The Impact of I.T. in Football

Football and technology form a relationship that is sometimes unintuitive and is constantly the subject of debate – not only among footballing and tech industry experts, but also among the general football fan bases too.  


Whilst the basic rules of football have remained largely unchanged for well over a hundred years, technology is constantly becoming faster and tactically more sophisticated day by day. 


We are all likely aware of the technological advances such as Hawk-Eye to Goal-Line Technology, and Video-Assistant Referee (VAR) that now compliment and assist the game officials to enforce the rules of the football match. Whether you agree or disagree with the introduction of these systems, it is extremely unlikely that they will be going anywhere. If anything, we anticipate these systems will be further enhanced with more scope to assist game officials and enhance the fan experience.


Whilst ardent football fans will be up to speed with transfer news such as Manchester City securing Erling Haaland, when Manchester City signed Laurie Shaw last year, it didn’t quite receive the same fanfare. Laurie Shaw, a former Astrophysicist and Treasury Policy Adviser, could prove to be one of City’s best ever signings.  He now heads up a team of data analysts at the club who use millions of stats about players’ performance and the upcoming opposition to help the club’s chances of winning – worrying news for City’s rivals and it certainly seems to be working!


Similarly, Arsenal has a team of around 15 people working on the areas of performance, analysis and data science.  Last season 2021/2022 Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester City were considered as the frontrunners in the use of data science.  


Elite clubs utilise computer algorithms to automatically detect patterns in games, the impact of data is showing in other ways too. One example is the metric Expected Goals (xG) which measures the quality of a team and player’s shots.  Since xG first started being used by teams, the average distance of a shot in the Premier League has gone down in each successive season. “Essentially the model shows how shooting from long range is generally unproductive and it has changed how [most] teams try and build their attacking play,” says Duncan Alexander from sports technology firm Stats Perform. 


Computer Data Analytics aren’t just used for post-match analysis though, with the eye watering values commanded during the transfer windows for players, mistakes can be extremely costly and clubs are utilising computer modelling to give insight to their recruitment and scouting requirements.  


Today, all Premier League football stadiums in the UK are equipped with a set of digital cameras that track every player on the pitch. Ten data points are collected every second for each of the 22 players on the pitch, generating 1.4 million data points per game. Analysts will then code the data to identify every tackle, shot or pass in order to enable managers and performance analysts gain insights of what exactly happened in each game, on and off the ball. 


In training sessions, players wear GPS trackers, acceleration sensors and heart rate monitors to analyse their training performance and optimize their preparation. Such tracking devices are currently not allowed in live games but provide vital stats for anything that happens outside the actual match. Some clubs have even started to combine their training and game performance analytics with data from tracking other aspects of their players’ lives, such as diet and sleeping habits. 


In the modern elite game, the use of data is all about finding the extra 1%, the detail that can exploit even the slightest weakness in the opposition and make the difference between winning and losing. Rather than simply applying data to tactical performance, objective information is now used throughout the clubs to enhance efficiency and develop processes that enable the organisation to be as well-prepared as possible from the pitch to the boardroom. 


While the use of data and technical analysis has become essential for today’s football clubs it is no longer confined to the big Premier League teams. Smaller clubs are starting to get in on the action too, thanks to cheaper and more accessible software becoming available and filtering down. 


Will the game suffer if it becomes as much a contest between the computer analysts off the field as the players on it? I think that’s highly unlikely. The outcome is always going to be dictated by the efforts and intuitive skill of the players during the 90 minutes, but with the financial pressures increasing clubs are getting smarter about how they use data to achieve that competitive advantage.


Outside the stadium fan base engagement is going to be another key use of technology development and source of revenue generation for clubs moving forward, take for example Juventus. With an estimated 423 million fans around the world, how do they keep them all happy? On match days, 41,000+ fans (the capacity of the Allianz Stadium in Turin) will attend a match, which represents not even 0.01% of their fan base. 


So, what’s next for technology in football? Virtual and Augmented Reality have been hot topics of conversation – from holographic pitch additions to multi-sensory headsets for viewers and computer referee officials, the possibilities are endless. There are an estimated 3.5 billion football fans across the globe. That means one in every two people in the world considers themselves a fan.   


With technology shifting at an alarming rate, it is only a matter of time until it is trialled to improve the world’s biggest and most celebrated sport. However, it comes with its opposition and setbacks, and it can be difficult to incorporate on such a magnitude. Nonetheless, the coming decade will be exciting for footballers, teams, pundits, and fans alike.