Is ‘smart soccer’ the future of football?

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‘Soccer’ has come a long way in America since the birth of Major League Soccer In 1993. Formerly the dumping ground for old pros trying to make a quick buck before they retire, the American competition can at least lay some claim to being a competitive professional league.


Now it seems, it is the Americans leading the way in at least one aspect of the game; technology.


While the English game wrestles with its own technological conundrum – Clint Hill’s disallowed header last month in Bolton’s 2-1 victory over QPR shunted the issue of goal line technology to the forefront of minds once more – American football is taking another two-footed leap in to the future.


Never ones to feign shyness over embracing sport as an entertainment format, the MLS will soon be privy to the first ever ‘smart soccer’ game – and it is something which could conceivably be used in the Premier League before long.


Adidas, pioneers of the technology, claim managers of the All-Star MLS game will be able to access real time information through a tablet computer in the dugout, via a chip planted into player’s shirts.


They claim it as the “next step in player performance analysis technology” – coaches will be able to view data such as heart rate, player position, power output, speed, distance covered, intensity of play, acceleration and GPS heat mapping, by using tablet devices on the bench.


So what are the implications of this new technology? After all, Sam Allardyce during his time at Bolton pioneered the use of ProZone, a technology which uses camera’s installed around the club’s ground which tracks the work rate and positioning of players in order to give a clearer picture of what they are doing on the pitch.


The X-factor of Adidas’ idea comes from the real time aspect of the data being provided, managers could conceivably base their team-talk at half time on the information that has been received from the computer chip – previously data of this type was only available post-game at the very earliest. This vaguely Orwellian aspect of the technology suggests that the manager may only need press a few buttons or listen to the warning of the system to make all of his decisions such as subitutions.


Adidas claim that the program will provide alerts for when players are growing fatigued or if their work-rate simply isn’t up to scratch, for example – essentially helping managers make decisions what to do next.


The news of such a technology is enough to make purists wake up in a cold sweat. Football has often dug its heels in when it comes to embracing change – the lack of goal-line technology and video replays is a constant source of embarrassment – but to change the fundamental aspects of the game such as the manager's ability to change the game based on nous or instinct would be a huge leap.


It raises some interesting questions. Before too long, the sight of a manager stood on the touchlines with an iPad in hand staring at the screen in order to judge the performance on the pitch rather than viewing what is in front of him could be common place.


Instinct, tactical nous and experience could all pale in significance as the copious streams of data suggests what to do next.


It is an interesting proposition. Say for example, a manager sets up his game plan based on pressing and hassling the opposition and quick counter-attacks, he will be able to see just how effectively his plan is working simply by looking at the screen to find out the positions his players are taking up and their work-rate. Everything he needs to make an assessment could be at his fingertips.


In truth, Adidas’ idea is not new and doesn’t represent a turning point for football – the stuffy FA blazer-types can rest easy knowing all they cling on to is not about to slip through their fingers.


But it interesting to note that early adopters of a similar technology – Uruguay – have started to excel in recent years.


The Copa America champions and World Cup semi-finalists use a system called K-Real time, designed by a company called Kizanaro, which provides manager Oscar Tabarez and his coaches real-time information to access at half-time, say, allowing them to change their approach to the game based on what they have been told.


"This allows us to support and strengthen our views from the pitch. Sometimes we are surprised; we might think we saw things that weren't exactly like that, or sometimes they might be confirmed," Tabarez said last month.


"Sometimes players might come in angry with the way they played - this allows us to lift their mood: 'Look, we had four times more shots than they had'.


"Sometimes the player doesn't realise it. So this is some of the objective information this software provides us."


Uruguay used the system for their 2010 World Cup qualifiers, before they went on to cause a stir and reach the semi-finals of the tournament in South Africa. Their success in that tournament and their Copa America victory certainly raised a few eye-brows – this is a country, don’t forget with a population of just over three million that live in the shadow of Brazil and Argentina.


Of course, Tabarez is quick to point out is not the be all and end all – that the technology is there to assist and help rather than be the sole decision maker.


“A coach has the obligation not to rely only on his good eye, but to have tools that allow him to see all the details." He makes an excellent point.


In recent years technology has played an increasingly vital role in how football is understood – we live in the digital age and football is in no way immune to that, just check the deluge of statistics available on the internet at the click of a button.


However football has always stubbornly kept one foot in the past, or at least its governing bodies have, and it has proved difficult to drag the game into the future. Technology is surely football's greatest friend, and should be used to enhance it, not change it fundamentally.


How many games would be different if goal-line technology were used, or how much better could teams perform if manager's truly understood what was going on on front of them. Frank Lampard will certainly have something to say about the former.


For the game to keep pace with the modern world that surrounds it, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad example to embrace smart soccer. Maybe, there is something to learn from the Americans and MLS Soccer after all.

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