Revealed: The Technology That Is Driving Croatia's World Cup Fairytale

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportJuly 14, 2018

Croatia's players celebrate their win at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 11, 2018. - Croatia will play France in the World Cup final after they beat England 2-1 in extra-time on Wednesday thanks to a Mario Mandzukic goal in the second period of extra-time. (Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADS        (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
BR

As a nation with the fourth lowest population at the FIFA World Cup, Croatia knew they would need an edge if they were to make an impact.

Sure, they have household names such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic. But their backroom team figured they would have to do more.

Their solution was to embrace technology.

Every side has video analysts, but none have had quite the same insight as Croatia—the only team in Russia using STATS Edge.

The Chicago-based tech firm has been tracking football data since 1999 and in June launched a new football platform that uses artificial intelligence to analyse a team's performance, compare playing styles and conduct game-changing set-play analysis. You can even start to predict how an opponent might react to a specific scenario based on their past behaviour.

Frank Augstein/Associated Press

To dissect a match, analysts usually take five hours to code the game and watch it back. With this new tool, computers do the hard work and extract the details, so it can be watched back at the click of a button. Five hours of graft saved. Five hours more time to study opponents' strengths and weaknesses.

It's given the team a helping hand towards Sunday's Moscow showdown with France.

"What it does is tie objective analysis with video," Dr. Patrick Lucey, vice president of AI at STATS, explained to Bleacher Report. "We have been able to do this in the World Cup, and Croatia are the first team with this product.

"If you look at the broadcasts, the statistics that they show are useless. They don't tell the full story and are not predictive of a team winning. I normally use the example of the World Cup semi-final in 2014. Germany won 7-1, but if you look at the statistics, Brazil had more shots, more dangerous chances. Yet Germany won 7-1."

"Expected goals" are now becoming commonplace in the game as an easily understood way of showing chances created. But there is deeper analysis that reveals how other areas of the game can be just as decisive.

Croatia saw off England in the semi-final as Mandzukic scored in extra-time. But the pattern of the game was intriguing. England dominated the first half but were pegged back in the second period and never seemed to regain composure.

Some put it down to Gareth Southgate's men simply taking their foot off the pedal, but look into the insight Croatia had available to them, and it is likely they found a way to target England and make them vulnerable.

"England played very well in the tournament and on average had more possession than other teams; they were about 53 percent," Lucey explained. "In terms of expected goals, they averaged about 1.5 per game, which is compared to the average of 1.3.

"And what they were really effective on was the high press. They did a lot of that and maintained the ball a lot. They weren't much into direct play or crossing. That tended to be their style across the Cup. However, if you look at the game against Croatia, they had less possession, and in terms of their playing style, they went direct a hell of a lot of times.

"Also, Croatia had 24 shots and created a lot of chances; their expected goals was 2.4 compared to England's 0.7."

The comparison between England's overall performances compared to theirs against Croatia was vast, as the STATS Edge data illustrated.

England's use of possession football and a high press in the tournament pre-Croatia.
England's use of possession football and a high press in the tournament pre-Croatia.STATS Edge

England's switch to a more direct game against Croatia.
England's switch to a more direct game against Croatia.STATS Edge

Information like this is commonplace across U.S. sports, with basketball, American football and baseball all heavily reliant on data to study games. But in Europe, and when it comes to soccer, there is not the same attitude.

"I get some people saying that this kind of analysis is ruining sport, and you are taking away the romance," Lucey admitted. "Sport is random—just not as random as you think. People are playing a lot of FIFA on computers and are also understanding that numbers in the game matter, through playing fantasy football or through gambling. Things are advancing, and you can make better decisions by using data."

A key aspect at a World Cup is game preparation, as games are just four or five days apart. Again, Croatia have given themselves an advantage when it comes to putting together a game plan.

Using that semi-final against England as an example, how did they manage to reset their focus and style so impressively?

"In situations like that, you can't spend five hours coding up a match, which is what analysts tend to do," Lucey said. "As well as that, they would also want to watch the previous five matches England had played, and that can take about 24 hours in terms of human annotation time. That stuff is kind of silly, and this is what technology is for. Using these tools, we can segment part of the videos, and at the click of a button you have all this analysis."

Technology in football is not here to replace humans.

"A lot of this is just backing up intuition of the coaches," he added. "It's nice to have objective analysis to back that up. Football is so contextual."

And now Croatia switch their attention to France. How can they pull off one of the greatest achievements of all time by going on to win the World Cup?

The task won't be easy. France have been one of the favourites throughout the tournament, have not lost any of their six matches and have not even played any knockout game into extra-time.

Since Thursday morning, focus will have been drawn towards the data and trying to spot trends and weaknesses within the France side. What do they need to stop? And how?

Petr David Josek/Associated Press

"In terms of style, France have been fast tempo. We see they are 42 percent above the average in terms of that, and when you look at Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, that resonates. But you can tie that straight to video, and if you are an analyst preparing to play against France, you can very quickly summarise that play and have a look at how they do it."

The STATS Edge interface makes it easy to break down these areas, as every piece of data is linked to video, which can be accessed by clicking a bar next to a section.

From style of play to set-piece studies, Croatia will know what to expect.

"We are in an age now of recommendation," Lucey said. "We should just ask questions and let the experts find the solution they are after. There is no global optimum; there are many solutions. But we want to help people to find it.

"People do that every day—look at Netflix and Amazon. That is how we function. We function off recommendation, and soccer should fit within that realm."

A good recommendation with Croatia is that we don't write them off.

They may be the underdogs in this World Cup final, but they have been doing everything within their power to pull off one of the greatest football stories the game has seen.

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