Football is traditionally slow in adopting new technologies. Analysts are still looked at with suspicion (at best) by those who believe that the only way to judge a game is by looking at what you can see on the pitch rather than at what the numbers say.
It took years for goal line technologies to be introduced even though their benefit – as we’re seeing now – was obvious. And, despite this, there are still those vehemently against the idea of introducing any new technological support for referees.
The same applies on the coaching side. The idea of having proper nutrition took years to take hold.
The irony is that other sports where resources and popularity are more limited than football are much more forward in their adoption of technology. Australian Rules Football is a very prominent case in point. This sport that to outsiders might appear one where brawn is the only pre-requisite is also one of the earliest adopters.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS), for instance, has been in use in Aussie Rules for more than a decade. So integrated is their used in AFL that in 2012 it was extended to measure activity in junior football.
“The key thing about this study is that it is the first time we have ever gathered information like this on kids playing football and the first time we’ve been able to quantify how our kids are experiencing sport. The study is unique and groundbreaking in that we’re getting real data about what kids do when they’re involved in junior football.” So said at the time Associate Professor Pamm Kellett who was handling the research aimed at measuring player’s activity during games as well as how long they were on the field, the amount of exertion used and how fast they were running.
Football is a completely different world. At around the same time that AFL was being involved in that forward looking experiment, football was just dipping its feet into the pool. The pioneer was David Casamichana, a Spanish coach involved with Rayo Cantabria de Santander (a semi-professional Spanish third-division team) monitoring their GPS use during training and friendly games; at the time FIFA banned their use in official games (the ban was only lifted towards the end of 2015).
Despite the limitations of the technology at the time – the GPS that he had available tracked movement every second meaning that movement that took place in a fraction of that was not measured – Casamichana’s worked proved the value of this tool. It allowed teams to measure just how much their players ran, how often they were involved in sprints (thanks to an accelerometer) and, ultimately their fatigue.
Based on this he found that centre backs and centre forwards are the ones that run the least distance. Contrary to that, midfielders run most but they cover least distances in sprint. When they do sprint, however, they top the table for high intensity.
On top of it all, his studies found that as games wear on the intensity begins to decline.
All of that might seem obvious but that is because it discounts the finer level of detail that can be obtained through GPS. Not all midfielders play the same role within the team meaning that not all have the same characteristics. Having that data at hand provides another tool that coaches can use to fine tune their side.
It also helps improve the quality of training. If you know the characteristics of different positions than you can provide different preparation. Having access to such data allows you to view the session as a whole rather than just one sprint whilst it provides you with historical baselines with which to compare a group of players or an individual coming back from injury.
Indeed this data can be used to help prevent further athletic injury given that it is possible to gauge when an individual is getting close to his limit that provides you with the ability to stop them before they hurt themselves.
All such knowledge can be used to improve the intensity that a team can show during a game. A team’s ability to keep on going during a match for longer than their opponents can provide a significant advantage.
And the future will see even more extended use of GPS, in particular during games.
In an article late in 2015, Wycombe midfielder Matt Bloomfield explained the benefits that he saw from GPS. “Every footballer is different and some of the lads pay more attention to the information given to us than others.”
“Some lads are really interested in the feedback and check their stats first thing every Monday morning, while some aren't so interested and will only deal with the stats when told to. And then there are the lads who pretend not to care but still check when no-one is looking!”
“I'm fascinated by it all so I'm always asking for feedback and information about what I should be able to do and how far I should be running. It's all part of the competitive edge needed to build a career for yourself.”
“I'm sure that the technological advances will continue and I will always embrace them while always trying to gain that edge.”
Sadly, not everyone is like Boomfield. Indeed, Plymouth manager Derek Adams complained when Wycombe used those devices in a game between the two sides. "Somebody could head it and injure themselves, or somebody's finger could get caught in it,” he said. "There are a number of things that can go wrong. Somebody could get choked if they are pulled too hard.”
Admittedly, Adams also said that what he wanted was clarification and it would be wrong to label him because of this one incident. Yet such thinking is, sadly prevalent among the football fraternity.