How stats helped Leicester City F.C win the Premier League

The Foxes’ fairytale triumph against the odds in 2015 is often put down to tactics, luck or the big six simply having an off-year. But Matt Reeves tells a different story. The Head of Fitness and Conditioning at Leicester City and expert behind PLAYR’s Smart Coach told us about the unsung role played by technology in pulling off the biggest footballing upset in a generation.

The bookies thought it more likely the Loch Ness monster would be discovered or Elvis found alive before Leicester City won the league in the 2015/16. You were present for every step of the journey — what was it like making Premier League history?

It was an unbelievable experience for everyone involved: staff, players and fans. Because of its unlikeliness, it never quite seemed a reality until the moment it was confirmed. Everyone remained focussed throughout and didn’t get carried away. After all, just months earlier we had performed the Great Escape having been bottom of the Premier League for much of the season. In the early part of the season results went in our favour; we fought back from behind several times and scored a number of late goals. This built confidence amongst the squad and help to establish a winning mindset among the players.

There were stronger teams than Leicester City on paper, but it was you who lifted the trophy. What do you put that down to?

Confidence and momentum were key, as was togetherness between players and staff. Then there was the team’s exemplary availability throughout the season, which allowed Claudio Ranieri to pick the same starting XI. Not being in peak condition and suffering from injury will certainly ruin your chances of succeeding.

Obviously a triumph like the Premier League doesn’t come without data and analytics — how much of a role did technology play in winning the Premier League?

Technology is heavily used throughout the club, an area that has developed dramatically in recent years given advances in wearable tech. Every player wears a GPS device each day in training and it allows us to gain key information about how far they have moved, the speeds at which they have performed actions, the length and frequency of their efforts and even the direction of their movements. This doesn’t mean we force players to work hard and to their maximum every day. The GPS information helps us evaluate whether we have achieved what we set out to for a given session. Sometimes we want players to have lighter training days to allow for recovery and adaptation, while other times we may look to overload intense and explosive actions. We can do this by altering pitch dimensions, varying drills and carefully manipulating work and rest periods. With effective planning and execution, we hope to give players the ability to perform to their full capacity over 90 minutes while remaining injury-free.

To produce such fast counter-attacks, Leicester were completing some of the highest number of sprints in the League. How did you prepare for this in training?

The most important question for players and coaches to ask themselves is “What skills are needed in order to execute the gameplay?” A team with a very aggressive pressing strategy needs players who can accelerate powerfully, control speed in their deceleration and most importantly be able to repeat these actions again and again. Alternatively, if a team were looking to defend deep, win the ball and then counter-attack at speed, the emphasis would be on building sprint resilience, performing actions near maximum speed and executing technical skills at the end of these explosive bouts (i.e. maintaining quality of shots or crosses).

Jamie Vardy was clocked in as the fastest player in the Premier League that season — how did you use technology to tailor exercise to such an explosive player?

With certain players, you need to adapt their training in order to ensure that they are fresh and ready for performance on a game day. This is especially important for the fast twitch players like Jamie Vardy who perform actions at full throttle and require constant monitoring and fine tuning to keep them on track. Any player who wants to perform at their best should consistently be trying to improve and develop as an individual. This can be through additional technique work, studying the tactics employed by top teams, becoming stronger and more resilient through effective gym exercises and by listening to nutritional advice in order to make better food choices to aid recovery and improve performance.

How much did Claudio Ranieri pay attention to GPS data and did it impact his decisions?

GPS data is presented to players and coaches on a daily basis. It’s important to share the objective data because it often provides a great platform for discussion. The manager and coaches will look at how the data supports what they saw through their experienced eye — which players need rest or which of the non-starters need motivating to raise their application. Sports science staff will delve into training data to design position-specific drills, shape their recommendations for training loads and even try to draw comparisons about how the on-pitch loads may be affecting other markers such as hamstring strength. Players themselves are really interested in data, discussing the figures with each other and considering whether the numbers reflect how difficult they found a drill or why their body may be feeling the way it does after a certain session.

By making data available, it allows players to identify which of their teammates are the fastest, sharpest or run the furthest. Creating a competitive environment helps to build a club culture in which players and staff set high demands of each other. Leaderboards are a great way of doing this as those at the top get recognition for their high level of performance but those lower down can push to work their way up the list.

Without the use of technology, analysis and data, do you think Leicester City would have been as successful as they were in the 2015/16 season?  

Nowadays, technology is part of the sport and it would be naïve for a player or coach to disregard it. While technology will not guarantee you three points in a game, objective information can help provide feedback, allow reflection and aid us in preparing as effectively as possible.

Written by Arthur House.

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