For anyone with an interest in football analytics, the announcement that adidas will make Major League Soccer the first 'smart' football league is pretty exciting. Adidas' miCoach elite system, which will be debuted for the MLS All-Star game (featuring Chelsea), uses a central element fitted between the shoulder blades hooked up to "a series of electrodes and sensors woven into the fabric of the base layer" to track "real-time performance metrics including heart rate, speed, acceleration, distance and field position."
Pretty exciting, huh?
I've been clamouring for accurate player positioning data for a long time now, but although this looks promising it's very difficult to see how we can expect accurate field position information from the miCoach system. Without that, this is less useful than it looks from an analytics perspective -- it's simply not data we can use to measure player effectiveness.
That's bad, obviously. What we really need in order to properly assess players is a system that reads team shape. The use of space is probably the most important aspect of football, and I don't think adidas' new toy will tell us much about that, no matter how hard it tries to tell us that it will. If you're anticipating a major statistical breakthrough from it, you're likely to be disappointed.
However, it's important to remember that the application of statistics and numbers is really what matters, and that the 'goodness' of football players is only one aspect of their performance that can be measured. Sure, it's a little bit out of my field, but it's really easy to see how this system could be incredibly useful for monitoring fitness, assessing the worth of training programs and the like.
We've never before had the ability to see how individual players are performing at the physical level. 'He looks tired' has been about the best we've got, which is fairly sad. I don't think this system will be useful for the analysts trying to make a breakthrough in terms of player value, but this will be absolutely vital for managers trying to get the most out of the players that they do have.
Hopefully the rollout goes well in MLS and this system can make its way to Chelsea as soon as possible. If this can cut down on injury rate, increase endurance and allow the manager to select the fittest players, it could really give us an edge before other teams start adopting it. Even if you and I can't use it, the fact that this sort of system is starting to be possible in sports is really, really cool.
We'll get to see it in action next week -- hopefully the Chelsea statistics will be made available. Except Paulo's. They'd just be sad.