OK then. The aim of metrics in soccer is to improve player performance. After that, the problems begin. The miCoach program lists some of the things that it can improve -- player position, power output, speed, distance covered, intensity of play, acceleration and GPS heat mapping. And those awful TV commercials told us that “This is how the fast get faster, the strong get stronger ...”
These are basically physical, measurable attributes. But is it logical to assume that faster, stronger players are going to give us better soccer? How to define “better,” or even “good” soccer anyway?
Which is where miCoach and all similar soccer programs suddenly look rather hollow. Because any definition of soccer based on technology -- and the sort of metrics listed above -- is bound to come up short. Pretty disastrously short, in my view, for certain vital elements of the sport are missing. Are bound to be missing, because they lie beyond technology’s ability to measure them.
For instance. Creativity. Subtlety. Artistry. Can you have soccer without those qualities? Unfortunately, yes, you can. And without them, a pretty dismal sport soccer becomes. In effect, a soul-less sport dominated by metrics, which deal only with Facts.
Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind would have approved. It was his belief that “In this life we want nothing but Facts, sir. Nothing but Facts.” The words were written over 150 years ago in the novel “Hard Times.” Gradgrind is a heartless, mechanical man, a distant warning of how relying on facts might transmute soccer -- into a heartless, mechanical sport.
I have no doubt that the metrics boffins are aware of the danger. Hence that intimidating claim at the end of the miCoach commercial -- “THIS is smart soccer” -- which seems to imply an intellectual component.
But what’s so smart about running faster or getting stronger or covering more ground? Those are purely physical talents and improving them may mean nothing but a more physical version of soccer. Is that better soccer?
The metricians have an answer to that criticism, one that deserves attention. They avow that the information all their technology makes available is completely neutral. What we’re getting from them are modern, dynamic statistics -- real-time statistics? -- and it has been acknowledged for decades now that stats have no positive or negative value ... until they are interpreted. A state of affairs that has given stats a bad name, as it implies that they can be made to mean anything you wish.
For soccer metrics, we can assume that it’s the coach who makes the judgments, so if things don’t work out, blame the coach. But even that assumption is unsafe. There are metrics people who, having worked so hard to come up with their wonderfully sophisticated programs, feel that only another techie can really understand them.
So, for the job of making them meaningful the coach gets shoved aside and the sports scientist takes over. These days most pro clubs have a sports scientist.
The basic question remains: Are we getting better soccer? Does the growing importance of metrics and the sports scientist ensure a more enjoyable game, both from the playing and the spectating angles?
Well, I don’t know. I doubt anyone knows. My feeling is that it does not, and may well result in a less attractive game, as the importance of intangibles -- including, but not limited to, creativity, subtlety, artistry -- is quietly downgraded so as to increase the importance of the metrics.
Therein lies the most extraordinary aspect of the whole metrics scenario. For its authority, it relies heavily on the formidable weight of being scientific. Yet it lacks one of the most important elements of scientific authenticity. Proof. Is there any convincing evidence that meticulous attention to metrics pays off?
Not that I’m aware of. I’ve never heard a top pro team -- and they’re the ones who spend most money on this sort of thing -- telling us that their success is because of a metrics program. You can be sure that, if such a case existed, we would have heard about it, big time, from the marketeers. And it is a fact that most, if not all, of the stories about these programs fail to cite examples of clubs that have won things based on metrics. Most of the clubs cited, in fact, haven’t won anything.
The scientists have a legitimate gripe here -- they can argue that no coach is going to sing the praises of a set up that suggests he is being replaced by a sports scientist, maybe even by a computer.
I am not about to belittle the scientific aspects of metrics. The figures they come up with are real, and I have the feeling that I think most people have -- that these figures must give us a deeper insight into the game, that they must therefore be useful. In particular, it seems to me that the physiological metrics must prove valuable in the early detection of medical problems. And I do have a feeling that the new rulebook ban on the use of real-time data smacks of an anti-technology attitude that FIFA was thought to have abandoned with its acceptance of goal-line technology.
But the direct application of metrics to the game worries me. I see soccer as a sport, as a human activity. Definitely not a computer game. If metrics become so worshiped, so entrenched in the game that they are not questioned, then I don’t see how soccer can escape being turned into a rather different sport. Something cold, heartless, mechanical. Bleak and much less enjoyable. Something definitely Gradgrindish. A horrible fate.