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?
Professor Dehra Harris has chaired a debate featuring Tara Swart, Doctor of Medicine and neuroscientist, Aureli Soria-Frisch, director of neuroscience at Startlab in Barcelona and Riccardo Ceccarelli, a Formula 1 doctor, on the peculiarities of athletes’ brains and the possibility of training it to achieve higher goals.
Swart began by explaining the concept of neuroplasticity, which is fundamental for understanding what happens in athletes’ brains. This is the capacity of the human brain to grow and change throughout life. All the emotions we experience, what we record in our memories and what we learn is what continues to form and develop our brains despite the passage of time.
She works with executives and athletes to help them to change; to make them aware of what they are not aware of and what they need to be aware of in order to go a step further and move forward. “The biggest barrier anyone can face is not knowing what’s holding them back,” she said. The problem for an athlete is that while they are undergoing this awareness process, the brain neglects other functions and this can impair performance in other facets. For an entrepreneur, this might not be a serious problem. But for athletes it could mean the difference between winning and losing.
To work directly with the brain, Soria-Frisch said that there are several tools that are usually used for treating the likes of epilepsy and depression. Some of these methods have already been used in sport. Teams like AC Milan and Manchester United have used brainwave training systems to increase cognitive attention and emotional stability.
ECG technology can read the signals emitted by our brain and transform them into digital code to measure cognitive performance. This data has shown how athletes’ brains are different. Sport is generally based on perception loops, he explained, where cognition plays a very important role in athletes’ ability to predict situations better. In fact, brain analysis can even indicate which athletes are going to perform best.
Swart interrupted here to comment that it is not advisable for an athlete to learn new things during the season, as it can affect their performance. Instead, neuroplasticity should be taught during breaks to make sure the athlete is in peak condition at the start of the season. For example, they could try to learn a new language or to play an instrument, which will make it easier for them to acquire new skills when they return to training.
Finally, Ceccarelli presented the results of his brain tests of Formula 1 drivers. The main difference among the top drivers is that they have very little frontal lobe activity compared to ordinary people. They optimise the functions of their brains to the maximum and they tend to do everything automatically. This can be compared to how students behave; they are far more likely to generate negative thoughts (fear, anxiety, etc.), which increase their chances of getting things wrong. It has been proven that the same thing can happen to auto drivers. In measurements recorded on the track, it was found that as they are driving, if they are doing well and start thinking that they have to keep on doing well, they get tense and make mistakes, which worries them more and leads them to make even more mistakes. The best driver is one who has worked on his concentration or has such strong control over his mind that he can detach himself from what he is doing and perform all of his functions automatically, without thinking or without other thoughts that might interfere with what he is doing.
These measurements have been used to analyse young people who want to get into Formula 1. Managers can decide who to invest in by studying reports on the way aspirants’ brains work, and whether they are able to economise their functions. On this point, Soria-Frisch makes it patently clear that “it’s not about disconnecting emotions but about having them at the right time.”
Mario Leo has chaired a discussion between Uri Fleming, from Amazon Studios, Guillem Graell, CMO and brand director at FC Barcelona, and Darren Pearce, from Tennis Australia. The issue they were discussing will decide the future of sports organisations and the media. With the development of new technologies, what is the likelihood of sports organisations becoming the new media?
Graell described FC Barcelona’s situation in this context. At the club there is the paradox of having the largest stadium in Europe, but most fans will never set foot in it. Another situation that goes against ordinary market logic is the way these fans behave. The club does not create products to attract them; it is them who demand products from the club.
The secret of this success may be, claims Graell, because Barça’s most successful period, the last 25 years, have coincided with the rise of the Internet, new technologies and social networks. If its golden era had been in the 1950s, it would have had a more local impact. At the beginning of this century, it has been the digital boom that has helped make the club a worldwide phenomenon.
This has meant setting up its own media channels and platforms to fill the gaps in content when there are no games. The increased visibility, he says, created value for both the club and its sponsors. However, the entire strategy has been subject to intermediaries. Some, like YouTube, share the profits with content creators. In other cases you have to pay to reach the fans.
The club’s global strategy faces an unquestionable reality. There is no definite fan type and they don’t all live in the same place. The club had to do the groundwork so that everyone could feel a sense of belonging to a community and sharing a passion.
When making long-term decisions, the club has needed to remember that it can invest in a player, but he will ultimately have to retire. But the FC Barcelona brand has to be there forever. In fact, in the new scenarios, with a seemingly infinite range of entertainment options, the brand might be the best player of all, since “we are no longer only competing against Real Madrid or Manchester United, we are also competing for audience attention.”
Regarding content platforms, Fleming claims that Amazon has always worked as if every day was the first. They have the customers at the centre of their strategy and each innovation is taken with them in mind. As he says: “If something is a constant at Amazon, then that is the changes made to the business model.” Some of those evolutions have come about naturally. The company started by selling books, then DVDs too and then streaming arrived, which brought with it live sports broadcasts. On the issue, if the question is raised as to whether sports clubs might become the new media, in his opinion, it would mean they would have less scope to publish their contents on existing platforms. This could entail the risk of them becoming stagnant and missing out on the chance to attract new fans.
A highly relevant case of localisation of broadcasts is that of Tennis Australia, a state-owned company that holds the rights to the Australian Tennis Open, among other sports, although it is from this competition that it gets 90% of its income. Pearce says that his daily challenge is to turn the five weeks of the tournament into content for the whole year. For now, the profits have doubled, but their problem is that they do not have a concept of community like Barça and they do not even own the main players, like Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams, who are independent entities. Their scope for action is to aspire to become a great theatre that brings fans and top athletes together in the same space.
An associate researcher in the Data Analysis and Visualization Group at the University of Konstanz, Manuel Stein has explained the status quo of data analysis in football and the challenges that await in the future. A presentation entitled ‘28 papers later’ has covered seven years of computing and visual analysis of the sport.
When he started researching, he said, the biggest problem he had was collecting data. It was expensive or inaccessible, because big teams refused to share it. That is why he was forced to make his own analyses using videos of the matches shown on TV as his source.
His goal was the same as that of professionals: to find in the data the answers to what cannot be seen with the naked eye and for analyses to be made automatic. Why did a player move the way he did? Was it being part of a plan or was it his own idea? And, above all, why does one team dominate over another? However, the most important question was how can a computer be taught to measure dominance in football?
Without the support of the clubs, Stein set up his computer to extract video data. The first thing he needed was for the program to be able to detect players by the colour of their shirt, although there was a problem with games that are played at different times because of the changes in lighting. Then he scanned the skeleton type of each player to be able to account for where he was facing with respect to the ball. And finally, ball tracking.
Another problem with televised matches is that not all players appear in the same shot, and sometimes the ball doesn’t even appear. So, he designed a panoramic view of the whole field on the computer and indexed the television shots frame by frame.
However, for analysis purposes, a computer needs to do more than follow the movement of the ball and the players in order to obtain automatic answers with regard to other variables. The context also needs to be introduced. “We have to teach the computer what is obvious to us,” he said, before quoting Johan Cruyff, when he said that the person who moves the ball is not the player who has it at his feet, but the one who does not.
From there, Stein revealed how he programmed the detection of an interaction space based on the position of the players, the distance they are from other areas of the field and the speed at which they move. It’s a system used to measure free spaces or, as they say in football slang, the gap. His method of analysis calculates which player is best placed to get to that point. He has managed to establish what the dominant regions that each player controls on the field are, and those that an opponent could not reach with a direct pass or, according to his parameters, those that three players on the same team can reach simultaneously. As it is a question of measuring the danger of moving in on the goal or defence, this is the way to calculate the optimal positioning of a footballer.
Once the program has interpreted the play, Stein feels the data measurements should be integrated with the actual videos of the matches. Unlike with broadcasts and fans, for analysts the double screen is a problem. Biometric constants would need to be added to this data in order to measure player fatigue. If in addition to the real result, hypothetical cases can also be introduced, allowing coaches to speculate on ‘what if’, and at the same time, even more data could be fed into the program, then we would be dealing with the imminent revolution in the analysis of football matches.
Pablo Franco, coach of Al-Qadsia SC in Kuwait and Julen Lopetegui’s former analyst at Real Madrid, has spoken to Isaac Guerrero about player creativity and the role of the coach between team and individual organisation. During the chat, Franco defended the need to respect players and their particular characteristics.
His way of working, he revealed, is based on observation. He tries to understand what each player has inside and then interact with them until everything fits. The role of the coach is to decide when to attract, mobilise or progress by taking risks and, in this context, it is the player who will ultimately make the decisions.
A team can never match the same characteristics that a coach imposes. As he explained, identity is based on general principles and then it is the players who, by interacting with each other, create the different details.
For him, the self-organization of a football team has to do with intentionality, which is not a concept that can be thought of like a playing system. It always depends on what the opponent and the ball are doing, so there is no beginning, no end, or intermediate phases.
To maintain cohesion and initiative in the squad, Franco believes that there should be less focus on the ball and more on the personal side. “It has been demonstrated that football groups are able to perform better if they are a strong human group,” he said. He advocates strengthening relationships with and between footballers, establishing bonds of trust, because it is only by sharing values that they will produce more football on the pitch.
However, he does not feel that creativity belongs to the footballer’s individual sphere. Most of the situations that are going to happen on the pitch require a group effort, unless there is a world superstar in the team, and the creativity will ultimately arise from interrelations between the players.
What the coach can do to encourage these situations is do away with prohibitions or one-way speech. The tendency is usually to restrict movements in space or to make decisions for them. “You have to put your ego to one side”, he says, “and generate tasks and contexts in which the player can feel free and give everything he has inside.”
Regarding his role as an international coach, he claims that it is essential to soak in the culture and social context of the place. Sometimes, it is not enough to know a country, as different cities within them can also be very different culturally and even in terms of football. His advice is to be clear that a coach cannot change a country’s culture and should instead adapt to it or otherwise he will fail, concluding that, “if as coaches we do not feel that we are going to fit into a certain context, then the best thing to do is to step aside.”
In a triple presentation, Dr. María Antonia Lizarraga, Dr. Eva Ferrer and nutritionist Mireia Porta, have explored the physiological and physical changes that FC Barcelona’s women players are experiencing.
Dr. Lizarraga analysed menstruation changes among athletes. Due to the high prevalence of problems with the menstrual cycle among high-performance athletes as a result of low energy availability, the club’s medical services have been studying the possible impact on female footballers. As opposed to track and field athletes, who present a catabolic profile characterised by major weight loss, Dr. Lizarraga explained that female footballers exhibit an anabolic profile, represented by an increase in muscle mass, bone mineral density and androgen levels. Therefore, the nutritional strategy in these players has to be completely different from the one that would be used in a state of low energy availability.
According to Dr. Lizarraga, this hyperandrogenic character could give them a competitive advantage. It is even suggested that natural selection causes a high prevalence of such a profile among high-performance sportswomen. For example, at FC Barcelona it is estimated that around 70% have a hyperandrogenic profile. As she says, there is a simple way to evaluate this, i.e. by measuring the length of the second and fourth fingers of the right hand. According to several studies, a longer fourth finger is associated with this profile.
In the second part of the presentation, Dr. Eva Ferrer presented assessments of players to control their menstrual health. In addition to an annual gynaecological check, all of the players have an application called “E-Keep” that they must fill in every day and with which the medical services monitor the duration and number of cycles. This means, for example, that they can control certain factors in each cycle and thus try to reduce the risk of injury, for as Ferrer says, the highest number of muscle injuries occur in the follicular phase.
For her part, Mireia Porta analysed changes in the body composition of FC Barcelona’s female players, highlighting that, on average, in a period of 5 years they have lost 5% of their fat mass and gained 3% in muscle mass. She tells us that “female footballers are getting stronger, taller and faster.” This change is mainly due to improved training processes, with a much greater workload both on the pitch and in the gym, as well as better nutritional habits.
An important part of the medical department’s work is to adapt nutrition to the players’ training, using a colour scale that’s rather like a traffic light, to give the players instructions based on their energy needs and training loads. In conclusion, “nutrition has ceased to be invisible training and has become a visible and fundamental part of performance training.”
Dr. Angelica Lindén Hirschberg, professor and researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, has made an extraordinary presentation on different physiological conditions that can occur in women, analysing what impact they have on both health and performance.
To put these conditions into context, Dr. Lindén began by explaining the differences in performance between men and women. According to her, “although it is not recognised, the most important factor explaining the differences in performance between the sexes is testosterone level.” A higher level of testosterone is related to an increase in muscle mass and strength, as well as better aerobic capacity. All of this means a competitive advantage both for men and for women who have above-average testosterone levels.
Indeed, the researcher described one disorder, known as athletic amenorrhea, suffered by a large percentage of sportswomen (between 6 and 69% depending on the sport) and that is characterised by loss of menstruation. Dr. Lindén has analysed the underlying mechanisms of this endocrine status in detail, finding that energy deficiency plays a crucial role in its development. Hypothalamic inhibition of the HPG (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Gonads) axis produces rapid weight loss, metabolic dysfunction and a decrease in the levels of female hormones and testosterone. All this leads to a dysfunctional condition among women that affects their performance.
On the other hand, there is another status, called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) that affects around 10% of women of childbearing age and is characterised by increased production of androgens and testosterone, mainly causing menstruation disorders and a decrease in fertile capacity. This particular disorder is not caused by exercise, but is a result of anabolic nature. According to Dr. Lindén, this could improve athletic performance. Athletes with PCOS have on average more muscle mass and perform better, something that the researcher largely associates with increased testosterone levels.
Given the impact that this hormone may have on performance, she has analysed the data from a study that she led, in which the effect of increasing testosterone on performance in women was shown for the first time in a double-blind randomised controlled trial. Women who exogenously increased their testosterone levels for 10 weeks improved their aerobic capacity by more than 8%, which signals the importance of this hormone for performance. Dr. Lindén therefore says that “the growing evidence suggests that endogenous hyperandrogenism improves physical performance and may play a role in a woman’s decision to compete.”
Dr. Maurizio Franchini, Head of Performance at AS Roma, has spoken about the importance of monitoring workloads in sports performance. He began by presenting the variety of internal and external load markers that we can measure. For example, there are numerous external workload markers (e.g., player load, total distance, distance at high speed and accelerations/decelerations) that can be evaluated with GPS devices and accelerometers. However, we don’t always know in detail how valid or reliable these measures are. Likewise, we can use different internal load variables (e.g., lactate, heart rate, etc.), but these are not always feasible in practical terms, or are not useful in certain exercises such as speed or stop-start ones. Therefore, something as ‘simple’ as the rating of perceived exertion might be the most useful and reliable internal load marker.
Dr. Franchini also showed, based on data from one of his own surveys, that most football practitioners consider various external load markers (e.g., distance at high speed, accelerations/decelerations) to be the most useful for monitoring players, and that they are important for preventing injuries. But Dr. Franchini feels that despite this widespread view, the scientific evidence supporting the relationship between these load variables and the risk of injury is methodologically poor (due in part to the multifactorial nature of injuries, and the absence of cause-effect evidence). Moreover, the association between internal and external load markers depends on the type of work being done, so although an internal load variable might be useful for a certain type of training, it might not be for others (for example, the rating of perceived exertion would not be useful for predominantly technical sessions). Dr. Franchini therefore concluded by recommending load monitoring as a method to check the training process and whether the player is complying with the prescribed work, but not as a method for predicting injuries.
Dr. Robert-Jan de Vos, doctor and researcher at the Erasmus University Medical Centre and for the FC Excelsior team in Rotterdam, has given a talk on adjuvant treatments in the management of lower limb tendinopathy. He explained why these treatments may be necessary in some cases, their potential effects, the different treatments that exist and ended by summarising the available evidence.
In the researcher’s opinion “the cornerstone of therapy should be education,load control and exercise.” The problem is that although athletes can be helped with these treatments most of the time, effectiveness is as low as 50-60% in patients. Another added problem is the limited time available to treat high-performance athletes. For this reason, it is common for specialists to use other techniques in order to accelerate recovery processes. The most widely used are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, shock waves, or injections of corticosteroids and platelet-rich plasma.
After explaining what each method consists of, the researcher explained that in most cases there is a contradictory or low level of evidence for their efficacy. A striking case is that of PRP injections, where only 10 randomised controlled trials have been conducted, while 400 reviews have been published. Furthermore, being a widely used technique today, in most of these trials the PRP result was no better than that of the placebo group. It has therefore been concluded that “when considering the use of an adjuvant treatment, we should not neglect progressive exercise, load control and patient education, since a combination of these therapies is more beneficial than adjuvant treatment alone.”
For her part, Dr. Karin Grävare Silbernagel, associate professor at the University of Delaware, analysed both tendinopathy and ruptures of the Achilles tendon. She explained that Achilles rupture occurs suddenly, has a cumulative incidence among athletes under 45 years of age of 5.4% and rarely presents previous symptoms. In terms of gender, she explained that 80% of cases of this injury affect men, and only 20% affect women. And one of the consequences of this injury is the fear that it creates to athletes when they return to duty. As for tendinopathy, she explained that it is caused by overuse and has an incidence of as much as 18.2% in athletes under 45 years of age. As opposed to Achilles ruptures, the incidence is similar between men and women.
An important aspect pointed out by Dr. Grävare in her presentation on tendinopathy is that “symptomatic recovery is no guarantee of complete recovery of the muscle-tendon function in patients with Achilles tendinopathy. For example, people who have an altered tendon structure, but are asymptomatic, present an alteration in running biomechanics with neuromechanical adaptations.”
In the case of Achilles tendon rupture, the researcher reiterated that the tendon needs to be exposed to a sufficient load during cicatrisation in order to improve the tendon structure. She also presented studies that have shown that higher levels of physical activity are associated with better tissue repair. She therefore concludes that “early rehabilitation/mobilisation could reduce the risk of a new rupture, but we must make sure that we do it properly so as not to increase the risk of pulling the tendon.”
Yon Álvarez, a physiotherapist for Barça B, has explained how the club deals with adductor tendinitis. As he says, although it is not the most common injury in football, it is very uncomfortable when players have to train or play with it. According to the latest studies of all the club’s team sports, this tendinopathy represents 7.4% of all injuries, but importantly, the return to play is the longest.
Another peculiarity of tendinopathy is that only 30% of players stop working; most continue playing and training despite the problem. Álvarez explained that recovery programs are aimed at attenuating the mechanisms underlying the injury, many of which are linked to the inherent actions of football (e.g. changes of direction, knocks and high running loads).
With this in mind, and after commenting that the reduction in the range of motion of the joints of both hips is a major risk factor, a large part of the work is aimed at improving that range of motion. This work is supported with strength training and stabilisation of the core zone. All of this is done progressively and using different types of exercises (e.g. isometric, eccentric, concentric, dynamic functional) and surfaces (e.g. unstable surfaces or sand). In the final stage of recovery, Álvarez explained that players are reintroduced to training with exercises that require a greater load on the tendon and cognitive demand.
Later on the day, Oriol Balaña, Girona FC physiotherapist, presented his injury rehabilitation model. Divided into 5 stages, the rehabilitator uses a sequence of tasks with progressive levels of both physical and cognitive difficulty, where the players are exposed to different loads in order to improve the symptoms and functions of the injured area. For example, in a first phase, before the player can run normally, they do ‘anti-gravity’ exercises in water, on a bicycle or on AlterG treadmills. As the player gains confidence and can withstand a greater load, they incorporate linear and multi-directional interval movements on the field or in sand at a closer intensity to that of real football.
For them it is essential to have an assessment system with which to repeat the tests systematically. He presented such a system that classifies players after they have taken the relevant tests with flags of different colours. This helps them categorize the player’s status and set exercises and progressions.
Hugo Ríos, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, has presented his proposal to improve William Spearman’s Off-ball Scoring Opportunity (OBSO) model. From an analysis of 200 Liverpool goals scored in 2019 with the data obtained from the Friends of Tracking Initiative, he has devised a model that can be used for in-depth analysis of a team’s attacking strategies.
The original OBSO model only worked with goalscoring opportunities, but Ríos feels that this means the analysis overlooks players who are free to receive a pass at other times and hence does not measure the possibility of passes that could have reached their man if they had been made, for example, a second earlier. And while the initial OBSO counted passes, Ríos has also introduced the possibility of self-passes.
Similarly, in Spearman’s OBSO, several conditions needed to be met. To extract his coefficient, a pass had to be made, an attacker had to control the ball and a player had to score a goal. Ríos has widened the possibilities by adding the variables generated by taking data on passes that were made all over the pitch to thus measure the probability of scoring a goal from anywhere on the field in any situation.
As a result, Ríos translates the data into a chart that shows a team’s control or dominance of the pitch in each transition. If the angle and distance are also added to the probability of scoring, the data can be used to define each team’s type of attack and the danger it entails in much greater depth. This would not only be useful for coaches to receive more information during the season or in training about their playing systems, but would also play a very important role in scouting and for issuing reports on opposing teams.