As evidenced by Louis van Gaal’s World Cup goalkeeper switch, analytics can enhance rather than replace the Machiavellian instincts of sport’s master tacticians.
It was one of the most dramatic moments of the World Cup, leaving many fans baffled. In the 120th minute of the quarter final against Costa Rica, Holland goalkeeper Jasper Cilissen was substituted for third-choice keeper Tim Krul. He went on to save two penalties, seeing Holland through to the semi-final.
Many applauded the courage and the mind games of the Dutch manager Louis van Gaal. But on closer inspection what the world was watching was one of the most high-profile examples of how technology and psychology are now deeply connected in modern sport. Some would argue that the emergence of technology in sport threatens to make it more mechanical, but the drama of the quarter-final suggests the opposite is true. It also highlights that knowledge of your opponent’s use of technology can be as powerful as having your own.
The Krul effect
After the win, van Gaal explained that Krul was simply a better penalty stopper. In fact, the data shows he had only saved two of the previous 20 penalties he’d faced before that night; hardly the record of a specialist. The second choice goalkeeper in the Dutch squad, Michael Vorm, had a better record than Krul, having saved three of 11 penalties prior to the World Cup.
So why did van Gaal defy the apparent logic behind the numbers? He went on to reveal that Krul had studied past footage of all Costa Rica’s penalty takers before the game, a standard form of preparation and not something that Cillessen (or Vorm) would have found difficult to do. Krul concurred that his own video preparation was key to victory. And yet research shows that studying penalty takers is statistically insignificant to outcomes.
Studying goalkeepers is far more useful, according to a study by University College London which suggests that most keepers conclude, after a few shots have gone in one direction, that the next player will change direction (despite each kick presenting the same odds for direction choice). By observing a goalkeeper, you can build up a picture over time that might reveal if they tend to guess early or wait. You can pin point particular weaknesses or habits they have. Indeed, when explaining the penalty shootout win against Greece in their previous match, the Costa Rican manager Jose Pinto revealed: “We had studied the opposition (goalkeeper) and that’s why we scored 100%.”
Video capture and editing is an established and readily available technology. Taking what Pinto had said to the media in the wake of victory against Greece, van Gaal, like any manager today, knew that the Costa Ricans would have studied Cillessen and would consequently have been aware of his weaknesses. He also knew it was unlikely that they had studied the Dutch third choice goalkeeper Krul, which made them unaware of his apparent strengths or weaknesses.
It was van Gaal’s understanding of his opponent’s technology-enabled preparations that provided the practical and psychological potency of his last minute substitution. “Their manager’s face when he saw me was priceless. It definitely had an impact” said Krul about his substitution. Chance had a big role to play, but it was the great reactions of Krul combined with van Gaal’s disruption of the Costa Rican team’s preparations and composure in the moment that proved telling.
Ahead of the game
Rather than making sport more predictable, the widespread adoption of technology creates a new opportunity for psychological gaming and drama. Player tracking systems for football, rugby, basketball, NFL and other professional sports have led to teams better understanding their own strengths and weaknesses through data. But crucially, if teams know that their opponents have such technology, they can predict their likely match tactics and respond accordingly. The tactical permutations will grow exponentially, as will the Machiavellian game changing plays and the high drama we love about sport.
Professor Jem Bendell of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria Business School explains: “Whether in sport, war or market competition, knowing the assumptions and routines of an opponent can be as important as your own capabilities. Adopting new technologies can challenge our assumptions and change routines, but can also create new ones, even revealing vulnerabilities for a clever opponent. Therefore, understanding your opponents’ technologies can be as important as having them yourself.”
The practical implication for professional sport teams is that besides seeking to exploit the latest technologies for internal use, it will become paramount to constantly monitor what your opponents are doing. Most clubs aren’t there yet, and it’s clear that future assessments of new tech usage will need to be far more systematic, encompassing and outward looking if they are to lead to new opportunities to follow in van Gaal’s footsteps and out-think your opponent.
The evolution of technology in sport will not make sports more mechanical, but instead add new elements, enriching tactics, increasing tension and bringing drama to the fore.
Wolfram Klug is a sport business technologist, former business & technology director at international basketball federation FIBA, and CEO of the sport organisation consultants Digital Sport
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