The purpose is straightforward: To know all that’s happening with the players on a football pitch. Their position in regard to their opponent and in relation to the play. Their speed, maximum and average. Distance covered. The orientation of their body at all times. Tracking devices are set to revolutionise the game in many aspects, including the team’s tactical preparation, how matches are read and analysed, as well as the information that will be available for broadcasting and journalists. A technology that will have been developed at FC Barcelona’s home stadium.
This is one of FIFA’s most important projects establishing quality standards for this kind of technology. A first-of-its-kind trial was carried out on the 11th of October at the Camp Nou stadium, featuring electronic performance tracking system (EPTS) devices from 13 separate companies.
Victoria University (Australia) was in charge of analysing each brand. Rob Aughey, a researcher of the Institute for Health & Sport, explained the following during the tests: “The reason why it is so important to work in a stadium like this one is that it involves a challenge. The sheer size of the stands can block or interfere with the satellite signals, which could hinder the GPS accuracy. And in terms of visual optics, a field this size contains areas of light and shadow, really putting the devices to the test. If they work here, they’ll work virtually anywhere”.
In January 2020 we’ll have the first results for these technologies that – up until now – have yet to face third-party evaluations. To be able to establish a common measurement, it was necessary to carry out the tests in the same place and at the same time. Johsan Billingham, Research Manager of FIFA’s Technology & Innovation Department, responsible for the certification event and test procedure pointed out: “We want to provide a transparent assessment of each system so that the end-user, whether that is a team, a member association or a competition organiser, can make an informed decision when selecting their provider”.
For FC Barcelona, innovations in this field are important because they will help to optimise the time invested by analysts in obtaining information on everything that takes place during a match. The club currently has automatised reports obtained through tactical video. Thanks to the algorithms used in processing the information on each player’s position at any given moment, we can obtain the following key data: to what extent the team is in danger, how often lines are crossed in certain circumstances, whether there are problems in playing the ball out, etc.
The goal is for the manager to be able to consult this information as quickly as possible. Now, all of this data can be linked to videos. If the coach is interested in the peak marked out by a dangerous curve, he has to access the video of that play. It’s all about streamlining, about being able to access a full data report as soon as a match has finished – and at some point in the future – in real-time. We are entering a new horizon where computerised analytics can provide managers with guidance, and help to make decisions as the match unfolds.
In terms of future technology, the club has its eyes on the area of optical tracking – the information that makes it possible to track the position of the ball. GPS can show us all sorts of information, but if the position of the ball is missing from the picture, the data we get from GPS remains decontextualised. Right now, the immediacy and the quality of the data have room for improvement. Normally GPS data has to be processed after the match with help from the video to improve it. Once we are able to determine the position of the ball, we will be facing a revolution, not just in terms of technology, but at the tactical and strategic level as well.
In the area of sports medicine, these advancements will directly impact our ability to process this big data related to players’ workload, as well as their levels of fatigue. This information will help managers regulate and rotate squads based on increasingly less subjective and more empirical and accurate information.
Billingham remarked that more and more stakeholders from fans to managers are interested in receiving accurate and reliable statistics describing what is happening on the pitch during and after the game. The devices can also be used for more abstract concepts such as better understanding the optimal pitch position for referees to be in to improve their decision making.
On the Camp Nou pitch, a 30×30 metre zone was set up with ten cameras on each side. Players from INEF Catalonia inside this zone wore markers on their shoulders, hips and lower back to measure their body position and orientation. The exercises consisted of completing a physical circuit involving walking, jogging and sprinting in different directions, as well as changes of direction and accelerations. They also played a two-on-two and five-on-five with the football. As well as a series of maximal sprints to collect high-velocity data.
At the same time, in order for other companies to show that their products work across the entire playing surface, other players were simultaneously performing exercises on different parts of the pitch. All the data collected by each system is being cross-checked to assess their accuracy.
This type of technology is also applicable to other sports. Work is currently being done at the Victoria University to implement it in rowing, cycling, athletics, basketball, Australian football and rugby. Barça Innovation Hub works selflessly with research agencies in the development of these new technologies because, from the advancement of the industry alone, it is already receiving a return. Above all else, all of this precise information that we can derive from electronic devices and systems has one major benefit: it helps us preserve the playing style and philosophy of the club.
The Barça Innovation Hub team