How Ajax are building a ‘full model of football’
Written by Simon Austin — February 20, 2023
BEFORE Professor David Sumpter began working in football (with teams including Ajax, Barcelona and England), he studied the movement patterns of birds and fish.
This might sound slightly surreal, but Sumpter says there is much that football can learn from this work - both in terms of the findings and the way in which the research was structured.
“When we studied the fish and the birds, we filmed them lots and lots of times, built models, made new experiments and repeatedly went through this cycle,” he told the TGG Podcast.
“But when it comes to football, it’s more like, ‘We’ll try this exciting idea, this seems to work, we might be able to use it in scouting.’ Those aren’t the same kind of fundamentals.
“When I studied fish, I had a research budget of a million Euros a year, for a group of researchers. That is the kind of level you want to start investing if you want to build a basic understanding of the game and move ahead.
“Because it is so new with analytics, there will always be these small innovations you can do relatively cheaply, but in the longer term you are actually going to need to invest in proper research-development.
“I don’t think the willingness is there, despite the vast quantities of money in some clubs, to do that.”
However, Sumpter highlighted one football club that DOES properly invest in research and attempt to understand the fundamentals of the game: Ajax.
He has been working on projects with the Amsterdam giants for the last few years and is mightily impressed with their “curiosity-driven approach to data science.”
“What’s been really good has been looking at the rules of motion of the players, which goes back to where we started with the fish,” Sumpter told the TGG Pod (which you can listen to below).
“So what cues does each player use when they do a run? How do they open up space? How do they co-ordinate and move as a group?
“What is amazing there - and a lot of this is down to Vosse de Boode, who runs the research group there - is they are doing basic research. They do a lot on free kicks, penalties, how you kick the ball, different things on training.
“We want to build up a full model of football that allows us to do the more complicated things. What we have found is that in some ways analytics has skipped over some of those basics and we are trying to put them into place.
“Ajax is one of the few places where they are trying to do things from a more fundamental level, to understand the game from its basics. The thing is, it costs money.
“That really is an amazing group of people there. I visited in June and they were sitting quite close together, they had these amazing training facilities with rooms with cameras filming how players shoot; and they make them wear glasses to see what they are looking at.
“So how do you take a free kick? They put the glasses on so they can actually track their eyeballs, what they are looking at when they take the free kick, when they look down to take the shot.
“It’s having that curiosity-driven approach that you need to have. It had that University feeling when you went in there.”
INSIDE AJAX'S PERFORMANCE CENTRE
The University of football that Sumpter refers to is Ajax's Adidas Performance Centre, situated within their Sportpark De Toekomst training complex on the outskirts of Amsterdam.
It was opened in April 2011. Shortly afterwards, Vosse de Boode arrived, having recently finished a Masters in horse biomechanics at the McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University.
“An old colleague asked if I could come and visit Ajax, as they had Adidas to sponsor a sport biomechanics lab,” De Boode recalled in an interview with Professor Sam Robertson for the One Track Mind Podcast last October.
“It had things like 3D biomechanics cameras, infrared cameras, EMG (electromyography), force plates, high-speed cameras and was a really really cool facility. It was based in a full covered football pitch, but at the time they had no clue what to do with it.”
The club has a philosophy of change. Their subtitle is ‘for the future.’ Vosse de Boode
Ajax initially asked De Boode to stay with them for six months and she “did a few demo cases” before deciding to go out of the lab and "onto the field and see what the trainers were doing.”
“I started to observe,” she told Robertson. “I thought, ‘Ok, maybe I should not try to force the football on the research environment, I should build the research environment on the football players without them noticing too much.”
She had discovered the same thing as Sumpter - that you need to start from the fundamentals and build up from there.
“That was a really good lesson for me,” De Boode said. “We started way too complex. Go all the way back to the start of what information is needed, what can help and how can we provide that.
“I started with things like speed lights, asking them, ‘Do you want to know who is your fastest player?’ And they’d say, ‘I already know - and that guy is really slow.’ It turned out that guy is one of the fastest players and then it’s interesting, then you are adding some information they did not have before.
“And then you start asking the right questions - why is he not in time with the ball? Because he either goes too late, or does not push his opponent out of the way or runs in the wrong direction.”
At the end of the six months De Boode got a full-time job as a Sport Scientist with the Amsterdam club and in June 2016 was promoted to Head of Sport Science and Data, making her one of the most influential women in the whole of world football.
She also worked very closely with Erik Ten Hag, who took over as Ajax Head Coach in 2017 and is now, of course, the Manchester United manager.
“In the last 11 years we built a really nice research environment that still has the goal to help in day-to-day decision making rather than researching whatever is possible,” De Boode told One Track Mind.
“The club has a philosophy of change, their subtitle is ‘for the future’. I feel they are a lot more open to trying new things than I hear from my colleagues at other clubs.
“The reason my own department exists within the club is to provide insights to coaches, players and staff based on objective information to be able to make better decisions. You are always looking for information that helps them with decision making.”
There are 13 full-time employees within Ajax’s sport science and data analytics department, as well as close collaboration with VU University in Amsterdam.
There have been research projects on player reaction time, gaze behaviour (which Sumpter was referring to when he mentioned the glasses players wear in training), gait analysis, the relationship between strength and speed, goalkeeper dive speed and shot analysis.
Equipment used includes GPS, speed gates, 3D motion capture, eye trackers and high-speed cameras. Data is collected from the research, analysed and turned into reports and visualisations.
The club’s analysts act as a conduit between the coaching staff and De Boode’s staff in the ‘University of football’ at the Performance Centre.
“They are the ones speaking with the coaches, collecting all the questions from the team; they bring it to the analytics department,” De Boode said. “That is where we have our specialists and together we try to think, ‘How can we come up with the best solution to this question?’
“If you do it that way you always have a good process over a season on how to make your product better. The people in the team have to deliver that product back and make sure the relationship with the trainer is really strong.”
The challenge for De Boode and her staff is to keep innovating, as she acknowledged.
“That is an important thing for people in our position - to never get comfortable and to think what can we do tomorrow which will make our work even better? If you keep asking that question the work will change.”