The Australian science behind player tracking

Deep into the European Championship final against Italy at Wembley Stadium, England manager Gareth Southgate would have considered how much his players had left in the tank.

Even the world’s best footballers have their limits, leaving Southgate with the difficult decision of choosing when, or if, to press the button on the substitution of a fresh player to make an impact on a match watched by a worldwide audience of almost 30 million.

His football nous can backed by data collected from wearable technology and relayed in real time to Southgate’s performance staff.

Enter a group of Australian researchers who have been helping football’s world governing body FIFA improve the accuracy of the player tracking systems data upon which managers can base critical decisions around replacements and tactics.

Australian Catholic University’s Dr Grant Duthie, from the Sports Performance, Recovery, Injury and new Technologies Research Centre (SPRINT), has for the past four years been driving the data analysis on the project led by researchers at TRACK (Victoria University) in partnership with FIFA.

The collaboration aims to impact the multi-billion dollar sport by establishing and applying global standards to Electronic Player Tracking Systems (EPTS) used by many of the code’s giants and the media organisations who broadcast matches.

The market is packed with companies, including big players Catapult and STATSports, all striving to develop the most reliable and user-friendly tracking technology.

“Companies are continually coming up with bright ideas and brilliant tech so the systems are evolving at a rapid pace,” Dr Duthie said. “From a sport science practitioner’s perspective when you’re monitoring training load and intensity, it’s vital to have faith in the gear.

“Then there’s the broadcasting applications for the data – there’s a lot of money at stake – so accuracy is paramount.”

The team at VU’s TRACK and Dr Duthie were chosen by FIFA as part of its quality assurance program to design standards for the wide range of EPTS. Based on that baseline, only those systems rated at or above those standards are accredited by FIFA.

Player tracking has snowballed beyond the Euro 2021 heavyweights and the rich European professional leagues and is now accessible to amateur and junior teams.

Clubs now have the option to choose from GPS systems, which use satellites to track players, and Local Positioning Systems that can be harnessed for use in indoor stadiums.

Smart camera systems are another option that use the combination of footage from multiple cameras to monitor player movement.

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