Soccer is changing fast. Here are some trends that I think will shape the game in 2017 and beyond, on and off the field.
1. The march of the statisticians
They have been gaining influence at top clubs for about a decade now. In 2016, they had a hand in the most surprising triumph in European club soccer in our generation: Leicester City’s Premier League title.
Stats guided Leicester to an unknown forward in the French second division, Riyad Mahrez, and to a defensive midfielder, N’Golo Kante, who was almost ignored until someone noticed the data on the amount of ground he covered and how many balls he intercepted. Those two signings clinched the title. Richer clubs have now begun copying some of Leicester’s methods.
Some managers continue to trust their guts over data but statisticians will advance again in 2017. There is still lots of stupidity for them to cut out. For instance, players constantly shoot from outside the penalty area. But in the Premier League, only about two percent of shots even from the edge of the area produce goals. The player shooting imagines the ball flying into the top corner; the human mind is geared to remember beautiful goals, not ugly misses. Statisticians will be lobbying players to pass from those positions instead.
This is a particular issue on free kicks. Traditionally, the team’s star player makes a great show of placing the ball, and then whams it high into the crowd. Free kicks almost never go in, yet they are perfect opportunities to pass. The opponents have to put at least two or three people in the wall just in case of a shot, which leaves spaces to pass to runners in the penalty area.
In the future, more teams will do that instead of shooting from free kicks.
2. Penalties will become scientific
This trend began nearly a decade ago when clubs started to prepare reports on opposition penalty-takers, but the 2016 Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid shows how much ignorance still remains.
Before a penalty shootout, there is a coin toss to decide which team gets to shoot first. If you win the toss, you should always shoot first because the team going first has a 60 percent chance of winning, as calculated by Professor Ignacio Palacios Huerta of the London School of Economics. He thinks this is because the team shooting second keeps having to score just to stay in the game, which is very stressful.
In the final, Atletico won the toss but decided to shoot second. That blunder alone could have proved fatal. However, Atletico’s excellent goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, then clinched their defeat. Just before a penalty is taken, Oblak habitually takes a little step towards the corner where he is going to dive.
If you watch the video of that shootout, you will see that the Real players knew exactly what they were looking for: Each kicker runs up slowly, waits for Oblak to take his step and then taps the ball into the other corner. (I owe this insight to the Dutch soccer analyst Pieter Zwart.) Clearly Real had a serious penalty report. Presumably next time Atletico will be more scientific too.
3. Pundits will become more sophisticated
They need to shape up in order to keep up with the game on the field. For now, pundits still often recycle false soccer clichés. A pet peeve of the British data analyst Ted Knutson is when a commentator shouts “He’s got to score!” when a player has a shot, as if it were easy.
Knutson points to a particular moment when Arsenal’s Theo Walcott didn’t score with a left-footed volley in a crowded penalty area. Knutson notes that the odds against a difficult shot like that going in were very high. Similarly, heading home crosses is very hard, which is why big strikers like West Ham’s Andy Carroll, whose specialty is heading home crosses, are fading out of the game.
Commentators who constantly shout things that are contradicted by basic soccer stats are on their way out as viewers become more sophisticated too.
4. The manager becomes less vital
As statistical and video analysis rises, and physical training gets more scientific and individually tailored to each player’s needs, what happens to the manager? His role diminishes.
The manager used to be considered the messiah. Now he’s becoming just a caretaker who oversees a large staff that will keep working after he is sacked: everyone from physios to defensive coaches to data analysts. Day to day, these staffers may have more impact on results than he does. Media love talking about managers (hence all the “Pep Guardiola vs. Jose Mourinho” headlines) but really we should be talking about management teams instead.
So what are managers for now? Firstly, they are their clubs’ chief PR men, and secondly, their job is to be sacked. What that means is that when results are bad, fans and media need a scapegoat. Instead of getting rid of all the players and staffers, it’s easier just to sack the manager. That doesn’t affect results but it keeps everyone happy for a while. In short, the manager is a sort of human sacrifice.
5. Western Europe will lose its dominance
The region has only 6 percent of the world’s population, but it has won the past three World Cups. This imbalance is unsustainable; the rest of the world is bound to copy this small region and catch up.
Western Europe also rules the strongest club competition, the Champions League. But in the next few years, the Champions League will probably go global. In business terms, soccer now is TV content, and the best way to enhance ratings would be to bring the Japanese, American and Chinese champions into the competition. Imagine the U.S. TV audience for a Seattle Sounders vs. Barcelona Champions League game. That’s why this will happen.
But what won’t happen is a European Superleague that replaces the domestic leagues. People have been predicting that since the 1960s, but the Spanish, English and German leagues are far too popular for the big clubs to give up.
6. Virtual reality (VR) will change TV viewing
Today you can sit on your sofa and watch Lionel Messi dribble. Soon, you may get much closer. When you start watching in virtual reality (VR), probably in the next year or two, you will be able to put on VR goggles and feel that you are standing on the field in Barcelona, watching him run straight at you. You will feel so close that you could touch him. You will see what he sees, and hear what defenders shout at him. VR can put you inside the action in a way that TV cannot.
Already, U.S. sports are experimenting with providing highlights in VR. So far, the audience is a small group of tech-savvy users, but in about two years, VR will start becoming a standard way that lots of people will choose to watch soccer, at least some of the time. You will be able to put on your goggles and “meet” a friend on the field of the Nou Camp, hanging out with him, chatting and watching Messi run past you without getting in his way.
True, there are problems, like the fact that watching in VR for 90 minutes can make you dizzy. Most of the time, then, you may want to keep watching in 2D as we do now. You may use VR only as a “second screen,” going into it every now and then, especially to replay a highlight. Still, this innovation will make soccer sexier.
7. But there is one great future business risk to soccer: the smartphone
If anything can decimate the soccer business, it’s this device, because smartphones are helping to eat into the habit of TV watching. Here’s one of the ominous developments of 2016: Lots of sports fans stopped watching matches. In American gridiron football, NFL viewership fell by about 14 percent before November’s presidential election. Some viewers returned after the election, but there are still fewer than last season. It’s the first time since the 1990s that NFL viewing figures hadn’t increased on the previous year.
In Britain, viewing of Sky Sports’ flagship Super Sunday soccer show has dropped from over 1.5 million at its peak in the 2011-2012 season to about 1 million so far this season. More people in Sky’s European markets are dropping their subscriptions, and both for the NFL and the Premier League, the people quickest to switch off have been the young — the group that uses smartphones most and watches TV least.
Possibly this decline is just a blip. Maybe in a year’s time, it will be forgotten. Or perhaps the long-term decline in TV viewing may now be hitting live sport.
The dirty secret of live soccer: A lot of it is boring to watch. Playing with your smartphone is often more fun. So is discussing the game with your friends on social media. Now that the best bits of matches are packaged in beautiful free videos, why pay to watch the whole boring 90 minutes? My soccer-mad sons almost never watch a match. Instead they watch YouTube videos of Paul Pogba or the 10 worst free kicks of all time, and so on.
If that’s how their generation is going to watch soccer, the game’s economy is in trouble.
Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.