How Big Data Is Changing the World of Soccer

by   |   February 12, 2016 3:30 pm   |   0 Comments

Jure Rejec

Jure Rejec

Sports clubs, media outlets, and fans around the world all share a thirst for advanced statistics and information. Teams use them to improve the performance of their own players, prepare tactics against other teams, or scout potentially interesting players. Media outlets love the added value that data bring to their reports. And advanced stats have outsized importance for fantasy sports managers, who rely on them to create their fantasy teams and daily lineups.

Let’s start with last year’s soccer World Cup in Brazil. The Germans, known for their technological know-how, leveraged the Internet of Things and raised a few eyebrows when they wore Adidas’ miCoach elite team system during training sessions before and during the competition. The wearable monitoring devices collect and transmit information directly from the athlete’s bodies, including heart rate, distance, speed, acceleration, and power, and display those metrics live on an iPad. All this information is available live to coaches and trainers on the sideline during training, as well as post-session for in-depth analysis. Analysis of the data can help identify players who could use a rest.

Australian company Catapult Sports uses global navigation satellite system (GNSS) data to measure player movement and fatigue. The company also has a local positioning system, called ClearSky, which can be installed around the indoor area of the stadium when obstacles, like a closed roof, interfere with satellites’ ability to lock on to individual units. ClearSky uses anchor nodes to track players’ movements. The devices are worn at the top of the back, held in place by a compression shirt that looks a bit like a sports bra and can be worn over or under a players’ uniform.

Catapult recently acquired GPSport, which is known for its sophisticated performance monitoring devices that incorporate advanced GPS tracking with an athlete’s heart rate. The combined group now works with more than 450 teams worldwide, including Chelsea, Real Madrid, and the Brazilian national team.

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ChyronHego offers player tracking technology called TRACAB, which uses image-processing technology to identify the position and speed of all moving objects within each soccer arena. The system generates live, accurate X, Y, and Z coordinates 25 times per second for every viewable object, including players, referees, and even the ball. The data provide insight for coaches to evaluate player performance and track metrics such as distance run, speeds, stamina, pass completion, team formations, etc. TRACAB is installed in over 125 stadiums and is used in more than 2,000 matches per year by the Premier League, Bundesliga, and Spanish La Liga.

All these tracking devices fall under the Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) category. Last summer, FIFA approved the use of wearable electronic performance and tracking systems during matches – on the condition that they do not endanger player safety and that information is not available to coaches during matches. Previously, players were allowed to wear them only during training.

FIFA relies on a visual tracking technology called Matrics to provide real-time data for on-site visualizations, heat maps, passes completed, and distance covered. The company behind Matrics is an Italian firm called Deltatre that uses several technologies and manual inputs from a large crew to deliver the real-time stats. This technology has been around for years, but it’s becoming more diverse, detailed, and accurate.

Deltatre also has been appointed by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) to provide a number of services from each Champions League venue. These include on-air graphics generation, which is directly embedded into the multilateral feed, and data capture for UEFA’s official results system, produced using a combination of a player tracking system and dedicated in-venue spotters.

Many soccer leagues and clubs collaborate with Opta, the leading provider of soccer sports data. Opta’s analytics can determine every single action of a player in a specific zone on the field, regardless of whether or not the player has the ball. It also can measure the distance the player runs during the course of a game.

This type of analytics is useful for clubs when scouting and to help shape roster development decisions. Perhaps the best-known advocate of this approach among top managers is Arsène Wenger. The Arsenal manager once said that the personal touch in player scouting remains decisive, but the computer-generated statistics can certainly help his management to find a player they need. Not surprisingly, back in 2012, the English club even bought U.S.-based data company StatDNA, which provides expert analysis, guiding everything from identifying new players to post-game tactical analysis.

Operators of fantasy soccer leagues generally use a limited number of stats, normally from 5 to 20, to sum up a game. However, Oulala Games Ltd has built a mathematical matrix that uses Opta’s data to create an efficient scoring system. This company’s platform uses a sophisticated algorithm to assess the crucial aspects of an athlete’s performance that contribute to an overall result. Their system includes a total of 70 different criteria dependent on a player’s position (keeper, defender, midfielder, and striker) resulting in a total of 275 ways to gain or lose points.

Soccer, which always has been a numbers game, is driven more and more by big data. Clubs are hiring more computer analysts, and fan and analyst conversations about the performance of players, managers, and teams are more stats-based than ever before. Advanced metrics are also seeping out of real soccer and into the world of fantasy sports – the stats that surround players are not only used to measure their actual performance, but also to evaluate their contribution to fantasy teams. This big data revolution in soccer will continue and change the experience of both playing and watching the most popular sport in the world.

Jure Rejec writes for, one of Europe’s leading fantasy football/soccer sites. He is passionate about fantasy sports betting/wagering, its technological innovations, and big data.

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