11 September 2019

Goal-scoring algorithms. An interview with the calm leader

  • Di Massimiliano Gallo

Interview with Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti is from Reggiolo. He is one of the figureheads of all that is Made in Italy. Son of farmers, he is proud to tell of his childish rage when the landowner came to the house to lay claim to half the harvest. And yet, his father explained to him that this was just the way of things. Perhaps his roots helped him to keep his grip on reality,and to continue to look to the future with a sense of optimism and curiosity. Like all those with the gift of true intelligence, Ancelotti has succeeded in adapting to the different situations he has found himself in. Beginning with the terrible injuries he suffered when he was still a footballer, and which could have ended his career. Arrigo Sacchi never tires of telling the story of when Silvio Berlusconi tried to oppose the purchase of Ancelotti as a player ("His knee function is reduced by 20%"). He replied: "Yes, but my brain is works at 100%." And indeed, this brain will take centre stage in this conversation.

Ancelotti has been a football coach for many years, with no small degree of success, to put it mildly. But he could just as easily be a diplomat, or the manager of a large company. Among his many records and accolades, he can boast official, glowing written statements of esteem by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović: the latter hardly two people known for being extravagant with their compliments.

He started playing sport, and football in particular, when the internet and pay TV channels were still science fiction. Back in his day, the goalkeeper could pick up balls passed backwards by his team-mates with his hands without issue. But Ancelotti is anything but a traditionalist with his head in the past. He is, however, something of a detective Colombo. One of his best-known phrases concerns the use of statistics in football: "In a match, the only statistics of any relevance are the goals scored and the goals conceded." This is his way of demonstrating his detachment from the avalanche of data that has invaded football. This is certainly the front that he presents on the outside. But in reality, Ancelotti is one of those professionals who knows exactly how to deal with complex issues. And he is well aware that in this day and age, science - whether statistics or biochemistry - is fundamental in the study and development of athletes and their behaviour. For this reason, he surrounds himself with young professionals who are in step with the times.

Moreover, in a mocking twist of fate, it was Ancelotti - in spite of himself - who introduced statistics in football. I had forgotten: in USA '94, Arrigo Sacchi - Ancelotti was his deputy in the National team - placed me in the stands, where I watched the games, describing them aloud to an employee who transcribed my comments: "Albertini, vertical pass, Donadoni dribbling, ball lost." A little like Ugo Tognazzi in the film "The Federal": Hole, hole with water". And right then - he recounts - the spectators sitting next to him in the stands got up and changed places within the space of a few minutes."

Twenty-five years later, every football match is analysed using all kinds of statistics. It is one of the many scientific aspects that is increasingly pervasive in football, and in sport in general

"I grew up in an environment where the eye was the most important element in football. You had to trust what you saw, trust your gut feeling. There were no numbers, apart from the rankings, of course. Today, everything has changed. And not just in football. On a physical level too, the quality of a training session was measured by the degree of pain you felt in your legs the next day. Once upon a time, the sessions had a standard formula: twenty minutes of warm-up, thirty minutes of play, exercises without the ball, striding, hill work. Today, this would be seen as a joke, even though some still think in this way. Science has radically changed sport - for the better, of course. On a physical level, across every discipline, it is now very hard to make mistakes in terms of training. We know everything about athletes. And the data doesn't lie. Biochemistry has become key to assessing the athlete's recovery. And it's not just biochemistry. There are a host of tangible examples. Not everyone knows that this year Jens Bangsbo, one of the greatest innovators in the training world, worked with the Atalanta team. He's a university professor. He was one of the first people to introduce the concept of athletic work with the ball to football. I met him at Juventus, he had a partnership with the club when I was training the team. But back then, his methods were deemed to be too innovative. Although I don't know the extent of his influence, I am sure that Atalanta's great season owes a lot to his skills and his vision. He is science personified."

Of course, not everyone has Bangsbo on their staff. "In recent times - continues Ancelotti - a series of professional roles have emerged and taken hold in sport, roles which until a few years ago didn't exist, and weren't even imaginable. Within the extended teams that surround clubs and athletes - whether basketball, volleyball or other sports - increasing weight is being given to studying the data, to carrying out a careful analysis of performance." The tennis player Novak Djokovic, just to give an example, has hired the data analyst employed by the ATP, the Association of Tennis Professionals (the body which governs the international circuit).

He cut his teeth in a team - Milan - which now relies on Milan Lab to remain constantly at the cutting edge of technology. "It goes without saying that the athlete is always the driver of everything. The athlete, with his or her psychological complexity, weaknesses and strengths. All around these athletes, however, changes are occurring one after the other, and failing to keep up with the times results in a loss of competitiveness. This is true in every sport. Technological development, which is also a product of science, has become an indispensable element in all disciplines - fundamental, I would say. It's no longer solely confined to the sports that we generally associate with technology, such as Formula One, for example. "

Infographic by Vertigo Design and Glenda Trubiano

Infographic by Vertigo Design and Glenda Trubiano

The individual athlete is always at the centre of everything, Ancelotti reminds us, but without distancing us from innovation. On the contrary. However, he would never be caught uttering the famous phrase once pronounced by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov: "Today artificial intelligence would beat me in a few moves." The coach, who won two Champions League tournaments with Milan and one with Real Madrid, defends the unique nature of football.

"It's a different sport. It's a sport for everyone, because so many people can play it: tall, short, thin, fat. It's true that the athletic component is much more important today than when I was a player. But even now, the real difference that sets football apart from other sports lies in the fact that the prototype of the ideal footballer simply does not exist. It hasn't been identified. There is no physical feature that enables you to say: this person will become a football player. Even on a scientific level, it is impossible to identify. And the reason for this is very simple: it's because we have not yet succeeded in measuring the brain and its capabilities. Although we are getting closer." We're back to the crux of the matter.

"In football - continues the calm leader (as he calls himself in the Italian title of his latest book, Il Leader Calmo) - intelligence matters: it is essential to be able to decide what to do and then to do it well, in the shortest possible time. This is the element that really makes the difference, beyond the technical characteristics. And in football it's more complex. In other sports, such as basketball and volleyball, the space in which the game is played is much smaller. There, tactics have a much greater relevance and impact. It's not like that in football. It's more complicated to faithfully replicate a game plan in football, and that's why it's crucial to train decision-making skills."

The right decision at the right time. Football intelligence. And this is where science comes back in. At Naples, Carlo Ancelotti and his staff - including his son Davide and athletic trainer Francesco Mauri - have launched a collaborative project with STATS, a specialist company that provides the so-called "game intelligence". At the heart of this is a complex algorithm that unpacks the details of the match of every single player, as well as providing a technical efficiency index. It's unprecedented.

"For the first time - he explains - science is entering the technical sphere. At any time during the match, as soon as he gets the ball, the player must make a decision. The algorithm that is at the core of this game intelligence tells you which options the player with the ball had at that precise moment, and which decision would have been the most effective. Just like in chess. The best move. Now we can understand in football too." Bishop in A3, Neymar on the edge of the penalty area. And we can work out if he's made the wrong decision, if he's made a mistake in the way he has applied the decision, and then we can obviously arrange specific exercises in training with a view to improving the athlete's performance.

Lionel Messi and Bobby Fischer. Two anomalies. The latter certainly more than the former. Someone who turned what we might call the "algorithms of the time" on their head. Who saw diagonal moves and opportunities to attack where others saw nothing. Who shook Boris Spassky to his core. Just like today, when Lionel Messi drives those who focus solely on his physical performance insane. The volume data paint a picture of amateur performance. Because the physical data cannot fully describe performance unless it is cross-referenced with the technical data. This is why Usain Bolt tried in vain to play football.

Ancelotti spent many hours discussing innovation, and basketball, with a great friend of his who passed away a few months back: Alberto Bucci, the former coach of Virtus Bologna, under whom the team won three championship titles.

Carlo is convinced that high-level professional football is increasingly heading in the same direction as the NBA: "The model is the same. They will play every two to three days. And players will only come together on the pitch for tactical training. One hour, and that's it. After that, the athletes will be in charge of managing themselves. We shouldn't say it, but we will anyway: in some cases, this is already happening. There are players out there following personalised training plans that are the opposite of, or at least at odds with the instructions provided by the club staff. I say this because football is currently going through a period of profound change, a phase that other sports have already overcome. And the best athlete, the one who earns the most, will also have the best staff at his disposal. In the future, professional figures will be more and more specialised, both from the point of view of training and with regard to analysis. Every athlete is a company. It is up to that company to decide how to invest in itself, and how much, including - and indeed, above all - from a scientific point of view. We simply need to reflect on this concept in order to realise what sport has become today. Those who understand it first have a competitive advantage over everyone else. We may or may not like it, but that's how it is. And this is how it will increasingly be."

Before we leave, we can't miss the chance to ask him about the side effects of science. Or rather, doping: "That's biochemistry too, but it's designed to control, and not to alter. There are sports in which doping works, generally the disciplines which are primarily focused on the physical aspect. In football, for example, success is also reliant on the player's mental capacities, application, concentration skills. Improving performance is much more complicated."

Share on social networks

Ultimo numero Civilità della Macchine

La Rivista - Civiltà delle Macchine

Maggio 2020

Quali saranno le conseguenze economiche, politiche e sociali della pandemia? È questo il focus del nuovo numero della rivista che vede gli interventi, tra gli altri, di Chiara Saraceno, Michele Fusco,Emanuele Felice e Francesco Grilllo. In apertura, inoltre, l’intervista al premio Nobel della fisica 2019 Didier Queloz.

Museums System

The Leonardo museums bear exceptional witness to the technological and industrial memory and constitute an instrument of dialogue and constant sharing between the company and the territory. They were born out of the awareness that a large part of the industrial culture of our time is not only produced by the great cultural and educational institutions, but is also formed within companies. Living, dynamic structures, corporate museums represent a point of reference for communities and territories, centres of industrial culture open to visitors, researchers, students, economic and cultural operators.

Leggi Tutto
Copyright © 2019 Leonardo S.p.A. Privacy & Cookie Policy