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?
The identity of the game, and the way space is created, was the subject of a conversation that Paco Jémez, Eusebio Sacristán and Javier Calleja have had with Isaac Guerrero. The discussion challenged the widespread belief that football is all about ‘suffering’, or “no pain, no gain,” as Guerrero puts it. These three coaches instead advocate game systems that are, above all, fun for the players, insisting that we should never lose sight of the idea that football is a game.
Paco Jémez’s team ended the 2012-2013 season with the third highest percentage of possession in Europe, only behind La Liga champions FC Barcelona and Champions League winners Bayern Munich. It made big news because his club, Rayo Vallecano, was operating with far fewer resources than the continental elite. Jémez says that a coach’s role must be, from the outset, one of commitment to whatever idea he wants to convey to his players, because “they have a radar that detects when you don’t truly believe what you are saying.”
The problem, in his opinion, with a possession-based system is that sometimes “you clash with reality”, but it is the risk you have to take if you want to be play combination football and pass the ball out from the back. His principle is that you have to get the player to appreciate that he is not always going to succeed and that if he fails, the coach will be there to support him. Because, he stresses, “in football nobody has the magic formula to win, win and win”.
On space, he says the crux of the matter is winning it, but that you mustn’t become obsessed with it, “because in football spaces appear and disappear at an astonishing rate.” And that also means a team should not simply be looking to hold onto the possession in non-productive zones.
He also very strongly agrees with Ángel Cappa, who says pauses speed up the game. But there is a special kind of player that he’s sorry to say has been harder to find in recent years, namely the kind who know how to read the game, who have a vision of how football works and know by heart how to pace the rhythm of a game.
Sadly, he feels they are more like athletes these days. There are players who can move from one zone to another very quickly and with a lot of power, but they understand the game less. But he does acknowledge that the concept of going slower to go faster might seem to contradict the forces of nature. On this matter, he has praise for one of his fellow speakers, saying that “Eusebio would be a good example. He was not a great sprinter, but he was able to play faster than everyone else because he thought faster.”
He defended the basics of his philosophy with the poignant argument that if you can get your opponent to spend 90 per cent of the game defending, the 10 per cent whose job it is to attack “will get fed up very quickly.”
Eusebio Sacristán’s affinity with this kind of play is the result of his belief that it “makes the player feel better.” In his case, when Johan Cruyff drew a 3-4-3 system on the blackboard for the first time, a diamond in the middle with two wingers out in the open, he was fascinated and enjoyed playing that way a lot.
Eusebio likes an intelligent player, one who can decide on his own whether to speed up the game or slow it down. Meanwhile, as a coach, it is about getting the team to do things automatically to overcome whatever difficulties the opposition put in front of them, and to force movements in the opposing defence to create spaces.
He also claims that at lower levels, teams work more on the versatility of their players. There are many cases when a midfielder might drop back to the middle of defence to play the ball out better or when a winger drops back into defence because he’s not convinced by the way things are going up front. It is important for a player to learn to play in different positions, because nobody ever knows what they might have to do to do the best they can for their team.
Javier Calleja warned that with any playing system, you’ll win some and lose some. The only certainty is that there are decisive areas and you have to try to spend as much time as possible in the opponent’s half or get to it into their area as quickly as possible. As that is impossible with just one pass, the coach’s job is to find the most suitable mechanisms.
From there, the player needs to learn how to interpret the game. Sometimes, he says, that requires patience. If your opponent is packing the defence, if all you do is go straight at them, you are just going to run up against a wall. First you need to disorganise them by moving the ball around. But dominating possession inherently means applying pressure as soon as the ball is lost. Both concepts are two sides of the same coin that the player has to be aware of.
ESADE professor Ivanka Visnjic has chaired a debate between Chintan Patel, head of technology at Cisco, Jeff Marks, of the Innovative Partnerships Group, and Stefan Mennerich, Communication Director of Bayern Munich, on the importance of inter-sector partnership to promote innovation in sport.
Mennerich spoke about how important it is for Bayern Munich to sign partnership deals with other companies to foster opportunities for innovation. It is vital for the club to learn from the experiences of other companies in order to streamline adaptation to change, something it is unable to do on its own. Innovation happens through alliances like these because the club not only learns and develops, but also ensures it does not lose control of its systems and infrastructures.
Bayern has also become a gateway for technology and advances in the world of football, because systems that are developed and successfully implemented at the club, despite requiring a great deal of effort in terms of time and budget, are then shared with other teams that, albeit smaller, have the same needs. Sharing is a key word for Bayern. Its philosophy is about solidarity with other clubs because, if every team goes down its own separate road, then the risk of becoming obsolete is much greater.
That is why Bayern has also entered the realm of eSports. Mennerich says that they are a very traditional club and that this was the first time in their history that they were doing something where they were unsure what to do and didn’t know everything they needed to. However, they had come to realise that if they did not get into the eSports sector, then they were running the risk of missing out on the next generation. It was a risk that had to be taken.
Patel presented the results of his own company’s entry into eSports. In the long term, the strategy is to convert these fans not only into clients, but also to scout talent and potential employees for the future. This sector is the only sport that is 100 per cent dependent on technology and is in major need of support from strategic partners at a global level. For example, the League of Legends was able to gather millions of fans around the world thanks to having an excellent technological partner.
From an advertising point of view, Marks explained that his company is all about connecting global companies and brands in need of innovation to sign partnership deals. “What we do with our clients is educate them” he says. “We try to change the concept of what a sponsor is; the traditional system is less and less common. Now it is more and more about sharing intellectual property.” A collaborative system is the only way to reduce the technology gap that still exists in so many areas of sports.
The technological experiences of a global brand can serve as a laboratory and as a world stage at the same time. We must forget the idea of appropriating projects and start seeing them as joint efforts. Some provide the intellectual property and others build the experience, but the result is the outcome of that alliance. We need a change of mind-set.
Ninety-nine per cent of games that are played are never recorded, says Alon Werber, CEO of Pixellot. His company’s goal is to democratise match broadcasts and recordings so that a wider audience can analyse or store them. The only way this could be done, he says, was by cutting costs with automated recording methods using computer vision. A camera can be taught to follow the ball and distinguish aspects of the game, such as corner kicks, so the idea is to train the AI by showing it as many matches as possible from which it can gather data.
The project is in development but the idea is for it to be used in fifteen different sports. Right now, the company is working with FC Barcelona to install these devices at the Ciutat Esportiva training ground. On the consumer level, it has launched a kit in the United States that can be set up at any ground and captures the game in a very simple manner that the coach can then edit.
While Pixellot focuses on teams, Alex Wu of HomeCourt commented on the mobile technology his company is working on. The app is used to correct errors in training or to manage them, especially in sports like basketball, where repetition exercises are as common as they are tedious. “You cannot improve unless you count how many times you have got something wrong, and not everyone can have a coach to help them” he says.
A benefit that an app like this offers is that it gamifies processes in which athletes invest so many hours of their lives, making significant sacrifices. Wu feels that it is a curious step, because it seems to be going in the opposite direction to what one might expect. It is taking eSports to real sport and not the other way around. The app not only hones skills, but can also be used to compete with friends or other users. “Sit-ups used to be a punishment, now they’re fun,” he says. It can also be viewed as a motivation to get children to do more sport and be less sedentary.
This technology uses an algorithm to provide feedback to the athlete in real time. Wu also highlighted that one of the great things about the app is that it doesn’t need anything more than a mobile. There is no need to carry a load of sensors and cables like in the past. Although this system is still at a very early stage, its great advantage is that the new generations will soon be able to buy it at an affordable price, which will help to improve the skills of thousands of young athletes. His clients, so far, are mostly between 13 and 18 years old. And for the NBA, these apps could soon offer a very simple means to scout new talent.
Jesse Davis, from the University of Leuven, has presented a data measurement system that broadens the possibilities for analysing both a team and an individual player. The focus is on three areas: performance, tactics and health.
Davis began by saying that it is extremely difficult to measure the value of every action a player performs because it is very subjective. Also, you do not know what the coach has told the player to do, nor have any instant idea of the player’s intentions. And very few actions in football are exactly the same, and that’s a problem for Artificial Intelligence, which learns through repetition.
In order to measure these motivations, an essential element is to break the analysis down by pitch zones. His hypothesis is that the style of play is manifested by two circumstances: the location of the player and the type of action that he performs in each zone. With these parameters, the relationship between action and location can be calculated. For example, selecting a type of action: pass, dribble, shot, etc., and seeing how many times the player performs each action in each zone. Davis claims that this data would be like a fingerprint of each player, a mathematical representation of their style of play.
The applications are manifold. Players could be compared with each other or one player’s individual evolution could be analysed. This could be very useful information when it comes to deciding which new players to sign, for example. If you need to replace a crucial member of the team, you can look for one who has performed similar or comparable game functions by simply looking at the data.
If pitch zoning also records the direction of the ball each time it enters or leaves a quadrant, this set of movements reflects the team’s style of play. By introducing the limitations on these movements (for example, a central midfielder has 360º in which to pass the ball, but a winger only has 180º) you can analyse their passing lines and even try to predict their movements.
A third challenge is related to fitness. Until recently a computer could not calibrate a certain move while also considering player fatigue. However, a player’s biomechanical parameters can now be obtained with an app, and that’s the kind of information that could previously only be obtained in a laboratory.
Mireia Porta and Carlos Contreras have introduced the recently created Association of Dieticians and Nutritionists of Spanish Football Teams (ADNEFE), which brings together nutritionists who work at different levels of the Spanish game. Specifically, they presented a descriptive study that they have conducted on body composition and somatotype in footballers of different levels. They presented average data for height, weight, body mass index and skinfolds of 920 players from 43 teams, from U19 teams to second division, as well as data for female first division players. Also, for each category, they presented somatotypes by playing position. For example, the tallest players tend to be goalkeepers, followed by defenders and forwards, while midfielders are the shortest. They also explained how lower sums of skinfolds and greater mesomorphy are observed in higher divisions (Second Division) than below (Division 2B, Third Division and U19). This data can be used to establish the ‘normal’ body composition values of footballers at different levels.
Mar Blanco, a pharmacist and food technologist, has told us about interactions between foods and pharmaceutical drugs, especially focusing on those that athletes consume the most. This issue is of special relevance since certain drugs can reduce the bioavailability of some nutrients by reducing their absorption, increasing their excretion at the renal or intestinal level, causing metabolic disorders, or inhibiting their endogenous synthesis.
For example, Mar Blanco began by citing the example of a group of widely consumed ones: antacids (e.g. omeprazole). These drugs have been shown, when consumed long-term, to reduce the metabolism of very important micronutrients like vitamin B12, magnesium, calcium and iron, with the consequent risk of associated pathologies such as osteoporosis, anaemia or bacterial infections. She also explained how, if presenting deficiencies of these micronutrients, we must take certain considerations into account when supplementing. For example, of the sources of vitamin B12, dibencocide and methylcobalamin have been shown to have better bioavailability and be safer than cyanocobalamin, and with other supplements like magnesium, we should not only consider the amount of the mineral, but also its source. Additionally, antacid drugs that inhibit the proton pump can, by causing changes to the pH of the digestive tract, modify bacterial composition (microbiota), which also occurs with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics. Meanwhile, supplementation with prebiotics and probiotics is recommended to avoid these alterations.
Mar Blanco also spoke about how certain nutrients (e.g. milk) can increase the urinary excretion of some drugs, and how laxatives, diuretics and fibre supplements can also reduce the bioavailability of the drugs consumed. She also described the effect that contraceptives can have on some nutrients like vitamin B12, folates and zinc, and how phytotherapeutic treatments (e.g. grape seed extract, green tea and guarana) can, despite being considered ‘natural’, also reduce the bioavailability of some nutrients when they are consumed in excess.
Dr Johannes Zwerver, Sports Physician at the University of Groningen, has addressed the topic of patellar tendinopathy. He began by talking about its prevalence, showing how patellar tendinopathy (also known as Jumper’s Knee) affects up to 40% of elite athletes and 10% of non-elite athletes. He then summarised the pathophysiology of the condition, in which poor adaptation of the tendon plays a fundamental role that can lead to an increase in tendon degeneration or inflammation (which are frequently interrelated) and thus causing tendinopathy. He then commented on the risk factors associated with this injury, showing how, although various factors have been related to a higher incidence (from biomechanical factors to imaging tests) the evidence is vague. He ended by commenting that there is no evidence to support the use of patellar straps to reduce pain in this pathology, nor is there enough evidence to support numerous types of injection (platelet-rich plasma, stem cells, gene therapy) or surgery.
Afterwards, Dr Amelia Arundale, a physiotherapist at the Brooklyn Nets, talked about how we should not only focus on the tendon when treating tendinopathy, but on everything else around the player (fitness, previous injuries, recovery and even nutrition and psychosocial status). She presented a case study of a female pro Australian footballer who had knee pain, and explained step by step how they assessed all the aforesaid variables, including injury history, imaging tests, knee and hip strength assessment, and jumping and landing measurement. She also revealed how they treat this injury in a multifactorial manner, looking at the progression of exercises involved, load assessment in training and recovery between sessions.
Finally, Javier Ruiz, a physiotherapist for the FC Barcelona basketball team, explained how the club deals with the Return to Play process in players with patellar tendinopathy. He described how they progress from isometric exercises (the main objective of which is to produce a sensation of analgesia) to eccentric exercises (which are the most effective in the medium and long term). Ruiz also stressed the importance of starting with exercises at low speed and with both legs and from there progressing to higher speed, unilateral exercises, ending with plyometric and functional exercises (for example, on isoinertial machines). He also mentioned how other strategies, such as restricting blood flow, can provide certain benefits during this recovery period. Ruiz ended by describing the importance of assessing the evolution of tendinopathy (for example, using specific scales such as VISA-G), of muscle strength and training load during the recovery process to ensure correct Return to Play.
Dr. Jordi Puigdellívol, orthopaedic surgeon and member of the FC Barcelona medical staff, has spoken about hamstring surgery. He began by stressing that “in cases of hamstring rupture, the first option is always conservative treatment, but if there is a large tear or major muscle weakness in the injured area, surgery can be considered.”
When deciding whether to perform surgery or to opt for conservative treatment, the decision may also depend on whether the athlete is a professional or an amateur and the number of avulsions of the affected tendon. For example, in the case of professional athletes, if there are two or three avulsions, early surgery is recommended. However, if there is only one avulsion, surgical treatment will only be advisable should the athlete have symptoms. One thing to bear in mind with hamstring injuries is that surgery is put off for too long, meaning the tendons could retract to produce a large cavity in the injured area, which can make drainage difficult.
Once the operation has been performed, Dr. Puigdellívol says that “there is no imaging technique to tell us if the muscle is healing well. After an operation, even though GPS data and strength levels may be correct, the risk of relapse is high.” On imaging techniques, he commented that magnetic resonance imaging is very important to assess the loss of volume in the injured area and to visualise the possible accumulation of intra-muscular fat.
For his part, Óscar Muncunill, physiotherapist at Sant Josep clinic and for the Spanish Water Polo Team, addressed the post-operation rehabilitation process, stressing that recovery should begin as soon as possible, ideally before surgery. He believes that different practitioners need to be involved in the process to ensure comprehensive treatment: doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists, coaches and nutritionists. “Injuries affect players physically and psychologically, so a bio-psychosocial approach is important during treatment. It is important to educate the patient throughout the entire process, because telling him about strategies and times can have positive effects on his recovery.”
Rehabilitation must respect the physiological principles of tissue regeneration, so the objectives must be: to increase vascularisation, to avoid fibrosis and to recover the viscoelastic functions of the tissue. Hence, tension and the application of an optimal load are essential requirements in each of the stages that the physiotherapist proposes.
Dr. András Hegyi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nantes, has discussed the role of the hamstrings during high-speed running. In his presentation, he analysed how the architecture of this muscle group changes when it is stretched during the different phases of movement, explaining how the tendon affects the muscle’s behaviour. “Greater tendon stiffness affects the change in muscle length” he says. “In theory, the stiffer the tendon, the higher the risk of injury. From an injury prevention perspective, it might theoretically be a good idea to reduce tendon stiffness in training. However, this is very difficult, as most training exercises appear to increase stiffness. Furthermore, we don’t know how this could affect tendon performance and function.”
Just as tendon structure can alter hamstring behaviour, having short biceps femoris fasciculi is also associated with an increased risk of injury. Therefore, it could be a good idea to stretch the fasciculus. Although eccentric exercises have been shown to increase the length of biceps femoris fasciculi, Hegyi stresses that “we do not know how this could translate into better muscle function in specific sprint actions.”
He also explained that activated muscles have a greater capacity to absorb energy, which reduces the risk of injury, pointing out that “at a theoretical level if you are not able to activate the muscles, you will have to stretch them more to absorb the same amount of energy, which would increase the risk of injury.” So, after an injury it is essential to start activating the biceps femoris fasciculi as soon as possible, which is why it is so important to start running progressively after an injury in order to restore the neuromuscular function.
He ended by analysing different variants of the Nordic hamstring exercise, one of the most studied for preventing injury to this muscle group. If we compare, for example, two types of Nordic hamstring exercise, the classic curl performed with the hip at 0º offers greater activation than the one performed with the hip flexed at 90º. Finally, Dr. Hegyi observed that a problem with this exercise (and most that are done to strengthen this area) is that they do not particularly activate the muscles when in the most elongated phase, something that does occur in the sprint phase where the risk of injury is higher.