The Sunday Mail
MANY years ago, a German gaffer was given an opportunity to coach a national team far from his homeland.
His appointment came about a week before the team was due to face a continental qualifier.
In his first full session with the players, the coach asked for a television set and a video cassette recorder (VCR).
For younger readers, a VCR was a device that played tapes, with the videos appearing on a TV set to which it was connected.
It was good technology of the time.
He then proceeded to show a series of videos of the key players in the opponent’s team, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their peculiar tendencies.
The coach lost the game and the media went crazy.
How could he, they fumed, spend the day watching movies when the team should have been training?
He would go on to lead the team to some key victories once everyone involved in the team took on board his methods.
Germany was quick to embrace technology in football, so it was very interesting to see them fall to one of the world’s most technologically adept nations at the World Cup.
Japan produced a performance for the ages to defeat the former world champions 2-1.
The ongoing World Cup has seen its fair share of dramatic moments and controversy, even before the tournament began.
The decision to award the tournament to Qatar sparked a lot of debate in the media.
Moving the tournament from its traditional June-July period to November-December created unease.
Then came the various storms about labour rights, gay rights and other issues not directly related to the game.
It was, therefore, interesting that the games themselves finally got underway last week, and the tournament has already created sufficient drama on the field to keep fans engaged.
The Argentina-Saudi Arabia match was particularly historic.
What has been of great interest is how teams are approaching games with clear plans to isolate and target certain players.
Football has always been about mind games. We remember the famous tale of a defender who stuck to the striker he was marking and followed him to the changing room at half-time, then waited for him by the door, rattling the poor striker so badly he had to be substituted.
Technology has helped teams plan.
Teams now deploy players for specific rival players. For example, defenders with a weakness for playing off a certain foot will have a player on that foot running at them all afternoon, keeping them busy and pushing them to make a mistake or even get a card.
Backed with scouting reports and analytics, coaches and their assistants – some of whom are fully digital savvy and spend their time scouring technical reports on opponents and key players – now know which buttons to push to disrupt key players.
In the Tunisia against Denmark game, the Tunisians had a left-sided player who continually chatted with his opponent and drew him into fouls and frustrated him all day.
Senegal’s goalkeeper was deliberately targeted with speedy, high balls, which he is known to handle poorly.
He is also known to punch shots back into play frequently.
The Netherlands deployed mobile midfielders who can do quick follow-ups into the box and deliberately peppered him with the kind of balls he does not like.
They did not spend too much time trying to beat him on one-on-ones, where he is known to be brilliant.
The basic idea of niggling a player till he reacts has always been there, but now technology makes it easier to design a full-scale psychological and tactical assault on a player.
Companies specialising in predictive analytics are coming up with innovations to forecast performance of individuals and entire line-ups and clubs, and national teams are taking advantage of these developments.
Just as high-performance teams were quick to embrace sports psychology to manage their own players’ mental state, they are now taking the lead in making the best use of available statistics and social information.
Clubs, national teams and entire confederations are harnessing data to design their training programmes.
This explains why it is now difficult for a coach to have a long, sustained period of success with one team unless they are continuously bringing in new players to change the dynamics.
Technology has made it easier to figure out a coach’s standard tactical approach and even the on-field behaviour of a player.
More often, games are getting decided on forced errors or on moments of uncoachable brilliance, which even technology cannot account for. The challenge is to get teams in Zimbabwe developing scouting and analytics networks that enable them to have an upper hand over opponents when they play.
It is not a surprise that our teams fall early in continental competition.
They have been extensively studied and the opponents know exactly what to do when they get onto the field.
We need to help coaches with the right tools and backroom teams that allow them to generate new plays and build adaptability into their players.
The coach’s support system has changed.
Technology and data are here to stay.
We should embrace them or fall.
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