Google is helping the England soccer manager pick his squad. Here’s how

England Manager Gareth Southgate at Wembley Stadium in London, England.

Michael Regan – The FA | The FA Collection | Getty Images

LONDON — With the biggest European national soccer tournament just around the corner, England manager Gareth Southgate is trying to keep close tabs on his most promising players.

One of his key tools is a piece of player performance software that has been developed by the Football Association, the governing body of association football in England, and Google.

“Thankfully it is easy to use,” the 50-year-old manager told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

The platform aims to bring together disparate sources of data into one place so that managers can track how well players are performing.

“Every weekend, we’ve got players in the Premier League … the Bundesliga, La Liga,” said Southgate. “We need to be able to access that footage as quickly as possible, and any data that we can get from those matches as well.”

It contains thousands of minutes of video clips and stats on everything from passes completed and shots on target, to fouls conceded and distance covered, with data coming from the likes of sports analytics firm Opta, recruitment platform Scout7, and even the BBC.

“When I was playing, it was really all geared around how far you ran,” said the former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and England player. “The coaches used it to beast you on a Monday morning — they found this weird correlation between if you ran further, you won. That wasn’t really good use of data.”

Now managers are looking at key metrics for each position, according to Southgate.

“Are we really clear in each position what we’re looking for? What is the role in that position? How does that map to how a player might play at his club? They have players that play in the same positions, but they play in a different style, and how will that map into the way that we want to play?”

“We’re always trying to piece this jigsaw together because we don’t have weeks and weeks to be able to coach the team. They’ve got to come in and be as close to the finished article as possible before the Euros. If our teams get to the European finals, we might only have eight or nine days on the training pitch with our full squad.”

Southgate is under pressure from fans to get a result from his England team at the Euros, which get under way in Rome on Friday June 11 and finish at London’s Wembley Arena on Sunday July 11.

England have never won the tournament before. The team made the last four in 1968 in Italy and again on home soil in 1996, when they lost to Germany on penalties.

Data vs. privacy

The data collected on England’s players goes well beyond how they perform on the pitch and at the training ground. They also have their sleep and their mental health monitored, with the latter being tracked through a wellbeing questionnaire.

“Clearly, we need permission to gain some of that data,” said Southgate. “Sleep patterns would be a really good example. That would always be the choice of a player.”

He added: “The only reason for us to track that would be to help them with solutions in order to help them to sleep better, because sleep would be one of the key indicators on recovery, and for us in a tournament situation, recovery is one of the key physical areas we can hit.”

But not everything is tracked. Players aren’t obliged to share exactly what they eat for example, meaning a player could theoretically have a McDonald’s Big Mac meal in the run up to the tournament if they really wanted to. “If we were measuring that, I’m sure they would be anxious about it and I’m not certain we’d get the truth,” said Southgate.

Southgate’s player performance platform also contains data recorded on internet-connected gym machines at the team’s training ground at St George’s Park, near Birmingham.

As a result, Southgate can see how much the likes of Everton forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount have been bench pressing, or how long Manchester City’s John Stones has spent on the exercise bike.

A digital database of player performances

Southgate said his predecessors, who didn’t have access to the same technology, had to either find former coaches to talk to, or rely on anecdotal evidence.

“There was no store of what had happened in the past, what breeds success, what lessens failure,” he said.  

Today, managers at rival clubs will be using similar software, Southgate admitted.

Asked if England’s player performance software is any better than what the likes of France or Germany are using, he said: “The reality of that is we don’t know … We always have to be humble enough to accept that other people are very good at what they do. Other countries are at the cutting edge as well.”

He added: “We can only keep trying to improve what we deliver and make our systems the highest possible level that we can for all of our staff. In the end, if you add all those little gains together, our performance would improve, which gives us a better chance of winning. I think we should always be careful about saying we were the best in the world.”

FA’s relationship with Google

FA Chief Information Officer Craig Donald told CNBC on the same call that the Google-powered platform provides Southgate and the other England coaches with “new insights” that can “hopefully allow them to thrive and win.”

The FA and Google declined to comment on the financial details of their arrangement.

Donald acknowledged that other cloud computing providers exist — such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and IBM Cloud — and said that the FA relies on some of them for different products.

He praised Google for having “open standards” and being flexible. “They’re allowing us to collaborate and to integrate with those other clouds effectively, so we found that to be a really big selling point,” said Donald.

England’s player performance platform was built by a small team of developers at the FA in conjunction with Google and other firms, Donald said.

“Google are the people that will help us understand the true power of the sheer capacity of what they have and then we work with a partner and with our own team as well to try and pull all that knowledge together and build a solution,” said Donald.


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