Cricket, rugby and tennis have well and truly embraced sensors, trackers and video replays. The world’s most popular sport, meanwhile, appears relatively untouched by the wiry tentacles of technology.
Aside from the cameras that detect whether the ball has gone over the goal line during a game – and even those are only in use in the top leagues in England, Germany, Italy and France – football officials still rely on what they see with their own eyes to make the majority of decisions. The whistle that the referee blows at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon is about as techy as it gets.
But change is coming. At last year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada players wore GPS trackers in a competitive match for the very first time after FIFA permitted their use just a few months earlier.
The Football League followed suit at the start of the current football season, with 19 clubs registered to use GPS trackers, but right now they’re still put to use predominantly away from match days, in pre-season friendlies and on training pitches. They're currently conspicuous by their absence on match days in the Premier League.
Tracking the benefits
The thing is, winning a football match isn’t just about securing three points or a place in the next round of the cup anymore. Winning means money, so clubs are going to look for every possible advantage to help them beat their opponents. That’s where wearable tech comes in.
Many teams like to keep exactly how they use technology a secret for fear of giving away a competitive advantage but it’s possible to get an idea of how it’s used by looking at some of the systems currently on the market.
GPS devices such as those made by Catapult (as used by current Premier League leaders Leicester City and Championship promotion chasers Brighton & Hove Albion) and StatSports (whose Viper is worn by current Champions League holders FC Barcelona, Serie A leaders Juventus and the England national team) track the movements of players as they train.
These small, lightweight trackers are stowed inside skintight vests worn underneath the players’ shirts. If you look very hard you might see a small bump, but they’re pretty much invisible. The data they collect, however, makes a much bigger splash.
Take the Viper, for example. This small tracker pod contains a GPS module, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a digital compass and a receiver for a heart-rate monitor to transmit data to. The whole lot can be streamed in real-time using Viper’s software, or downloaded after the players have retreated to the dressing room.
The software shows data on 12 different metrics, including speed, acceleration and deceleration, distance, heart rate variability and dynamic stress load. Coaches and fitness staff can then choose the time period they want to look at, whether it’s that day’s session or the whole season so far, and see how a player is performing.
With squad sizes limited, one of the (avoidable) things that can seriously derail a team’s progress on the pitch is players getting injured – and data can help to avoid that. If the data shows a coach that a player is being overly stressed by a particular activity, the coach can alter his or her training scheme before it results in a lengthy spell on the treatment table.
But what about goalkeepers? These lone figures can often be the difference between victory and defeat but knowing how far they run in training isn’t really useful for a player who spends 99 per cent of their time during a game within the penalty box. In fact, a goalkeeper often works far harder in training than they would during a competitive game, particularly if the defenders lined up in front of him are doing their job.
Australian firm Catapult has developed a device called the OptimEye G5, which measures a different kind of movement much more relevant to a goalkeeper’s performance. It can detect the distance, direction and height of a dive, allowing coaches to identify weaknesses that need to be worked on.
You snooze, you lose
It’s not just out on the field that players generate useful data from wearables. Even when they’re asleep players can provide useful stats to coaches.
Sports science experts have identified a link between poor reaction times and lack of decent shut-eye, so sleep trackers are commonplace on the wrists of slumbering stars. Devices such as Fatigue Science’s ReadiBand are dished out to team members, allowing coaches to see just how players are affected by those long, mid-week trips to away games across Europe.
It’s not all high-end, professional athletes-only tech either. If you’ve ever worn a Garmin sports watch you have more in common with a Premier League footballer than you probably thought (although unfortunately for you, it’s not the bank balance).
Southampton FC’s deal with Garmin means the players wear Forerunner 620 watches – which capture GPS data, heart rate information and VO2 max stats – during a training exercise which they repeat every six weeks. Fitness staff at the club then use that data to personalise training schedules and adjust recovery times – and you could do the same for just £270 (minus the coach).
Similarly, when Germany won the World Cup in 2014 they did so with the assistance of Adidas’s miCoach wearable tech. Sure, Mario Goetze’s extra-time goal probably sealed it, but Jogi Low’s victorious squad used the tech while training in the lead up to and during the tournament in Brazil, with Low using the data to inform his decision of who to bring on while a match was at a stalemate. And who did he choose to summon from the bench? That man Mario of course, who, out of all the players sitting on the bench, had data that was said to be preferable for the situation the team was facing.
But what about those of us that just like to watch? The ones who dream of scoring a winning goal in a World Cup final, but whose physique is more Mario the plumber than Mario Gotze?
Could we soon see stats from in-game wearables used by TV pundits and commentators to inform their analysis? It’s unlikely managers and coaches would want to give away such potentially game-changing information while the match is still in progress, but to boost the accuracy and allow new ways to score in fantasy football, personal performance data could be huge.
What’s really likely to change the game is advances in the tech itself, to the point where devices are small enough to be swallowed or stuck directly to the skin. The one sticking point with the kit currently is potential risk to players if they’re involved in a collision, although it seems a small plastic GPS receiver is more likely to harmlessly break on impact than an opponent’s knee.
Besides, those kind of trackers would be practically undetectable, meaning the sport as a whole would likely have no choice but to fully embrace the technology once and for all.