In this blog, Dr Sebastian Koppers, Project Lead TechLab at the DFB-Akademie (German Football Association), talks to Exasol about how his team identifies and uses the most relevant football technology behind the scenes to help the German national team take on the best in Europe at EURO 2020. It covers:
– How technology supports football decision making and performance
– Comparisons between football and other industries
– How technology is reducing the traditional element of luck in football
Exasol is proud to be an official partner of the DFB.
Technology has always played an important role in football. Just ask Joachim Löw, Gareth Southgate and the other managers who, with the weight of a nation’s sporting hopes on their shoulders, will be walking the tightrope of glory and failure at EURO 2020.
Nowadays coaches, physios, fans, pundits, commentators – just about everyone – is looking for insights to predict and improve how their team and individual players will perform. This is why Dr Sebastian Koppers’ cutting-edge work as the project lead at the DFB-Akademie’s (German Football Association) Techlab is so interesting.
“The main focus for us is how data and technology can support the game of football. We’re there to help the experts make better decisions by enabling them to do their work more efficiently, on and off the pitch,” says Koppers.
Put simply, Techlab carries out experiments using the latest technology and Loading...data science. The team pose questions and create hypotheses. They then evaluate and test the impact and validity of technology in answering these questions. With the focus always on the end user (the players) and how it impacts the sport – rather than tied to any monetary measure of success – Techlab has complete freedom to innovate.
We have three strategic pillars,” says Koppers. “The first one is player-centricity. This means looking at how different technology impacts a player’s performance and asking them about it.”
This user research can be very subjective but by regularly surveying how players feel about changes or a piece of tech, Koppers and his team can start to build a picture of what needs to improve.
“We sit down with the experts and make sure we get multiple perspective on what we measure. Then we basically align on a metric framework, but we’re very open about the limits and blind spots of those metrics in perceiving the impact later on,” he says.
On-site technology and long-term testing
Following player-centric evaluation, the second pillar comes into play. Koppers explains: “We put technology on our purpose-built campus where we can trial it for a dedicated period of time. This allows us to test and learn from it – and to see whether or not we implement it. We work in collaboration with clubs on this, so we can incorporate things into their training regimes.”
Open innovation positioning
The final pillar involves TechLab helping teams to get practical value and sift through the mountain of potential data dead ends.
“We see ourselves as a kind of orchestrator or translator for the offerings from the tech suppliers into the real world of professional football,” says Koppers, who’s keen to point out they aren’t always creating the raw innovation. “We want to be the people getting the right minds to the table, understanding what the needs are, and then giving players and clubs the the real-life benefits of what best suits them.”
Universal challenges and learnings
Interestingly, in TechLab’s experience the differences between Loading...data science in football compared to other industries are pretty negligible. In fact, he’s discovered that there are some universal challenges.
“We thought a lot about how we actually design the process of those questions getting to us, specifying them and then giving the value back to the experts. We’ve been lucky to visit a couple of US facilities and clubs last year. And basically, it’s the same problem everywhere. For example, all Loading...data science departments have the same questions,” says Koppers.
The team has learnt from past experiences in other industries and adopted methodologies which work for them. For instance, the team advocates agile working, but they’re not prescriptive on incorporating two weeks sprints.
“We also learnt to be very concise with the language we use to share insights and work together,” says Koppers. “As you can imagine, with the range of people we work with, we’re all coming from a lot of different backgrounds and experiences.”
What does this all mean for EURO 2020 and beyond?
“Don’t expect to see too many visible technological changes for the tournament. We’re all used to AR or people using iPads on the sidelines of matches. I don’t think that’s too much of a game changer,” says Koppers. “Most of the impact is happening behind the scenes. I would strongly recommend the viewers to just think about what’s going on behind all those games this summer. If for example, a team stays healthy and performs well all tournament think about all the work we’re doing with the federation.”
So, if a certain team just happens to win on penalties, with all this behind-the-scenes innovation and data analytics, there’s no justification to put that down to luck any more, is there?
If you’re interested in finding out more from Dr Sebastian Koppers about his work, listen to the latest episode of the DataXpresso podcast. We’ll be regularly posting podcasts, articles and videos on our EURO 2020 hub, so check back soon!