They say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But there’s no doubt that within sport – and particularly soccer – there is a recognized need to continually improve the experience of its players, coaches, and fans alike.
Like many other industries, soccer’s governing bodies and organizers have turned to new technologies in a bid to accomplish exactly that, and it’s clear that the adoption of big data, AI, and other cutting-edge tech is lending itself to an enhancement of one of the most popular sports on the planet.
The Data Revolution
Sports like American football and basketball have already enjoyed their data revolution. Finally, soccer has taken the plunge.
More and more players are utilizing wearable technology to collect data from their matches and training sessions, enabling medical teams to establish which of their stars are in the dreaded ‘red zone’ – the point at which fatigue could lead to injuries and a drop-off in performance level.
Data analytics is also playing a key role in capturing – and interrogating – player data; not just goals, assists, and the like, but expected goals, chances created, progressive passes, key tackles, and more.
Those numbers are used not only by recruitment teams within the beautiful game to identify underrated players, but also by sports bettors. A number of sportsbooks offer team and player prop style markets in addition to traditional moneyline wagers, so fans are able to deep dive into the stats and identify their best bets for football tonight using a more eclectic selection of resources.
For example, after six rounds of Premier League matches, Brighton sat third in the Expected Goals table, a stat that measures the quality of goalscoring chances created. Accordingly, their odds of a top-four finish shortened to +180, whereas Manchester United and Chelsea – whose Expected Goals data was mediocre – lengthened to +250 and +350 respectively in the same market.
0 – Brentford have never lost a Premier League game in which they’ve opened the scoring (W15 D4). Grit. pic.twitter.com/eQQAPRi4Ot
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 2, 2023
Although the utilization of big data is by no means a guarantor of success in soccer or sport in general, there are enough positive case studies – from Billy Beane’s revolution of baseball to the continued ascendance of Brentford in the English Premier League – to suggest that teams that don’t get a handle on the most important metrics could easily be left behind by their rivals.
These metrics are only getting more and more important as clubs are diving further into predictive and prescriptive analytics. This analysis helps managers predict what is most likely to happen and decide what actions to take for a desired outcome – empowering clubs with even the most meager of budgets to be competitive if the numbers are used wisely.
September 2023 was a halcyon moment for performance-tracking technology in soccer.
FIFA, the global governing body of the sport, approved the use of AI trackers to be worn in players’ boots. And the numbers recorded will take soccer intelligence to all new levels.
Tracking devices have already been worn in soccer for a number of years – the players have them wired into a vest that they wear under their jerseys. But the stats that these generate are rather rudimentary, with the new system expected to take a deeper look at an individual’s output.
The new tracker will measure basic performance metrics (distance covered, average speed, time on the ball) to advanced measurements including technical balance, the pace and angle of direction changes, and even how hard the ball has been kicked.
Clubs will be able to lean on the data to enhance the physiological performance of their players, with ‘kicking coaches’ – another contemporary phenomenon in soccer – able to work with the individual to improve their technique and power.
Professional soccer players are, by definition, elite sportsmen and women. But none of them are perfect – not even Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo – and so improvements can be made. The FIFA-approved trackers will facilitate the pursuit of technical perfection when it comes to ball-striking and movement on the pitch… or as close to it as is possible, anyway.
It’s not just soccer clubs that are leveraging the power of AI and new tech – the sport’s officials are on board too.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar saw a first for the beautiful game: a semi-automatic system for offside decisions, with AI tracking the movement of player limbs using motion capture, was used for the first time.
The decision saw less human error and more correct calls being made, resulting in ‘fairer’ results being witnessed – no player, coach, or fan can bemoan the accuracy of a robot’s verdict. It was a speedy system too, with offsides detected within half a second; far faster than the human-operated VAR technology that many leagues around the globe have implemented.
The Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A, two of the top domestic competitions in world football, have since adopted this semi-automated technology, while others – notably the English Premier League – are waiting for more evidence before implementing it. Even so, the EPL has adopted its own AI-powered offside technology, pioneered by the company Hawk-Eye, to improve the accuracy of its decision-making.
So while soccer is a sport still bedeviled by subjective moments that cause controversy on a weekly basis, at least AI and new technology are improving the efficiency of its black-and-white decisions.