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They said it couldn’t be done. Even in early April, when Leicester City Football Club were riding high at the top of the Premier League, seasoned pundits expected them to falter as they approached the finish line.
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But while rival contenders fell by the wayside, Leicester continued to pick up points by playing the same brand of quick counter-attacking football that had catapulted them to the top in the first place.
When the club sealed the title earlier in May 2016, it was branded one of the biggest upsets in sports history. But when you take a closer look behind the scenes at how the club operates, Leicester’s triumphant campaign isn’t that surprising.
That’s because when it comes to the use of football data analytics and sports science, the club is one of the most advanced in the Premier League.
According to Chris Mann, marketing executive at Prozone Sports – which currently supplies technology to 19 of the 20 Premier League teams – Leicester has been using its products for 10 of the past 11 seasons.
“They currently receive a feed of our Prozone3 tracking data to support the enhanced assessment of player fitness and conditioning through a range of physical metrics, such as distance covered, sprints and high intensity runs,” says Mann.
“This type of data can be used to inform the coaching process and to tailor training programmes to the needs of individual players based on their in-game exertions.”
This latter point is especially important in Leicester’s case. One of the most remarkable things about this season is the relatively small number of injuries the club’s players suffered. By the end of April 2016, Leicester racked up fewer injuries than every club in the Premier League, according to Physioroom.com.
As a result, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri – who was famously labelled the Tinkerman during his time at Chelsea FC – was able to pick the same starting 11 for the majority of the season.
Wearable sports technology
The club was able to head off any niggling problems thanks to the use of Prozone’s tools and wearable technology, such as Catapult Sports’ OptimEye S5. The OptimEye S5 is a small GNSS-based device that uses satellite reception – both GPS and Glonass – and is worn at the top of the back.
What this technology enables users to do is – among other things – establish the risk of a player getting injured at any given time based on benchmark data that automatically shows when they have exceeded their usual workload.
Leicester uses the OptimEye S5 device across all first team and academy players, according to Paul Boanas, head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Catapult.
“It’s an integral part of their everyday loading of players. They use it to check whether a player is ready to either play or return from injury by looking at/comparing what they are capable of when fully fit. Most teams use the devices to manage the ‘load’ on players,” says Boanas.
“We don’t claim to stop injuries, but we can help mitigate the risk of them and Leicester do this very well.”
Data embedded into club culture
In addition to these tools, Leicester uses the latest sports science techniques, including cryotherapy to aid recovery programme of players.
The club installed ice chambers that use liquid nitrogen to expose players to extremely cold temperatures for short periods of time. It’s claimed that the chambers can improve injury recovery times, and star striker Jamie Vardy is clearly a fan. He told the club’s official website in 2015 that the players are in it “non-stop”.
“You have to go in one doorway, which is minus 60 degrees for 30 seconds, and then there’s a doorway in the middle that sends you through to another room that’s minus 135 degrees,” said Vardy.
“You’ve got to stay in there for another two minutes and you just keep repeating the process.”
But Leicester’s success wasn’t only down to the fact that the club managed to keep injury levels low. Data is embedded into the culture of the club, with its performance team relying on analytical products from OptaPro.
Although Ryan Bahia, marketing co-ordinator at OptaPro, confirms the company works with Leicester, he says he is not at liberty to “talk about the length of the relationship or anything in particular that they may or may not be doing with the data/OptaPro products”.
Bahia did, however, write a blog post for the OptaPro website in October 2015 about a day he spent at Leicester with the club’s first team performance analyst Peter Clark.
Bahia detailed how players are given pre- and post-match interactive reports to read from the performance team via iPads, which include statistics, subjective comments and match footage.
Peter Clark, Leicester City FC
The club also has a specialist analysis room in the stadium that’s connected to the home dressing room so the team can access data from Opta’s Pro Portal at half-time.
“We can pick out key points,” says Clark. “If a player is losing individual battles and aerial duels, we can help provide the evidence for the manager. Or if the opposition’s chances are being created from similar situations, we can bring that to the manager’s attention as well.”
As soon as the final whistle blows games are coded using Opta data, along with metrics and benchmarks that are key to Leicester’s playing approach, so that the information is ready to be used during the Monday morning debrief.
Additionally, player performance is benchmarked against a season average so they can assess how well they’re playing at any given time.
“It’s part of the culture in the club. By exposing players to data, they are becoming familiar with it and the insights it can bring,” says Clark.
Player tracking tools offer performance insight
So was this season just an anomaly or could Ranieri and his backroom staff – or indeed another one of the Premier League’s so-called smaller teams – recreate Leicester’s success by taking the same data-rich analytical approach to the game?
The tools that Leicester uses are available to every Premier League club. OptaPro, as well as Prozone, works with the majority of Premier League sides and a number of Champions League clubs. There is also the growing array of GPS tracking tools that are seeing a lot of take up by Premier League teams.
For instance, StatSports Technologies produces a number of different player tracking tools. It currently works with 15 of the 20 Premier League clubs, in addition to the likes of European giants such as Barcelona and Juventus.
Richard Byrne, head of business development at StatSports, says GPS player tracking technology offers teams huge advantages in terms of monitoring the load they are putting on players in training (at the moment players are not allowed to wear wearable technology during competitive matches).
“For instance, coaches can see the major stress point a player faces during a match and can re-create these scenarios in training so the player is properly conditioned to handle these,” says Byrne.
“It also allows coaches to see whether a player is overtraining or at risk of injury, which allows them to reduce their workload or stop them training before an injury occurs.”
He cites the experience of one European club using the company’s products. “They had 44 soft tissue injuries the season before using StatSports. This was cut by more than 50% to just 20 soft tissue injuries the following season once they implemented our technology,” says Byrne.
Small margins and big wins
It’s these margins that can make all of the difference in highly competitive sports such as football. Ex-Leicester manager Nigel Pearson put in place many of the processes that enabled the club to fight off the threat of relegation in the 2014/15 season, before the club went on to win the title this season.
When questioned by the club’s official website in 2015, Pearson said he wasn’t sure how directly responsible the club’s high-tech methods were to maintaining performance levels.
“It’s difficult to quantify, but we work in an industry in which I repeatedly say is about small margins,” said Pearson.
“If we can find a way of giving us that half or 1% opportunity to be better prepared, then we’ll try to do it. It could be a placebo effect, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s about trying to do the right things and getting as many players in the right condition to take to the field.”
Pearson’s latter point is ultimately why Leicester clinched the Premier League title and why – in theory at least – other clubs could replicate Leicester’s fairytale season in the future if they embrace the same analytical tools.
Read more about sports data analytics
- Wearable technology is a big industry thanks to the ‘quantified self’ movement. It’s now giving a boost to professional sports data analytics professionals.
- Read about how Germany-based software company SAP played its part in the national football team’s victory over Argentina in the World Cup final in Brazil.
- How do you decide the value of a footballer? The problem has been given added torque by the vogue for applying data science to sports.