As visions of the future go, Paul Balsom has one that must sound pretty enticing for any young footballer. As head of performance for the Sweden national team and Leicester City (he also works with Belgian side – and Leicester City sister club – OH Leuven), he envisages his players being able to step into an analysis hub and gain immediate access to personal performance data from past matches. Using a virtual-reality station, they would be able to relive situations in a specific position on the field. Or, in the case of a youth-team player, step into the shoes of an elite performer and – via the magic of VR – see how to respond in certain scenarios. A case of “What is he looking at and what do I need to look at?” as Balsom puts it.
Yet there’s nothing virtual about how soon this could become a reality, according to Balsom. “What we are most interested in is players being able to access their own data,” he says. “Even now we’re trying to find a way to give them more interaction and accessibility – and we think voice recognition is going to be the way forward.” Step aside, Sir Alex: Alexa’s arrived.
This was a vision that Balsom presented at recent Training Ground Guru conference Big Data: The Future of Football? It offered some fascinating examples of how top clubs are already crunching the numbers. For example, coaches have access to an iPad on the bench and in-game data is available (after a brief time delay). Cameras capturing 25 frames per second chart each player’s position; coaching staff can use the technology to look at precisely how deep their team are defending, among other things. One Premier League analyst says that, as things stand, it is common for such observations to be passed on at half-time – but the dawning of live feedback can’t be too far away.
The tracking of data already keeps coaches up to date on players’ physical output, which informs decisions regarding substitutions and post-match recovery work; medical iPads, meanwhile, monitor players’ heart rates. Mikhail Zhilkin, a data scientist at Arsenal, told the Big Data conference that he provided a bar chart for players showing their energy expenditure, with information about the corresponding amount of food to put on their plates after training.