It has become second nature for fans to watch matches on television and be given access to player data. Watch a Champions League game, for example, and when a player is substituted you might be given his total distance covered. After a game, a heatmap might be flashed up to show where a player has done their work.
Clubs themselves keep most of the good stuff in house but supporters are nonetheless accustomed to being permitted to see for themselves just how hard players are working.
It’s one of the things which has separated the pros from the amateurs. Underage teams and amateur league teams have never truly been able to measure this data in the same kind of way. There were always limitations for what coaches or players themselves could measure.
Football has lagged behind other amateur sports in this respect. For example, joggers and cyclists have long been able to track and log their performances with a view to improving and comparing their times and distances against fellow competitors and indeed against themselves over time.
Now amateur footballers can do similar. Wearable technology company Catapult Sports supplies equipment and data for over 1,500 professional sports teams all over the world, including Neymar’s Brazil and Real Madrid. They have put onto the market a consumer version of their Playertek device which allows players and coaches to be delivered accurate measurements of their efforts.
Recently I was given the opportunity to test one out. I was given a Playertek vest, complete with a GPS-enabled pod inside. The small pod sits comfortably inside the back of the vest and measures data which is sent to an iOS app on my phone. After the session I will be able to go through the numbers in fine detail and see how my efforts measure up against the expected standard of a professional footballer.
I was invited along to take part in a match alongside some other journalists to face a team of Youtube influencers who were far, far better at football than I am. This would be reflected in the scoreline.
We convened at Charlton Athletic’s training facility and were given a going over by their first-team coach, Josh Hornby, who took great relish in warming us up. After deciding who would play where, it was on with the game.
We suffered. Ripped open time and again, we simply couldn’t get a foothold. We were chasing shadows; bad for our perceptions of our own abilities but good, perhaps, for our stats.
Over the course of the 45-minute match I covered 5.42km, restricted by a five-minute spell in goal. It’s about 40 per cent of what a professional would do in a similar timeframe according to the device.
I covered just 161 metres in sprints; I only managed six in total which was a disappointment. To register as a sprint, a player has to cover at least six metres a second. So, while I was actually trying to sprint, I simply wasn’t going fast enough to register on the device. No one is about to mistake me for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang any time soon.
According to the measurements, my performance dropped off some 27 per cent between the first half and second half. I did 58 per cent of my work in the first as opposed to 42 in the second. However, I’d like to say that the aforementioned stint in goal has affected the numbers there. Regardless, such information is vital for coaches who can tell players to conserve their energy for late in the game and improve their stamina.
The field graphics are interesting also. A heatmap shows what ground I covered in both halves. Another shows where I sprinted. Another shows my action areas.
Not only do I get a sense of how hard I was working, I can also see how disciplined or otherwise I have been tactically. I was a holding midfielder in the first half and spent 61 per cent of my time there. In the second I was a left-sided centre-back (and goalkeeper) and spent 48 per cent of my game time in defence and 45 pushing into midfield.
To have data like this to hand can certainly help convince a straying player that they are spending too much time away from their designated position. The ability for a coach or player to see a drop off in performance levels is enough to show players that they are not fit enough or not working hard enough.
There is also the facility where a player can check their individual performance in relation to others in the same game. That creates an internal competition where any given player is likely to give a little bit more in order to avoid finishing bottom in terms of distance covered, sprints or sprint speed.
To have the device strapped on is to be aware of the expectations in what is a team game. A player is likely to try harder in the knowledge that there is no hiding place – every step will be monitored. The device takes 2,500 measurements per second, meaning it is the most accurate one available on the consumer market.
Playertek has the potential to revolutionise any amateur game – from elite underage teams right down to weekday evening five-a-sides. A player will be empowered by knowing week-by-week whether or not their numbers are improving. Instead of making a player wary of the tech it is actually a motivation to know that there is no way that the device is lying. This provides an incentive for players themselves and, more pertinently, important information for a coach.