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The latest, greatest hi-tech b.s.
by Paul Gardner, April 11th, 2012 1:21AM

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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.



11 comments
  1. Eric Shinn
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 9:31 a.m.
    This sounds so much like something one of the antiquated scouts from the movie Moneyball would say, Billy Beane ought to get a writing credit. It's self-styled "purists" like you that hold back progress in every sport. It's this same argument that keeps goal-line technology from being implemented. It's this same argument that keeps just about ANY progress from being made. Is Adidas' nifty new system going to revolutionize the game, and turn every young player into Meesi and every coach into Sir Alex? Of course not. Nobody is claiming it will. But when you so obviously have NO clue what the system even IS, it's irresponsible - at best - to write this kind of drivel slamming something that you can't even describe, much less lay claim to fully understanding.
  1. Brent Crossland
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 9:35 a.m.
    And "You kids get off my lawn"!!
  1. Kraig Richard
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 9:36 a.m.
    Wait......they came out with this before releasing MiRef ??
  1. Mark Edge
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 9:50 a.m.
    In my day, we used to throw a couple of sweaters down for goals, play on a muddy field until our Mam's called us home for tea. Dodging the doodle-bugs over London. Great days. Mind you, our center forward caught T.B.
  1. I w Nowozeniuk
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 10:24 a.m.
    I'm already sick and tired of the countless cameras on the pitch that have no purpose except to get closeups of players, ref and coaches; especially players walking into a position after a play is over and the cameraman zooms in for 5 seconds as the player clears his nostrils or remains in a pantomine mode. Technology on the pitch has gone overboard and is a distraction with all the zoom-zooming without purpose.
  1. Andres Yturralde
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 1:28 p.m.
    For some reason, this whole conversation takes me back to Hamlet: "You would pluck out the heart of my mystery."
  1. Steve Gabbard
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 2:08 p.m.
    I am a college professor who teaches statistics and research methods, I study human performance (with a white coat in a lab) but I am also a State Referee Instructor. If the athleticism and very nuanced movements and mental judgments that make the difference between the world cup winner and your average amateur game COULD be reliably captured ...it is conceivable that this could turn into something. There exists very powerful software for full-motion video capture that can, in-fact, precisely measure subtle human movements. The NBA and IBM have done a similar thing with some useful outcomes. One of the things they use it for is 1v1 matchup outcomes over many matches. The court is ringed by laptops entering all this data for the entire game/for all games/for many seasons. The issue really is whether the data being collected has any bearing on the actual game outcome, and from a fan standpoint, the game's entertainment value. That we can do some science on soccer biomechanics(probably) is not really a question. Can the data be reliably transformed into something useful to the game, particularly when the exquisite mental processes and instincts are not included in the analysis...that is hardly clear. But it is absolutely not out of the question that some utility will emerge from this. I am NOT affiliated with the MLS or Adidas.
  1. Kent James
    commented on: April 11, 2012 at 3:56 p.m.
    Now Paul, don't knock it until you've tried it. Of course Adidas will exaggerate the benefits of the system (since it sounds like it's not cheap), but unless you don't think that soccer is a game that is capable of being understood, having better tools with which to try to understand it should be useful. For example, you've made the argument in the past that a coach should not expect forwards to play defense, because doing so will weaken them for the times when they play offense and will thus be counterproductive. Personally, I disagree; I think most forwards should be fit enough to do both. But I concede that you might be right, your argument does make sense. But now you should have additional information with which to settle that argument. Do forwards who run back on defense less effective scorers? Are forwards who run less overall more effective? Is the same forward more productive when he does not play defense? Other questions might be is an injury hampering a player's performance (either in speed or endurance)? This technology probably cannot measure the brilliance of a Messi that we all admire, but it might be useful to help improve the performance of mere mortals. And even with Messi, I'd be curious to see if he truly operates at a different speed than everyone else, since he certainly appears to do so.
  1. Jogo Bonito
    commented on: April 12, 2012 at 6:45 p.m.
    I find myself commenting more on the comments then the well-written thoughts of Mr. Gardner. There's a huge difference between this and Moneyball. Billy Beane put the well researched ideas of Bill James into a formula that worked for his situation. From what I've seen as an Academy coach is that MiCoach is like all the rest of this kind of stuff. It's fun to look at at first, but in the end really tells you very little about players that you can't see with your own eyes. Certainly there's nothing "revolutionary" about any of the technology crap that's out there. We used a similar product with a team I'm involved in and it was a waste of time. It's another ridiculous idea that is bound to have the scores of the Adidas/Nike wearing club (aka us soccer coaches) that can't wait to get the next level of their coaching license something to talk. I still believe that if the same Messi grew up here the us coaching establishment would have cut him at age 13. The next Messi may get cut because MiCoach tells us that he's not working hard enough. I agree with PG - total bs
  1. Martin Howard
    commented on: April 12, 2012 at 9:19 p.m.
    Why is Paul Gardner so anti British? Today's not so subtle dig "....David Lee, a Brit who would be in charge ......Not much -- well, nothing actually -- was heard about Lee after that". Why is David Lee the only one of three persons named in the article who is given a colloquialism for his nationality. Why not "Don Garber, a Yank," or "Hans-Peter N├╝rnberg, a Kraut". Yes I'm a Brit (English) and one of many who is dismayed by the abuse regularly heaped on Americans by the English in the many football/soccer forums that I read. There's really no reason to point out a person's nationality unless you want to denigrate that nationality, which clearly Mr Gardner you do and do quite often.
  1. Jogo Bonito
    commented on: April 12, 2012 at 11:15 p.m.
    Allow me, Martin, to attempt to explain PG's little dig. Paul Gardner, who is also a Brit, has been closely following the development of soccer in the US since the late 60's. So he has seen the seemingly endless supply of Brit coaches that come here with their Brittish approach to the game and attititudes that focus on physical play and tactics over everything else. He is also generalizing a bit, but his little dig also pokes fun at that cocksure attititude Brits so often have when pontificating on the game. Generally speaking, when comes to their approach to training soccer players the Brits tend to "fancy themselves" quite a bit

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