Statisticians might be tempted to dismiss the evidence due to the small sample size but as the World Cup in Brazil has reached the knock-out stage, the matches have become closer fought – “every single game has been tight,” a slightly exasperated Per Mertesacker told reporters after Germany’s 2-1 over Algeria in Porto Alegre – and the number of goals has seemingly dwindled as a consequence. The average has fallen from 2.83 goals per game in the group stage to 2.2 in the eight last 16 matches. Five of them went to extra time and lasted for 120 minutes. If you compare only the first 90 minutes of both phases of the competition, the reduction in goals appears more pronounced, still. The “Brazuca” only hit the net 1.37 times on average during regular time in the second round.
As the margins for error become smaller at the tournament, the need to bring out the best of players and to find an edge over the opposition is more and more pressing. Football has been one of the last professional team sports to embrace the use of technology – the game was too fluid, the variables too great, traditionalists used to argue – but things have thankfully moved from the 1950s, when Charles Reep, a former Wing Commander in the British Army, set about codifying actions on the pitch armed with nothing more than a pen, a pair of binoculars and a roll of paper.
Reep, the pioneer of football data analysis, would be amazed to find that millions of data points can now be collected and evaluated in real time. Coaches no longer rely on their gut feeling but let their decisions be guided by hard data. The players, too, benefit from more objective evaluation. Arsenal FC manager Arsène Wenger, one of the first high-profile managers to embrace analytics, once explained that professionals find it much easier to accept criticism if it’s backed up by hard data. “If I tell them that they pass the ball not quick enough, they might dismiss that,” the Frenchman said. “But if I show them the stats, it’s a different story”.
Every single team at the 2014 World Cup has had a dedicated performance and video analyst in their ranks. But few of them would have been able to use a tool as powerful and intuitive as SAP Match Insight. Devised with the direct input of German national team general manager Oliver Bierhoff, SAP Match Insight facilitates the analysis of training, preparation and playing performances. It also enables coaches and scouts to process vast amounts of data to assess key situations in each match.
“Today, each team is looking for innovative ways to gain a competitive edge over its rivals,” Bierhoff said in press conference in Campo Bahia, the German team’s base in Brazil. “We are representing one of the most successful teams in the world. The German Football Association is committed to providing the national team with the best technology to maximize their performance. SAP meets this demanding criterion”.
It’s one thing to collect and assess data, another one to communicate the conclusions effectively to players. That’s why usability is key. “We wanted the players to have easy access. SAP created an app that can be used by them individually, at a finger-tip, via their own digital devices,” Bierhoff explained. “Previously, if we wanted to run a player analysis, we had to make an appointment with that player and meet in a room that was fitted with video analysis equipment. The new app means that players can do their own match analyses whenever and wherever it suits them.”
In Brazil, performance analytics have become truly mobile for the Germany team – players and coaches can work with the app on their travels to and from match venues, right up until kick-off. A big touch screen has also been installed in the players’ lounge in Campo Bahia, where members of the squad can look back at key scenes of past matches and ascertain data about their own performances. The interface has been designed to allow intuitive, uncomplicated use of the tool.
The specific way the data is used by SAP Match Insight by the German national team’s analytics team is a closely guarded secret during the World Cup tournament. But it’s safe to say that every effort is made to find uncover weaknesses in the opponents’ game and enhance the performances of the German national team with the help of incredibly detailed, real-time analysis – especially now, at the business end of the competition, when goals come at a premium and every slip up can prematurely put paid to a team’s trophy ambitions.
One of the reasons why football has been historically difficult to analyse is (the statistically-proven) big role chance plays in the game. Fewer goals – in relation to other team sports – increase the capacity of underdogs to cause an upset, for example. Good fortune is a key component in every game, as much as managers like to feel that they are in control of proceedings. But that, in turn, only intensifies the desire to control all the variables you can control, like training, scouting etc. With the help of SAP technology, Germany are hopeful that they can maximize their potential.