As we’ve witnessed in Qatar over the past few weeks, much of the excitement and spectacle of international football lies in its unpredictability – particularly within those tiny pockets of chance in the game’s margins. If not respected, the unknowns in those margins can align to transform even a foregone conclusion in international competition into an upset for the ages.
Serendipity and the game’s low-scoring nature help set the stage for such drama – but they play only a part. In the World Cup, for instance, players who spend 10 months a year with their club teams, whose health or fitness may be impacted by the Premier League grind, and who have relatively little opportunity to train as a unit are suddenly thrust together and expected to perform at a world-class level.
Meanwhile, the responsibility for the success of this operation falls on the shoulders of a national team’s manager. This is arguably as it should be: no one is more qualified to make key game decisions, informed by years of learned expertise and honed instinct. At the same time, even a single brilliant mind can’t take in and process all the information relevant to optimizing a club’s performance – everything from game strategy to the minutiae of player movement data. Even great coaches need support, and this is doubly true inside the whirlwind of international play.
So what’s a national team manager to do? They can start by taking a page from the playbook – or bytes from the data servers – of Premier League clubs.
The Value of Good Data
Those 10 months a year that players spend under the watchful eye of their club teams isn’t something taken lightly by staff in the Premier League (among other football associations). The vast majority of PL clubs are now equipped with the highest-quality movement-tracking technology (such as Sportlight’s LiDAR-based system), and they take full advantage of their privileged access to establish reliable player performance baselines and track every on-pitch move over the course of a season in order to keep tabs on player fitness, athletic progress and injury red flags.
Even for the best-resourced international teams, it’s impossible to match the sample sizes afforded to PL and other association clubs. But that makes it all the more critical for national clubs to collect good data – and as much of it as possible while players are under their purview. For the leaders of a squad of short-term soccer mercenaries, the ability to quickly learn players’ current fitness levels and optimal performance baselines may be even more valuable than knowing what those metrics looked like 10 months previously.
Additionally, national teams get to play the long game with data in a way that club teams can’t count on. International organizations begin working with players at the junior levels, which allows them to track the arc of player progress across decades and collect a volume of data from players at key developmental stages – which may, over time, help teams identify markers or trends that reveal hidden potential and best training practices, among other benefits.
Applying Data Within a Match
Data collection has implications for international clubs beyond player training and fitness. The granular movement insights provided by Sportlight, for instance, can help coaches make better-informed decisions about deploying those players in competition.
International teams don’t have to rely only on athletic reputations and general observations gathered from the scouting of club competition. Even in the small windows of time national clubs have with their players, team personnel can collect information about player strengths and weaknesses, and establish rough baselines that can help a manager in assembling lineups. This could mean determining the best players to execute a specific style of play (matching players based on physical and tactical considerations as well as taking into account levels of fatigue) or managing substitution patterns – an enormous consideration now that World Cup teams are allowed two more substitutions (up from three to five) per game.
Movement data may not be a magic bullet, but it can be a valuable tool at the disposal of managers, trainers and support staff to help international teams optimize their talent and make the most of their relatively limited time with players under their control.