Data crunching keeps England ahead of the game, AI to unearth new gems

football15 May 2024 06:10| © Reuters
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Gareth Southgate © Getty Images

England manager Gareth Southgate is tapping into the data-crunching power of new technology as he prepares his squad for the Euro 2024 tournament that begins in Germany next month.

Southgate's side will be one of the favourites as they bid to surpass Euro 2020 when they lost to Italy in the final.

The Football Association's partnership with Google Cloud is helping give Southgate key insights into his squad as he finalises his plans.

And to ensure future Harry Kanes, Phil Fodens and Jude Bellinghams do not slip through the net, the FA is working with Google Cloud on developing a Scouting Summarisations project using generative AI technology.

While Southgate, who also led England to the 2018 World Cup semifinals, still travels the country watching players up close, the Player Profiling System means he has a powerful tool at his disposal.

"We use technology and data more around selection of players," Southgate told Reuters. "Helping to inform our decisions. We obviously watch every player in every match that they play with their club.

"Then we get data on those performances that help us to make assessments on those players against certain opponents, and what some of the trends are for our team."

Southgate says data analysis helps recognise areas of the team that can be improved.

"Let's say we're not scoring as many goals from set plays as we might be. We're breaking down actually 'Why is that?' and reviewing individual matches," he said.

"But then if you've got the data collected over 10 or 15 matches, you start to see patterns. Has the delivery of the set play been correct? Have the runs been correct? Have the contact of the headers been correct?"


While there is no substitute for good coaching, Southgate says technology and the use of data helps give teams an edge.

"I don't necessarily think it's about 'Are you keen on using data or not?' because in the old days we had pen-and-paper and we were ticking these things off in boxes," Southgate said.

"It wasn't time-efficient. Now we've got people working on those specifics, support teams are bigger, because everybody's looking for that edge in performance."

Mark Jarvis, the FA's head of performance, says the debate over the use of AI in soccer can be polarising.

"People do view you as an early adopter or a Luddite. You're either an evangelical or you're a caveman. And actually both of those are wrong," he told Reuters.

"It's about taking a balanced view. Assessing what's available, but making sure it connects perfectly with a problem, rather than doing it because it's sexy and novel."

The FA's Scouting Summarisations project, using Vertex AI to trawl through thousands of old scouting reports on players at all levels, is still in its infancy. But Jarvis says it could ensure England stay ahead of the game.

"It's the tacit, expert knowledge of a scout, which gets distilled down to a number. So they get a grade for each game. That gets aggregated up to a set of scores over time," he said.

"There's so much wisdom and insight that a scout will hold when he's watched a player, so simplifying that down to a number is incredibly reductive. To capture the wisdom within the words – that's the goal of the project."

Jarvis said AI generative technology could potentially be used for senior England squads in the future while Southgate says coaches must embrace change.

"You've got to be at the forefront of change otherwise you're going to get left behind," he added.