An Impossible Boxing Day: Why European Football Stops at Christmas
European football fans ask themselves this question every single Christmas. Why aren’t there matches on?
His time at Arsenal was extraordinary and Arsenal was extraordinary with him, meaning he kept his job for eighteen years. As a coach, Arsène Wenger was a pioneer, and visionary of an era. His teams gave an idea of what football would be like in the future. Now that he has retired, he has spoken about the kind of characteristics that the coaches of the future will need to have, and how they are going to need to make use of technology.
For now, he predicts that future coaches will act like company managers, in charge of a large team of doctors, analysts, physiotherapists and data experts, although they will ultimately only be employees of the club. And when a coach leaves, he will take all his staff with him. Something similar will happen to players, who will have their own teams of counsellors, advisers, doctors, and so on. Teams around the team, as he puts it.
However, Wenger advocates a kind of football that sticks to its roots by developing its youth system, which needs to be a priority among big clubs with or without Covid. “The most successful eras for teams like FC Barcelona or Manchester United came when they had large numbers of home-grown players,” he says. He feels that the most important thing a club has is its identity and a player must adapt to the club’s values, and not the other way round.
On science, he recalled that in his time it was very difficult to get information, while today there is too much. The modern-day coach has to be an expert on data selection. That’s by no means a negative thing, and he calls on new coaches to be open-minded and to try to understand everything that’s happening, and there is only one way to do that: science.
The problem with so much information is that it cannot be thrown at players in bulk. He says they have limited attention spans and a lot of concerns, so it is important for a coach to issue clear, simple instructions. On this point, he claims that the secret of a good coach is to provide the players with information that will make them better footballers. That is always his goal, and if the players see that the coach’s instructions are helping them to improve, then they will always obey.
In his view of the future, the rise of data science will soon be joined by that of virtual reality. The ability to put the player inside a 3D replay of a match and at the precise moment when they made a specific decision under the same conditions in which it occurred will be a major advance.
Ultimately, he continues, coaches are obsessed with figuring out what makes teams win and what makes them lose. That is why data science is so useful, as it is used to find out what has happened and predict what might happen. He himself used it to measure how many times players take a look around in the ten seconds before receiving a ball. He found out that the best Premier League players did it between 6 and 8 times. Decent players, from 4 to 6. However, he later discovered that a player like Xavi Hernández looked around 8.3 times.
On the current situation, he expressed his concern. FIFA has announced that of the 45,000 million dollars that the football industry moves worldwide, some 15,000 million dollars have been lost due to the pandemic. He fears that this drop in income could lead “the rich go their own way and the weak to disappear.” Even so, he feels Covid has taught important lessons to everyone who works in this sport: “Without fans, we are nobody.” Without crowds at games, the emotional intensity around the game has disappeared.
All football professionals evolve with the game. That is the maxim of Carlos Corberán, manager of Huddersfield Town with extensive international experience and who worked alongside Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United. The turning point in modern football, he reckons, came with the success of Pep Guardiola at FC Barcelona and of the Spanish national team.
It was from there that the idea of starting to play from the back spread, with the ball being brought out of defence with two centre backs leading the play and a goalkeeper passing short. The profession imitated Pep’s success and Spanish football evolved. Right now, he thinks it would be difficult to convince a Spanish player to do anything other than pass the ball out of defence.
The question is how teams should play now that so many different approaches to that system have spread, especially in England, with teams that play from the back and push large numbers of players into the opposing half of the field to press either in attack or to win back the ball. The key, Corberán feels, is to get players to feel less pressured. Although some may not feel pressured even when they are, and have the skill to work their way out of situations where they are surrounded by opponents, a team must work as a unit so that everyone feels the same in adverse situations. Right now, in England it is common practice to leave at least one fewer striker up front than there are centre backs playing the ball out.
To work with a team that has the resources to overcome pressure, Corberán maintains that even the smallest details must be worked on in training. In fact, when a task is simplified, he feels that the little things that need fine-tuning become much more obvious. It is here that he advocates honesty with the players: “You have to speak sincerely with a footballer, although it might hurt to tell them something that they don’t want to hear.”
On possession, he says that it is all about losing your marker. Passing gets predictable if nobody is losing their marker. If you don’t have players with extraordinary dribbling skills, all the more reason to work on these moves to take opponents out of the game. Losing markers, he says, produces direct openings, and spaces far from the ball, produce indirect ones. That is why he wants his attacks to act as a unit. Hence his secret is first to try to get all of his players to understand attack, defence and the transitions in the same way and then to impose those ideas on the field, which is ultimately the most difficult part of all.
Albert Mundet has interviewed Rubén Saavedra, co-founder and CEO of Metrica Sports and a Doctor of Neuroscience, about one of the biggest problems with the data analysis revolution: inaccessibility. Teams in the second division and below, not to mention amateur teams, simply cannot afford the technology to permit solvent performance analysis. And yet, Saavedra claims, these technologies are precisely what are required to drive an improvement in the game at all levels.
As he explained, there is a huge divide between the clubs capable of performing high-tech analysis and those that are limited to video. Saavedra’s company, Metrica Sports, has set out to democratise access to data science and has even designed open access tools so teams can do it for free.
The company has been working with elite football clubs since 2014. Its software product is used to process matches, automatically feed a database and provide a presentation that includes playlists of the sequences to be worked on at any given time. The cost of the product rises when data has to be entered manually, such as player identities and changes, and also when personalised data on specific actions is required.
To take all this technology to levels below the elite, Saavedra explains that they would need to use cameras, and that this simply is not possible without considerable purchasing power. However, using Artificial Intelligence they have created software that can interpret a game using any video. This small advance means anything from pro teams to junior teams can be analysed. It’s a quid pro quo situation, for while it helps small teams to improve their performance, it helps big clubs to optimise their scouting.
At the moment, a top club can pay around one hundred thousand euros a year to get its data. The SAAS model offers the same product to medium and lower level teams with only a few limitations for a cost of between 1,500 and 5,000 euros, so data analysis is now being used at soccer academies in the US, and in countries like Morocco. However, the goal is to even reach amateur players. To do so, they have designed a free plan, whereby video can be encoded and analysed at zero cost.
Mundet asked how they expect to monetise a service that is offered for free. Saavedra replied that the gain is learning. Just as their company took advantage of their work with elite teams to study their demands and needs and develop a suitable product, they would now do the same but with lower-level teams. By identifying what is needed by these teams, the idea is to define a series of payment packages costing no more than 1,500 euros that lead to the company’s ultimate goal: for everyone to have the solution they can afford, meaning that everyone will at least have something.
Dr. Dan Weaving, Professor of Performance at Leeds Beckett University and Sports Scientist at the Leeds Rhinos Rugby League Club, has given a presentation on the importance of data management and processing. In a world where we are overburdened with information and barely get time to assimilate it, according to Weaving, “the challenge is how we can translate this data almost instantaneously so that coaches can make the best possible decisions.”
Regarding this problem, the researcher says that “one of the most important areas of this work is working how to present data to the decision-makers, many of whom often lack mathematical or statistical knowledge. We must visualise the information in a way that can be assimilated and that supports decision-making”. To do that, together with other researchers, he has developed a model that can synthesise a large number of variables in quadrants and scatter graphs without losing information. For example, they can compare each player’s internal and external load in a single graph. Depending on what quadrant the player is in, coaches know at a glance what workload the training session has generated for each player. As Weaving explains, “in models created in Google Data Studio we can identify each of the players and track the composite scores of their training loads over time. Likewise, we can categorise the players’ strength and power in a quadrant and see who has higher levels of strength and power, and compare between players”.
This methodology is also helping them to streamline talent scouting programmes in the English national rugby league youth teams. He explained that by measuring different physical, physiological and performance parameters, they can easily classify future athletes and compare them instantaneously.
In short, the goal of Weaving’s research is to intuitively synthesise a large amount of data into a single display to support decision-making in day-to-day training.
The rise of data analysis has one fundamental goal: for football clubs to make more decisions based on science and rely less on intuition. However, each game generates so much data that it is never fully exploited. All that data is in danger of going ignored and ending up being nothing more than data. To collect it all in the most visual and synthetic way possible, Andrés Samano, co-founder of Colstats, has produced a paper in association with the Liga MX Technological Innovation Centre that compares the study of Virtual Reality (GVR) images with other formats.
The idea is for the user (coaches or players) not to waste time analysing data or deciphering information and invest all their energy in understanding the game with as much information as possible. Today, the virtual tool enables the recreation of plays as they happened and the possibility of exploring hypothetical plays, i.e. what might also have happened. It also shows the action through the eyes of the players on the pitch.
The comparison was made with Alfonso Sosa, one of the most successful Mexican coaches. He watched the same play on video, in 2D and in virtual reality. Only with GVR could he realise that a player should have been two metres further to his left to maintain his team’s dominance of the zone. The display, in two colours, blue and red, accurately indicates the areas of the field dominated by each team.
GVR was used at the 2018 World Cup to analyse games on Mexican television. Its great advantage is that it is compatible with all the technical advances that could emerge in this field. The great advantage for the future of this application is the way it archives what has happened on the pitch. Until now, we have depended on memory, statistics or video, but GVR would be a fourth option that would enable us to relive each play in the most reliable way possible.
Anselmo Ruiz, a football and handball data analyst, has proposed a comparison of the data that can be obtained from each sport to work out which are incompatible and exclusive, and which could help us to gain a new perspective if they were to be exchanged.
Until now, the challenge for comparing the two sports has been to delimit the concept of possession. In football there are many phases when the ball might not be considered to be ‘possessed’ in the literal sense, during confusing moments of a game, for example, or at a corner kick.
Handball, he tells us, has an average of 51 possessions per game, between 49 and 53, whereas in football there are 83, between 80 and 84, if we eliminate the aforesaid moments. This data is essential for being able to then calculate the effectiveness of each possession, as is done in handball.
As a curious fact, when assessing each attack, in football the average number of shots on target that end in a goal is 30%. In handball, it is exactly the other way around. 70% of shots on target end in a goal. This yields extremely uneven data on the success rate in each sport: 51% in handball and 1.5% in football.
After breaking down this effectiveness, we find that in positional play, the effectiveness of soccer is 1.4% as opposed to 48% in handball. In counterattack, it is 2.5% in football, and 61% in handball. In short, the probability of scoring from open play is 1.3% in football and 49% in handball. This figure can be contrasted with the one for set pieces, where it is observed that the ratio is reversed. The probability of scoring from dead ball situations rises to 3.8% in football and in handball it drops to 45%.
With comparisons like these, football could learn from handball to present game data in terms of the effectiveness of each possession, and could also classify the types of ball circulation and the tactical procedures employed during a possession, and also divide between defensive and attacking formations.
Javier Ruiz, a physiotherapist for the FC Barcelona basketball team, has described the importance of patellar tendinopathy in sport, and particularly in those that include frequent acceleration, deceleration and jumping like volleyball and basketball. In fact, tendinopathy accounts for approximately one in every three injuries in basketball, and 30% of these leave players side-lined for between 3 and 14 days.
Ruiz showed how FC Barcelona deals with the ‘return to play’ of players with patellar tendinopathy. Although monitoring of the training load may be enough for players with mild symptoms but who can still compete, more serious cases require the planning of an individualised rehabilitation process. This might begin by including isometric exercises (holding each contraction for between 15-45 seconds) while varying the angulation of the joint, the main goal being to produce a sensation of analgesia. However, these exercises should progress towards eccentric exercises, which will be the most effective in the medium and long term. So, work should begin with exercises performed at a low speed (for example, 4-second contractions) and with both legs, and progress to higher-speed and single-leg exercises. This progression will end with very high-speed exercises, including plyometric exercises, as well as some more functional exercises that may involve specific actions, use of isoinertial machines, and sand exercises to reduce musculotendinous tension to some extent. Javier Ruiz also explained how his team uses blood flow restriction both to prevent muscle atrophy and to induce potential improvements to the tendon when working with low loads (<40% RM) and stressed the importance of motor control and complementary exercises, such as Core work, along with strengthening exercises to reduce the incidence of injuries and improve recovery from them.
Finally, Ruiz explained how the return to play should be monitored, assessing the evolution of the tendinopathy using specific scales (VISA-G) and muscle strength dynamometry, and controlling training loads in the final phases of rehabilitation to ensure that they are similar to those being done by uninjured players so that the athlete is ready for their return to play.
The fourth day of medicine featured different specialist doctors who spoke to us about the management of tendinopathy, and specifically about the potential of imaging techniques for its prevention and diagnosis.
Dr. Carles Pedret, an ultrasound specialist and advisor to numerous top-level sports teams, spoke about the possibilities of this technique in the management of tendinopathy. As he points out, although structural changes in themselves increase the risk of tendinopathy to a certain extent, they should not be considered risk factors in isolation, but they can provide relevant information when assessed against other clinical variables or the workload. Dr Pedret also presented, through various practical examples, those variables that we must focus on when analysing a tendon using ultrasound to diagnose the risk or presence of tendinopathy.
Meanwhile, Dr. Sandra Mechó, a radiologist at FC Barcelona, addressed the issue of how magnetic resonance imaging can help us with the diagnosis and management of tendinopathy. After explaining the physiological characteristics of the tendon and the differences between tendinitis (meaning pain and loss of strength) and tendonosis (morphological disorders of uncertain clinical relevance), Dr Mechó presented different variables that can be used to diagnose tendinopathy. She also presented the practical case of an FC Barcelona player who presented morphological alterations at the tendon level before a game, and concludes that imaging techniques should not be used alone to decide whether a player should be rested, although they can be used together with other variables and can be of great assistance for monitoring a player during recovery.
Finally, Dr. Seth O’Neill, a professor at the University of Leicester, spoke about future advances in tendinopathy research and the doubts that have yet to be resolved. He began by highlighting the importance of an enormously overlooked factor in tendinopathy, namely psychosocial aspects, since patients with the greatest fears and concerns regarding their injury tend to have a worse prognosis. Therefore, as well as the progression of workloads, education of patients about their injuries and proper psychological management, should also play a fundamental role in recovery. Dr. O’Neill also commented on the need to research inter-individual differences in the pathogenesis of tendinopathy and their treatment (rather than attending only to group media). Both degenerative and inflammatory processes could partially contribute to the onset of tendinopathy, but their respective importance varies depending on the individual. Similarly, optimal treatments could vary between individuals, but more research is needed to determine the optimal treatment for each subject depending on their individual characteristics and the properties of their tendon.
This nutrition session featured Dr. Francisco Javier Santos, doctor in the Department of Gastroenterology at Hospital Vall d’Hebron, and Dr. Antonio Paoli, director of the physiology of exercise and nutrition laboratory at the University of Padua.
Dr Francisco Javier Santos focused on the intestinal microbiome, explaining the importance of a wide diversity of bacteria and for these to function well in order to have a ‘healthy’ microbiome. He also introduced the factors that can modulate it, commenting that we still do not know up to 60% of the factors that can affect the intestinal microbiome. However, we do know that, apart from genetics, other factors such as diet and exercise can modulate it. Dr. Santos went on to comment on the relationship between the microbiome and exercise, discussing recent studies that have shown that physical exercise can improve the diversity and functionality of the bacteria present in our intestine, and how these improvements to the microbiome can translate into improvements in athletic performance. Finally, he commented on the existing evidence for the efficacy of supplements such as probiotics and fecal transplants to improve the microbiome.
For his part, Dr. Antonio Paoli spoke about a type of fasting and its relationship with athlete performance and health, namely so-called time-restricted fasting (TRF), which consists of reducing the eating window to a few hours and fasting the rest of the day. In this case, the most common is the 8-16 protocol, which involves eating within a period of 8 hours (usually in the morning to synchronise our molecular clocks with circadian rhythms) and fasting for the other 16.
According to studies presented by Dr Paoli, TRF could help athletes to improve their body composition and different inflammatory markers. He also revealed that this type of fasting does not seem to affect performance if combined with training. In his research, athletes that fasted as described performed equally to those who ate ad libitum. He also commented that, as shown by a study of elite cyclists, fasting could attenuate the deterioration of the immune system during a period of high training load. In short, although the evidence is still limited, these results suggest that shortening the eating window could improve body composition and reduce inflammation in athletes without impairing performance.