By Paul Gardner
Please sit down. I’m about to announce the most staggering, amazing, incredible, never-before, once-in-a-lifetime, you-won’t believe this, what-will-they-think-of next? moment in the 150-year history of soccer.
If this doesn’t knock your socks off, then there’s no hope for you. The epoch-making news comes from adidas ... they have invented, conceived, assembled, given birth to, miCoach. MiCoach? Yes, miCoach. As words fail me in attempting to describe this fantastic breakthrough, I’ll let adidas tell you about miCoach, which they describe as a (or possibly the) “professional soccer team tracking system, the next step in player performance analysis technology ... [which] provides coaches with real time performance metrics on the field of play, including player position, power output, speed, distance covered, intensity of play, acceleration and GPS heat mapping.”
This breath-taking technology will be used for the first time at this year’s MLS All-Star Game in Philadelphia, where it will bring (and again I must use adidas’s own words, for my own feelings about miCoach do not seem to quite match the evident majesty of the occasion) “the most significant advancement in soccer coaching in the modern era.” MiCoach will thus make the all-star game “the world’s first smart soccer match.”
Wait, don’t stand up yet -- here comes MLS Commissioner Don Garber with his share of unstinting praise: “It is an honor that they [i.e. adidas] have chosen to debut their new game-changing and revolutionary technology at this year’s AT&T MLS All-Star Game.”
OK, enough already. Are we really supposed to believe all this drivel? One thing immediately noticeable about the adidas puffery is that it does not include the surely obligatory (and invariably fatuous) testimonial from a coach who has, we are told, used the system and found it superb. That is odd, because such coaches are never hard to find.
So we are given no idea whether miCoach actually works. In fact, it might be difficult to judge whether it works anyway, as we’re never told what it is supposed to do other than that it is “the next step in player performance analysis technology.”
Which tells us precisely nothing. Frankly, messrs adidas, I could not care less about what this super-clever technology does for coaches. Maybe it makes their job easier? Maybe it makes them better coaches? And who knows what that means.
A year ago the New York Red Bulls announced the signing of Performance Analyst David Lee, a Brit who would be in charge of “using video analysis to evaluate the Red Bulls and their opponents.” Not much -- well, nothing actually -- was heard about Lee after that, as the Red Bulls’ season turned into a shambles.
So it is far from a sure cry that setting up computer analysis will result in anything good. That it will result in a mountain of largely irrelevant statistics I don’t doubt. I also strongly suspect that the more sophisticated (I should really say “apparently” sophisticated) the systems get the worse the coaches will get. Why bother to even watch the game when the computer is doing everything for you, and so much more comprehensively and efficiently?
Actually, it’s not clear exactly what a coach using miCoach will do. He may well not be watching the game -- difficult to see how he could when he’s being fed constant stats on exactly what each of his players (and, I assume, his opponents) are doing at each second of the game.
I must admit that I don’t care too much about what the coach does anyway -- he can do whatever he likes during the game, including falling asleep on the bench. The only thing that matters is that he gives us an exciting game, some soccer worth watching.
But of course there is no mention, in all of adidas’s pseudo-technical twaddle, of good soccer. Not a word. Look at that list of measurements that adidas so proudly advances as evidence of miCoach’s usefulness: “player position, power output, speed, distance covered, intensity of play, acceleration and GPS heat mapping.” This is a perfect example of what motivates so many of the computer boffins -- the mere accumulation of unlikely stats. Clever it undoubtedly is. Whether it is of any value is another matter.
Watching Lionel Messi in action -- which is currently the ultimate in soccer sensations -- it would never occur to me to consider any of those dreary factors. And it will take more than an army of white-coated adidas technicians to convince me that this sort of microanalysis is going to give us better soccer.
Talking of guys in white coats. Adidas has a habit of parading these guys whenever it announces another of its remarkable technological marvels ... a new soccer ball. It’s only a couple of years back that adidas ushered in the Jabulani as the official ball for the 2010 World Cup. It came with the scientific backing of Hans-Peter Nürnberg, senior technical director at adidas, who assured us that the perfection of the new ball gave “more confidence for the player because they have higher chances to make a score." So, more goals? A more exciting game? For the record, the 2010 World Cup scoring rate was 2.26 per game - the second worst ever.
Don Garber may be correct in describing miCoach as “game-changing.” But the changes will probably be for the worse. How do I know that? For a start: I’ve listened and watched while quite a few of these computer techies have explained there wonderful systems to me -- I’ve been duly impressed (I’m not kidding, what these guys and their computers can do is pretty amazing); but I’ve yet to see any improvements in the game that can be put down directly to computer technology.
To sum up: until adidas and all the other companies involved in what seems to be known as “sports analytics” can prove to me that their miracle products have made the game more exciting or more worth watching ... until that moment, I do feel justified in summing up their field with a single elegant abbreviation -- I do regard it all as b.s.