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Football: The Digital Age
28/03/2018

Over the past few months it has been impossible to miss the controversy surrounding the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. Whilst VAR is still facing kinks in need of ironing out, other on-the-pitch advancements like goal line technology are starting to settle in as football finds itself in a new digital era.

These developments have been massive talking points over the last few years, but what isn’t as obvious is the use of technology in football clubs behind the scenes. From training; scouting; and fan engagement, nearly all football clubs have now stepped into the digital age and are using technology to develop their squads.

To find out how football clubs are using new technologies, we spoke to Everton; Arsenal; and one other top flight club.

Arsenal are one of many clubs to be using STATSports technology in their training sessions - you will have seen the players wearing the tracking vest in their warm-ups. The system measures large quantities of data, covering everything from speed; distance; acceleration/deceleration; fatigue levels; and risk of injury.

Tom Allen, Lead Sport Scientist at the club, told us “we are no longer guessing how hard a training session is for players. We can objectively measure each training session live so we are able to ensure players reach required targets and are performing to a physical level that is to be expected.”

This technology is used in every training session allowing the coaching staff and players to see live data, from which they can plan exactly what each individual player needs - not only for their next session, but as they train. This kind of data is particularly useful for players recovering from injury, giving them the opportunity to see exactly what they need to rebuild strength, and how far away they are from full-fitness. 

One of the most important features of STATSports devices is the ability to observe how each player is coping with the load prescribed over a long stretch of time, and when would be optimal to increase the load.
Tom told us, “the physical outputs in the game are increasing and the game is becoming more demanding on players. This coupled with the heavy fixture schedules makes the use of this technology paramount. Now we can put numbers to this difficult period, allowing practitioners to prepare the players to cope with these demands.

By better preparing our players, this hopefully means a reduction in the number of injuries and being able to maintain performance in a fatigued state. This will increase the chances of the coaches being able to pick their best team at the weekend.”

It’s clear that having this data and technology is an advantage, but in terms of moving forward Tom said “as an industry we need to ensure we fully understand how to interpret the information, recognising that the same pattern for different players may not equate to the same outcome. It is the understanding of this technology that is integral for the advancement of English football.

We spoke to another top Premier League side about the use of technology within their club, who told us that they were one of the first clubs to introduce motion graphics to their scouting team. We spoke to their first Motion Graphics Designer, who told us “before my role, this didn’t exist. It had never been done before.”  

“I would receive videos of new young players and condense them so they could be easily digested. I would create presentations with the footage and collate stats on the player displayed as graphics to then show the coaching staff.” 

When asked what impact the introduction of this role had on the club, he told us “it has completely changed recruitment at the club. Our first team manager told me himself that in one particular case, the presentation had totally changed his opinion of a player. It offers a different way to view a player than before when it was only image based.”

Using video in the recruitment process, particularly for global clubs, is one of the biggest changes in modern day football. It has made bright young players from the other side of the world much more accessible. They can be reviewed by managerial and coaching staff almost instantaneously and it gives the staff a much better idea of a players skill. 

This side may have been ahead of the game in this field, but it won’t be long until this role is in every club. 

Aside from training and player development purposes, technology advancement has also had a huge impact on fan engagement. Stephen Hunter, former Head of Creative at Everton F.C.  spoke to us about the impact social media had on his role within the club:

“There are different pressures now - it’s not harder or easier. Because of social media, people can see all the negative feedback which means we have to act on it. People get more of a reaction from negative feedback than they do from positive.

“Football clubs don’t refer to fans as customers, but the basis is the same. The difference is if you receive bad service from a shop you don’t go back, but if the team doesn’t perform what do we do? We go back every week anyway. 

“What happens with technology now is that fans develop ‘customer rights’ - the ‘I didn’t get what I paid for’ mentality. If a customer or fan is unsatisfied it will go straight on Twitter or Facebook. If someone gets the wrong meal, in the past they’d write a letter of complaint and it would probably go unnoticed. Now, it’s on social media, the club sees it as it picks up attention and it gets rectified because that’s what happens when a customer is unsatisfied.”

Discussion of football clubs on social media often raises the debate of whether or not the need for traditional media is as prevalent as it once was. Clubs can now release news directly through their websites and social accounts perhaps reducing the need for a 3rd party media. However, Stephen believes there is still a place for traditional media in football.

“The difference between what comes from the club and what goes through traditional media is that the fans responding on social media are the loyal fans who were already engaged, so traditional media still has its use.” 

The introduction of new technologies in football always gets a mixed response, but there are very clear advantages of these changes. The question isn’t ‘should we use technology?’ But instead, how can we incorporate it into the game without disrupting the magic on the pitch? 
Trackers can measure a players fitness, but it doesn’t change a players psyche. Motion Graphics can illustrate a players stats and skills, but it doesn’t show their motivation or how they react to a big stage. There are some things that technology can’t change - but for the things it can, it has the potential to make big improvements.

Let us know what you think of VAR; players on social media; and everything in between on Twitter, and take a look at our #OrchardShoots fantasy football league

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