Playermaker: From Wenger's back garden to elite level
Written by Simon Austin — August 28, 2019
THROUGHOUT his 22 years as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger prided himself on being an innovator.
In his earliest days at the club, he revolutionised nutrition and scouted new markets; towards the end he was pivotal in the decision to buy US data analysis firm StatDNA.
This desire to spot the latest trend didn't end when the Frenchman exited the Emirates, which is why AFC Wimbledon’s Academy players held an impromptu match in the back garden of his London home on a cold afternoon in December 2018.
Every player was wearing two sensors, one on each boot, which sent a wealth of technical and physical data to a connected iPad. The 69-year-old was so impressed with what he saw that afternoon that he decided to invest in Playermaker, the Israeli start-up behind the technology.
“I was convinced when I saw that first demonstration with the players,” Wenger remembered. “And luckily it didn’t destroy my garden.”
When he appeared at a press conference to launch the product in May (you can watch the video above), Wenger slapped down any suggestion he was there as a mere marketing gimmick.
“I am not just here for an advert, I am not a sponsor,” he said. “I have put my money in. Why? Because I think it is the most accurate system I have seen and the least disturbing. You can measure everything, there is so much possibility.”
Initial research has backed up the Frenchman's assertion that the product could be a gamechanger for football.
St Mary’s University carried out independent research comparing Playermaker to three popular GPS systems in a “simulated football match” featuring a squad of elite Academy players.
Lead researcher Dr Mark Waldron explained that Playermaker was “more able to pick up the short, rapid movements that characterise team sport movement patterns” than the GPS systems.
These “small cumulative changes of direction” - the accelerations and decelerations we see throughout matches - “sum to something quite large at the end”, he added.
Waldron (above) concluded that the reasons for this were the higher sampling rate of the Playermaker (it takes 1,000 samples per second); the fact it is an inertial-based system, using an accelerometer and gyrometer; and the location of the sensor on the feet instead of the trunk.
Waldron also tested the inter-unit reliability of Playermaker and found that the error rate of the devices was “so small they were way beyond anything that has been reported with other tracking devices.”
EVOLUTION FROM KAYAKING
To find out the genesis of Playermaker, we have to go back a few years to Israel and a company called Motionize, set up by CEO Guy Aharon. The product was aimed at kayakers and used a sensor attached to the paddle to send data to an app. Aharon soon realised the potential application of the device to football and Playermaker was born.
As you can see in the video in the section below, from pre-season with Hull City, a sensor is encased in a thin rubber strap that is pulled around the football boot. Data is collected by the sensor and transmitted via bluetooth to an iPad, enabling users to see data, visualisations and reports on their dashboard.
Playermaker's UK sales director Steve Jenkinson told TGG that “the biggest thing is our data”, derived using machine learning. Over the course of four years, developers have had to teach Playermaker “the language of football”, so that the system knows what each touch of boot on ball actually means.
The result is that users can now get technical data - possessions, ball touches, leg usage and so on - and physical data - such as distance covered, accelerations, and decelerations. This was what Wenger was able to see on the iPad in his garden last December.
Playermaker is currently working on future releases that will provide more biomechanical data, including stride length, foot height, kick velocity and the forces that go through the lower limbs.
Early clients of the product include Hull City, AFC Wimbledon Millwall and Northampton Town in England; Shandong Lueneng in China and Philadelphia Union, Toronto and Atlanta United in the MLS.
We spoke to Hull City senior sports scientist Steve Barrett to get an insider's view on Playermaker.
HULL CITY CASE STUDY
“As soon as I saw this, it sparked ideas,” said Barrett, who has previously done extensive research on inertial measurement units.
“We have never really, within a training environment, been able to objectively quantify the technical aspects of the game, such as touches and passes. Previously, this would have had to be done by someone logging or coding what was going on.
"To have objective data like this available in a few minutes is very desirable for us. Our coaching staff do a lot of technical passing drills and now we can see how often a player is using his left foot compared to the right and so on.
"At the moment it doesn't replace the need for GPS, and would be used in conjunction with it, but the potential is massive, which is why we have invested. We want to be involved with the product, helping to shape its future direction, from the very start.
"Because of the placement of the sensors on the feet, we can potentially get data such as ground reaction forces, stride frequency and stride rate. Also, if you look at the majority of injuries in football, they are happening in the lower limb, so it makes sense to have a sensor located in that area.”
One concern does immediately spring to mind though. Players are notoriously preoccupied with the comfort and precision of their boots, so what do they feel about a strap being placed around them?
Barrett admitted: “When we first got Playermaker in, we had one lad who refused to wear it and others who were skeptical, because they thought it would affect their kicking.
“But they soon forgot they were even wearing the sensors and only remembered when they were taking their boots off at the end of training. If players understand the rationale behind a piece of technology and think it can make them better, they appreciate it.”
As we said at the start, Wenger argues that the device is less “disturbing” than other forms of monitoring, which is part of the reason he was inclined to invest. As Barrett said, more research is now needed and Playermaker are considering funding three PhDs at the University of Hull.
Then, perhaps, this product that was demo’d in Wenger’s garden 18 months ago could become a fixture on pitches around the country.