Athletes to analysts: How big data gave the German football team a leg up

German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer saved a penalty kick from Italy's defender Matteo Darmian during the Euro 2016 quarter-final football match between Germany and Italy at the Matmut Atlantique stadium in Bordeaux on July 2, 2016.
Mehdi Fedouach | AFP | Getty Images

When Germany met Argentina at the 2006 FIFA World Cup quarter-final for a penalty shoot-out, then-goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, brought with him a crumpled piece of paper onto the pitch. It was a cheat sheet written by his goalkeeping coach and contained tips on how to stop Argentina's likely penalty takers. Germany won the shootout 4-2.

Fast forward a decade and current goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had at his disposal slightly more advanced means of stopping Italian penalty takers in a nail-biting 6-5 penalty shootout that his team won to progress to the semi-finals of the 2016 UEFA European Championship.

The German Football Association (DFB) teamed up with software company SAP to develop two new technologies that tapped into the potential of Big Data analytics to identify strengths and weaknesses of opposing teams ahead of the competition.

The first application, SAP Challenger Insights, provided information on the opposition's characteristics, their offensive and defensive tendencies and their formations.

The second, called Penalty Insights Function, was meant to help goalkeepers and coaches spot patterns around how their opponents take penalty kicks.

Both applications were accessed by players and coaches inside the locker room using iPad Pros and were powered by the SAP HANA Cloud Platform.

"They can see in real time how the lineup [of their opponents] look like ... and helps players to really focus," Stefan Wagner, global general manager for Sports & Entertainment at SAP, told CNBC in a phone interview.

For example, Wagner explained, if player Mario Götze wanted to look up an opponent inside the Challenger Insights application, he would find the player's personal data, his strengths, weaknesses and up to six video clips demonstrating his abilities on the pitch.

To gain tactical advantage, many teams have in the past changed their line-ups in the last possible minute to throw their opponents off-guard.

"Normally, all the teams will prepare handouts [on the opposition's lineup] ... and then the opponent changes the lineup and all the printouts are useless," said Wagner.

A screenshot of SAP's Penalty Insights Function dashboard.

For its Challenger Insights application, SAP worked with sports university Sporthochschule Cologne to collect and analyze data on every opposition player and team in the 2016 European Championship. When the opposition changed the lineup, the coach mimicked the change in the app through a simple drag-and-drop function.

When it came to developing the Penalty Insights Function, Wagner said the German team had a key requirement: The application needed to be simple enough to help players analyze the data themselves.

For example, Neuer could find potential opponents who were likely to take penalties in a game, how they performed when shooting under pressure - if their teams were trailing -, if they were more likely to send the ball to the top right-hand corner of the post or the bottom-left hand corner, their run up styles and many other possible scenarios.

Historical reference data were provided by Heim:Spiel and processed by SAP. The scenarios also had accompanying video clips showing the players taking penalties in those exact situations, pulled from a database of videos provided by third party providers.

"The new generation of athletes are completely into data and they want to see the reports ... they are really open about this new technology," said Wagner.

Most of Germany's current national team players are part of the millennial generation, which has embraced technology.

The DFB has worked with SAP for over a decade, mostly for backend operations.

But its first foray into Big Data analytics came during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which Germany won. SAP developed an application for the DFB called Match Insights which allowed the coaches to filter game clips to see how players performed in particular situations and analyze match data. It was accompanied with a mobile app called SAP Team One App, which allowed players and coaches to share videos, images, tactics and communicate internally.

After the World Cup, SAP turned it into a commercial solution - the SAP Sports One - that they sold primarily to football clubs.

Many data analytics technologies tended to offer suggested outcomes for users to follow.

Wagner said theoretically, the technology SAP used to develop the applications for DFB could be used to provide suggested coaching tactics and strategies, but it is something neither party was keen to explore.

"We have the philosophy, together with the German national team: they have the coach, they have a coaching team, they make the decisions. We just underline their decisions with facts."

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