Cheat sheets are out of fashion. Sophie Curtis discovers how the German national team is using data analysis software to gain a competitive edge over its rivals
Back in 2006, when Germany hosted the World Cup, goalkeeper Jens Lehmann had to resort to studying a crumpled, handwritten cheat sheet to glean tips on the habits of Argentina’s penalty-takers just before the quarter-final shootout against the south Americans.
Skip forward eight years, and the two teams are set to meet again in the World Cup final, but this time the German players have a much more sophisticated way of obtaining potentially match-winning information about their opponents.
Together with software company SAP, the German Football Association (DBF) has developed an application called Match Insights, which analyses vast amounts of data about members of the German team and their opponents, based on their on-field performance.
This data can then be converted into simulations and graphs that can be viewed on a tablet or smartphone, enabling trainers, coaches and players to identify and assess key situations in each match. These insights can then be used during pre-match preparations to improve player and team performance.
Player performance is analysed using eight cameras that surround the pitch. The pitch itself is transformed into a grid, and each player is assigned a unique identifier, allowing their movements to be tracked digitally.
This data can then be used to measure key performance indicators, such as the number of touches, average possession time, distance travelled, movement speeds and directional changes.
For the German national team, one of their key targets ahead of the World Cup was to improve their passing speed. With the help of SAP’s Match Insights technology, the team was able to reduce average possession time from 3.4 seconds in 2010 down to 1.1 second in 2014.
“SAP’s involvement has transformed the football experience for coaches, players, fans, and the media,” said Oliver Bierhoff, manager of the German national football team.
“Imagine this: In just 10 minutes, 10 players with three balls can produce over seven million data points. With SAP, our team can analyse this huge amount of data to customise training and prepare for the next match.”
As well as enabling the German team to analyse its own performance, Match Insights can help coaches and players to identify opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and inform defensive tactics.
The software can extract data on individual players, and present it in the form of digital personas, so that it is “as simple to use as their favorite video game”, according to Chris Burton, general vice president of global sponsorships at SAP.
“Today each sports team is looking for innovative ways to gain a competitive edge over its rivals,” said Bierhoff.
“We are representing one of the most successful teams in the world. The DFB is committed to providing the German national team with the best technology to maximise their performance.”
The German national team is currently using SAP Match Insights in an early adoption phase, but ultimately SAP plans to open the app up to other clubs and football federations, and make this type of information accessible to sports journalists and fans.
SAP and the DFB are also planning a series of additional projects that will take the app’s capabilities beyond match analysis, linking various disciplines – including psychology and medicine – with match analyses, and integrating all the data in a single solution.
This would involve gathering information as a basis for long-term research, such as health data and player training schedules, and running match analyses for individual players.
Bierhoff said that this could one day help the German national coach make crucial half-time tactical decisions, such as which players to substitute and when. For tonight’s final, however, much will still be left to Bierhoff’s intuition. But if Germany win, the latest computers should take at least some of the credit.