Science and the World Cup: how big data is transforming football

Essay by David Adam: “The scowl on Cristiano Ronaldo’s face made international headlines last month when the Portuguese superstar was pulled from a match between Manchester United and Newcastle with 18 minutes left to play. But he’s not alone in his sentiment. Few footballers agree with a manager’s decision to substitute them in favour of a fresh replacement.

During the upcoming football World Cup tournament in Qatar, players will have a more evidence-based way to argue for time on the pitch. Within minutes of the final whistle, tournament organizers will send each player a detailed breakdown of their performance. Strikers will be able to show how often they made a run and were ignored. Defenders will have data on how much they hassled and harried the opposing team when it had possession.

It’s the latest incursion of numbers into the beautiful game. Data analysis now helps to steer everything from player transfers and the intensity of training, to targeting opponents and recommending the best direction to kick the ball at any point on the pitch.

Meanwhile, footballers face the kind of data scrutiny more often associated with an astronaut. Wearable vests and straps can now sense motion, track position with GPS and count the number of shots taken with each foot. Cameras at multiple angles capture everything from headers won to how long players keep the ball. And to make sense of this information, most elite football teams now employ data analysts, including mathematicians, data scientists and physicists plucked from top companies and labs such as computing giant Microsoft and CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland….(More)”.