Numbers, Knowledge and Better Set Pieces: a View Into Soccer’s Future

Everything that happens at F.C. Midtjylland is quantified. Well, almost everything. Every game played by every one of the Danish soccer club’s teams produces data points in the thousands. Each training session, from the first team to the preteens in the academy, is recorded and codified and analyzed.

The only exception is a game that happens on Fridays at lunchtime, pitting two teams of staff members — coaches and analysts and communications officers and sports scientists — against each other. It is a chance for everyone to let off steam at the end of the week, a reminder of the importance of having fun, said Soren Berg, Midtjylland’s head of analysis.

“We joke about doing video and data analysis on it,” he said, though perhaps it is best left unexamined. “The players probably do not need to see it,” he joked as he watched the game earlier this month. “You know, we tell them a lot about press intensity. And I do not see a lot of press intensity out there.”

Midtjylland has numbers on everything else. The club knows how much its players have run and what they have done in the gym and what they have eaten and where they shoot from and how well they have slept. It is attempting to know even the most intimate parts of their minds: how they think, how they feel, how they learn.

Midtjylland, founded in 1999, has what its sporting director, Svend Graversen, regards as a “growth mind-set.”

“We are a new club,” he explained. “We are not dragged down by history because we don’t have any. So we have to make our own.” It is willing to try new things, to seek competitive edges wherever it can find them.

The approach has worked. This young, ambitious club from Herning — a quiet city in the middle of Jutland, “a long way from Copenhagen,” according to Rasmus Ankersen, the team’s chairman — now sits not only at the pinnacle of Danish soccer, a three-time national champion and a regular in continental competitions, but at the very cutting edge of the sport.

Midtjylland’s search for competitive advantage has made it a place where ideas emerge. It was the first team in Denmark to make its young prospects train every day. It was one of the first teams to embrace the use of data in recruitment, training and playing style. It employed a full-time coach just for throw-ins.

Now, of course, all those ideas have been adopted at clubs of far greater scale, of far richer history. Where Midtjylland has gone, Europe has generally followed. Danish academies train every day. The vast majority of teams across Europe are committing vast resources to building teams of analysts and statisticians and physicists. Thomas Gronnemark, the throw-in coach, now works for Liverpool.

That is the fate of the pioneer, of course: Once the trail has been blazed, everyone and anyone is free to follow it. Ideas forged in Herning have been adopted and adapted and occasionally lifted wholesale. All Midtjylland can do is what it has always done: try, once again, to see what the future looks like, so that everyone else might, once again, follow.

Low-Hanging Fruit

In the days after the death of Diego Maradona, Ankersen found himself — like so many others — trawling through grainy footage of the maestro at work. He would not have been alone in noticing that Maradona seemed to be a Technicolor player in a black-and-white world. “In those clips from the ’80s and ’90s, the game seems so slow,” he said.

What is important, though, is that it did not seem that way at the time. “The coaches would have said that they could not train more, that they could not make the players get thinner or more athletic,” he said. It is a reminder, to him, of a kind of end-of-history illusion: how easily the current version of something — soccer, in this case — is assumed to be final, complete.

Awareness of that illusion is baked into everything Midtjylland does. “The first thing you have to remember is that success now does not mean success in the future,” said Berg, the head of analysis. “We try to be innovative, but it is fundamental that you have to stay curious.”

Looking back, Ankersen regards the first few edges his club found to be “simple” ones: coaching academy players every day, rather than three times a week, was an easy win. But while he accepts that the search is now a little more complex, he does not believe soccer has yet cleared away all of the low-hanging fruit.

“There are a lot of areas on the physical side,” he said, improvements that can be made in conditioning and strength and, particularly, in the individualization of training programs, understanding what types of fitness are required by players in specific positions. Soccer’s interest in fields like nutrition, recovery and sleep, too, is still young.

He is eager to explore whether structured coaching from earlier ages might help the technical development of young players — “the next edge is starting earlier” — and turn generating talent into less of an exercise in panning for gold. “At the moment, it is a little like investing in a start-up,” he said of player development. “The upside is potentially great, but there is a lot of risk, because most of the investments will not work out.”

And Ankersen is convinced that even Midtjylland, the great data evangelist, has only scratched the surface in terms of what analytics can do. “The quality and collection of data is still poor,” he said. “Most of it is event data, but most of football happens without the ball.” Artificial intelligence, he believes, will help to improve that considerable blind spot, as tracking data grows more sophisticated.

Those technologies, of course, will eventually be available to everyone, just as performance data is sold now. The next great battleground will not, then, be which teams use data and which do not. It will not be who has the most data or, to some extent, who has the best data. Soccer’s next leap forward hinges on who uses that data best.

Speaking Football

There is one area in which there is clearly no competitive edge for Midtjylland: telling journalists, in depth, about its work. Graversen, Berg and Ankersen are all amiable, thoughtful, helpful sorts, happy to talk about principles and philosophies and approaches. As is often the case when writing about the use of data in soccer, precise examples are thin on the ground. Knowledge is power, after all, but it is also proprietary.

A single question, though, underpins much of what analysts do, of what they ask their data to show: How can the game be played more effectively?

Midtjylland, for example, is better at set pieces than any team in Europe. “Over the last five years, we have scored more goals than anyone else that way,” Ankersen said. “The gap between us and the team in second is the same as the gap between the team in second and the team in 73rd.”

That is no accident. Ralf Rangnick, the German coach, technical director and all-purpose visionary, is confident that soccer as a whole will place greater emphasis on set pieces in the years to come. Teams will develop specialized routines and updated training methods to maximize what is, across the world, a reliable source of goals.

Midtjylland is there already. The club maintains an extensive set-piece playbook, continually updated with new routines and ideas. “A quarter of all goals come from set pieces,” Graversen said. “But the culture in football is defined, and it is very hard to shift.”

There is a measure of preoccupation, too, with shot location. Over the last decade, the N.B.A. has undergone a seismic shift in where and how its teams score their points. To the minds of those at Midtjylland, the same effect may be felt in soccer by discouraging players from taking shots from low-percentage positions, and encouraging them instead to work the ball into higher probability areas.

“And if shot locations are changing, then why not optimal passes?” Ankersen said. “You can model the right decision to make in each moment because football is a controlled environment: You have data going back 50 years, when the game was still inherently the same, to feed into it.”

The challenge, Berg said, is not finding out this information. It is conveying it to players, incorporating it into the way a team plays, taking it off the screen and onto the field. “Doing it on Excel is one thing,” he said. “What matters is, who can deliver that data in a way that suits the style of play?”

Ankersen puts it another way: To get the most out of the information at their fingertips, clubs need to be able to get through to their players. “You have to make it relevant,” he said. “You have to speak football.” It is why this club that can turn everything into numbers now thinks, more than anything, about people.

The Person Behind the Player

Often, Bjorn Mannsverk’s sessions get deeply, intensely personal. He encourages the players who meet in his office every few weeks to share their innermost thoughts with him, and with their teammates. They talk not only about their professional worries, but their domestic ones. Sometimes, there are tears.

Mannsverk, a former fighter pilot in the Norwegian air force, now serves — in a part-time capacity — as the team psychologist to Bodo/Glimt, the team from the Far North of the country that in November claimed its first national championship, breaking a host of records along the way.

To Bodo’s players, Mannsverk and the environment he has created — one that focuses on performance, not results — has been vital to their success. He has, in the words of the team captain Ulrik Saltnes, emboldened them to play the “kamikaze” style that allows them to confront their fears.

It is no surprise that Ankersen, at Midtjylland, is fascinated by Bodo’s story. Midtjylland, too, has a psychologist with a military background: B.S. Christiansen, a former member of the Danish huntsmen corps. Midtjylland, too, spends as much time thinking about the personalities of its players as their technical abilities.

“We have to take care of the person behind the player,” Graversen said. “We have to be his or her family.”

That paternal approach applies, he said, to all employees, whether they are on the field or not. But it is also another attempt to find a competitive advantage. By making the players feel more valued, the club feels it is better placed to draw out their best performances.

Understanding the psychology and the personality of players is still fresh ground for soccer, but Midtjylland — as the success of Mannsverk and Bodo suggests — sees it not as uncharted territory but as a frontier to be claimed.

The club is currently running one study, alongside one of Denmark’s largest data firms, to identify which traits are shared by players who have thrived there in the past. At the same time, they are working with educational consultants to work out how players absorb information, how they think, how they learn. In an era when soccer is saturated by data, Graversen sees that knowledge as crucial.

“The next key thing is getting data into the playing style,” he said. “By finding out the way they learn, we can accelerate getting those principles into the way we play. We can design virtual reality tools to help them train. We can give them more useful feedback. In the next few years, the team that accelerates that process as much as possible will have the edge.”

That, ultimately, is what Midtjylland has always done: search for an edge, wherever one might be found. And where it has blazed the trail, the rest of European soccer has followed. If Midtjylland, the game’s great laboratory, is thinking not just about what players do with their feet but what they do with their minds, then it is reasonable to assume, sooner or later, everyone else will, too.

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