soccer’s law-making body—decided in 2015 that players could use wearable devices in matches for health and wellness reasons. In-game EPTS use was trialed during the Confederations Cup Final between Germany and Chile last July. (The ChyronHego TRACAB camera is visible here, and a German assistant coach is shown reviewing the tablet.) This spring, IFAB revised its rules to permit in-game access of wearables and optical tracking, both for player welfare and for tactical coaching decisions. Prior to this revision, relaying messages between the analyst and the coaches was prohibited except at halftime.
“I think ‘potential’ is the right word,” said Ryan Bahia, the marketing manager at OptaPro, whose analytics tools are used by more than 300 clubs including reigning English Premier League champions Manchester City and Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich. “The key is how that data is visualized and presented in a way that’s tactically relevant to the coaches.”
There is some disagreement among experts about whether in-game EPTS data will predominantly affect health and performance or strategy and tactics. Bahia said that sports science applications will come first. Bunce, who previously served as head of performance for the EPL, said, “It’s going to lean heavier toward the technical, tactical aspects of the game.”
Bunce’s reasoning is that substitution decisions are complicated, and workload and fatigue only form a small part of those determinations. Removing a player because he or she reached a certain threshold of exertion, he said, “would be doing a disservice to all of the other attributes a player can bring outside of physicality.”
#Belgium press game is not intense, its patient. Their first priority is not to press the player with the ball instead they block the passing lanes to the his teammates while closing down the player. When the passing lanes are shut they go after the player #coachpaint #chyronhego pic.twitter.com/Y98c430ndq
— Mohamed Mohamud (@sportvision_) June 12, 2018
Certain tactical alterations may be more self-apparent when looking at player location data. There may be too much space between defenders in the formation, or the opponent may be favoring a particular player or side of the pitch to initiate attacks. (The above example is a video clip from the use of ChyronHego CoachPaint by a Swedish broadcaster.)
“There is kind of like an intuition of what the coach is looking for in regards to knowing the style of play, knowing the way we’re setting up, knowing the way we expect the opposition to set up,” Bunce said. “The analyst can pre-think a lot of the kind of things that the coach would want to see in that specific moment.”
Catapult commercial director Karl Hogan, who oversees global league and data partnerships, praised FIFA’s decision as “a great endorsement for tech” although he cautions that the EPTS systems will be mostly “educational” given the infancy of in-game use and the primacy of the World Cup stage.
“The meaning of that data needs some rigorous interpretation,” Hogan said. “I don’t think the answers with the data part are there at the minute within our industry to immediately access them.”
Of the 32 World Cup sides, 12 are Catapult clients, including at least four (Sweden, Uruguay, Japan, and Switzerland) that advanced to the knockout stage. (A Catapult rep said the company could not disclose three of its national team clients.) Monitoring workloads in match may not result in substitutions but will help the performance staff because the demands of the World Cup are different than the club season. The cadence and intervals of matches and training are different, as are the opponents and even the temperatures involved.
Since Bunce joined U.S. Soccer, the federation contracted with STATSports on the world’s largest player monitoring system and certainly sees value in the wearables data from a broader workload perspective. He said recent research has shown that the average player is only on the ball for three of the match’s 90 minutes.
“Having that physical movement is really important to know what a player is doing when they’re not on the ball,” Bunce said. “Obviously they’re making space, they’re creating opportunities, they’re drawing players away, but if you think of that from a statistical perspective, they’re doing a lot more off the ball than there are ever doing on the ball.”
Just because data is accessible mid-match doesn’t mean it will be. That’s also due to the simple reality that the pace of play is fast.
“If you’re communicating in a live environment, that’s a real challenge,” Bahia said, adding: “The insight could be relayed in a qualitative manner, for example. That could be football or soccer phrases that people are more familiar with that we know these algorithms and metrics can derive.”
In time, the experts believe the analyst and coach will be able to share live video as well, although there’s no timeline for that. Many other major sports, such as the NFL and MLB, do not permit video on the sideline or in the dugout. The NBA and NHL do allow in-game video.
“There’s a lot of algorithm and software and engine power to really give a very simplified message to a coach, which is ‘we should change the formation because the data is telling us this,’” Hogan said. “Overlaying the video with the data becomes much more visual for a coach. For them to interact with the data, you have to really, really simplify it because they’ve got to make some decisions really quickly.”
Presuming the in-game EPTS program continues, the quick-thinking analyst will grow in stature. Offensive and defensive coordinators in American football are prized jobs. They have long resided in overhead booths during games.
“It’s going to create an elevated position for sport science within soccer globally,” Hogan said.
FIFA‘s action points for EPTS #FCBSportsTech pic.twitter.com/gNbKGd3txU
— Benjamin Stoll (@benjsto) November 9, 2017