LARRY RYAN: Football powers look past the data

Just four years after software giants SAP won the World Cup, the consultants have gone quiet. 

We haven’t heard much about big data in the last few days. There have been no further case studies.

We are not unused to this pattern of events. We are not unused to hearing, in times of great prosperity, that the consultants saw it all coming and indeed were fundamental in its arrival. And then we are not unused to hearing nothing from the consultants, when it all goes pear-shaped.

Four years ago we learned that SAP eliminated German waste, helping to speed up their passing and shave 2.3 seconds off the team’s average time in possession. We heard that big data picked Benedikt Höwedes for reasons the naked eye wouldn’t be able to compute.

SAP were back on board this time round, but the data hasn’t yet held up its hands for Timo Werner or his waste. And the naked eye is none the wiser either.

So thorough were the Germans in Brazil, so many data points were crunched, they were said to know everything that had ever happened and most of what would happen.

But then this one was billed as the World Cup where everyone knows everything. The ‘technology gap’ has been closed, Fifa says, with sophisticated performance data provided to all the tournament finalists.

“You used to go to a World Cup and it was a surprise on the day and talent and decisions on the pitch made a bigger difference,” Belgium boss Roberto Martinez said before the off, doubtless happier that Marouane Fellaini would be released into an arena where talent and decisions made less difference.

Perhaps the downgrading of talent played a part in Jogi Low’s decision to leave Leroy Sane at home, in case he made things a little less predictable. Maybe he hadn’t enough data on Leroy.

FIFA head of technology Johannes Holzmueller sounded a little concerned that’s the way things are going. “People think now it’s all driven by computers. We don’t want that at Fifa.”

He needn’t have worried because just as John Giles warned us that if everyone is great, then nobody is great; maybe if everyone knows everything, then nobody knows anything.

Because despite all the knowledge and data and predictability, it has been a happily chaotic World Cup.

It couldn’t have gone any other way since Spain sacked their manager but immediately played brilliantly anyway, yet were partly undone by their magnificent goalkeeper throwing in a howler.

Even at that early stage, you could unplug from the cloud and press delete.

And ever since, the game’s great powers are digging beyond the data for some intangibles to guide them.

Two sets of lost souls meet this afternoon. France, who haven’t the storage to download all their talent, are begging their manager to consider introducing this talent to one another, to conduct some kind of experiment that produces chemistry.

Having more or less given up on the role of manager, Argentina, as their former World Cup winner Jorge Valdano pointed out this week, have still been looking for inspiration in all the wrong places.

They have prized “balls over talent”, become a nation that “said goodbye to olés” in favour of brutish machismo, symbolised by Diego grabbing his testicles in the stand.

The demands to ‘man up’, the constant appeals for courage and fight rather than trickery, Valdano argues, have turned their emblematic talent into a tortured soul, labouring under the weight of a nation’s impatience.

And yet, when the load was greatest and the demands were loudest, Messi whispered a goal of delicate beauty that defied any attempt to plot talent on a dataset.

Maybe that alone will fire up Deschamps to plug in his own talent.

The good news for both Argentina and France is they have avoided England until the final.

An England who might once have shouted louder than anyone for courage and fight began this tournament seeking inspiration in unusual places.

Somehow they convinced themselves they are the nicest people in Russia, and began to venerate the niceness they detected in Gareth Southgate, a campaign which culminated this week in his anointing, by journalist Henry Winter, as “one of the most influential individuals in the history of English football”.

Perhaps it is their chronic addiction to reality television, but they almost appeared hopeful of staying on longer in Russia via some kind of public vote.

As if to back up their frontline niceness, some restraint has been shown back home. There is no TV bantz carnival each night, no Jack Whitehall mooning James Corden while farting The Great Escape.

And yet there were echoes of their old arrogance in this brand new approach, because there is precious little evidence anybody else considers Vards, Lings, Dele and co to be quite as likeable as they have been billed.

And it couldn’t last anyway. The fresh approach has long given way to a more familiar arrogance, with their nice gaffer among the first to capitulate.

In not bothering to beat Belgium, England were presuming they will beat Colombia, which is exactly the kind of state they usually find themselves in at this stage.

As England prepare now for a semi-final with Spain, the Germans are also in a place England have often been, with Lothar Matthaus demanding more spirit and passion and leaders.

A dangerous road to travel down, as the Argentinians have discovered.

The one thing we do know, however, is that there is nobody more resilient than the consultants.

“In the near future, the system might be able to more easily identify complex match scenes, predict opponent tendencies, and suggest plays based on smart technologies that detect patterns leveraging positioning data,” SAP promised, pre-tournament.

So maybe all the Germans need is a software update.



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