Professional soccer has come on a long way since the days of boggy pitches, meaty challenges, and comparatively small player wages. Sports science, technology and data has made crucial inroads within the game, becoming an important aspect of the daily operations of pro clubs across the world. From the introduction of specialist sports analyst roles to the employment of large teams of sports science and medical stuff at clubs such as Manchester United or Liverpool, things are extremely technical in the Premier League and at other elite level clubs these days.
One of the ways in which technology has changed soccer is the increased role of GPS in the game. Some people may find it surprising that GPS tracking technology is being implemented at the top level (and as far down as semi-pro level, in some cases) to help create a stronger picture of player and team performance levels, and thereby achieve better results. However, its influence in the modern era is undeniable. That's why we'll be spending this article exploring the phenomenon of GPS in soccer.
GPS is a type of technology most of us have come into contact with in one way or another. Standing for Global Positioning System, GPS technology was originally introduced by the U.S. military during the early 1970s, and made available for civilian use the following decade. It calculates distance and location by transmitting unique signals between GPS devices and orbiting satellites, and while its efficacy when it comes to working out a driving route is well known, the role of GPS tech in global premier soccer is a relatively new development.
Across the sport, GPS monitoring is used to analyse player workloads and gain a better idea of the work that players are doing in training and in matches. This kind of monitoring has been aided hugely by the development of the GPS tracker vest, a device that has now become a common everyday part of professional soccer. Shortly, we'll spend some time discussing exactly how these devices work, but first, it's important to explain why they're necessary in the first place.
GPS tracker vests are used to track player movements in order to gather individualised player data on various aspects of performance. This tracking data can be extremely useful for coaches and other club staff members.
For example, GPS trackers can be used to help a soccer coach keep track of running stats, thereby identifying players who work particularly hard, or not hard enough. Premier League players are expected to run long distances in each match, with studies reporting that "players can cover a distance of between 8,500 and 13,000 m using various locomotion intensities during match play" (so far, the most a player has run during a match in the 2022-23 season is 13.2km, recorded by Leeds midfielder and U.S. international Brenden Aaranson in a 2-1 October victory over Liverpool). GPS vests help soccer team staff members keep an eye on these figures and gain a better idea of what their players are doing in each match.
Other statistics that these Electronic Performance and Tracking System devices, or GPS trackers, can pick up include: average running speed, total sprinting distance, average acceleration time, and average deceleration time. Trackers will also be used to try to aid in the prevention of injury, by monitoring heart rate, ensuring that athlete's load (the amount of demand on their body) remains at a reasonable level, and keeping an eye on G-force and impact data, as well as the amount of high-intensity play being completed on the field. When it comes to developing tailor-made rehabilitation, strength and conditioning programs for each individual player, recording these statistics comes in extremely handy.
Clearly then, close player monitoring can have a positive impact when applied within association football, whether it's being implemented at a mid-level professional soccer club, an elite-level academy, or further down the pyramid at some other kind of youth soccer organization. But how exactly do these devices work? Let's spend a little bit of time discussing how technology can be taken full advantage of within soccer.
According to Kevin McDaid, co-founder of GPS tracker company Catapult/PlayerTek, "Wearable technology is effectively a GPS device, about the size of a credit card, and it's worn on the back... Using the satellite, it picks up your position and it picks up your speed, in the same way that any other GPS device does, and then it splits up the data into elements that you'd want to analyse." This includes 5-minute breakdowns that highlight at which periods during games players are most effective, peak velocities, accelerations and decelerations - the lot.
Thanks to GPS player tracking devices, fitness and performance can be tracked using the insertion of a small GPS device into a little pouch at the back of a small, specially-made vest that players wear throughout a match. This tracker is so small that it's barely noticeable, and the bras are designed to be super comfortable, with no restriction of movement or irritability.
Different types of device are available, but most trackers will record the main statistics we laid out in the previous section of this article: distance run, sprinting distance, heart rate, and more. Some units are capable of highlighting even more advanced physical performance metrics, but even just monitoring the basics can have a real impact in terms of helping athletes and coaches gain a better understanding of the demands that are required during each session, periodising and tailoring training sessions as a result. For example, if a coach is worried that a certain player isn't fully fit, tracking that player's sprints and distance covered can help shine a light on the situation - if someone is only covering 7km during training but needs to be reaching 10km+ on a matchday, that's a problem. Meanwhile, if it becomes clear through session load monitoring that a player is at risk of getting injured, things can be toned down a little. These are just a couple of examples of how GPS tracking can be used within soccer.
Catapult/PlayerTek co-founder Kevin McDaid describes this state-of-the-art piece of technology as "the one bit of kit that is used every day in academies that your average amateur player doesn't have until now." By getting measures for things that you're simply not able to examine in any other way, GPS vests have opened up all sorts of new possibilities in terms of the detail that coaches and analysts can get into when looking back at player training and matchday performance.
However, in order to access the benefits that this kind of technology is capable of providing, it's important that those using it have a good grasp of exactly what's on offer. There are plenty of different providers offering this kind of technology now, and when choosing devices, it's important to bear in mind a range of features such as tips, tagging, team performance metrics, physical design and more.
Let's start with the basics - firstly, the ideal GPS tracker should be super lightweight, weighing as little as possible. This is crucial given that these devices will be attached to players' bodies for long periods of time, and any kind of distraction or physical disturbance will not be tolerated by coaches or players at the upper echelons of professional soccer. Also, if GPS devices aren't light enough, the data can actually be negatively skewed as a result of the extra foreign body weight.
Leeds United's Marc Roca with a modern GPS tracker
Another factor that relates to the amount of time that GPS soccer vests will be worn for at any one time is battery life. These devices will be picking up a vast amount of data during training sessions and matches, and it's vital that they're able to perform this purpose for long periods without the risk of them running out of battery. It might seem like a small concern, but practical details such as this, and storage size, are crucial in player tracking. It's also important to think about cost-effectiveness - with various different options available, which of the GPS vests are the best value for money?
One other thing to consider is how easily the data that's recorded can be read afterward: for example, certain technologies come with an easy-to-use phone app that can bring up metrics post-training session or post-matchday, offering detailed insight into performance metrics using heat maps, graphs, and smartly-presented visuals. When implementing GPS soccer technology at a lower level of the period, this kind of accessibility is important.
The GPS tracking soccer phenomenon is yet another example of how the sport is continually thinking about the future and attempting to innovate in the same way that more data-led sports such as American football or baseball have. We can see this in the increased presence of Expected Goals (xG) within the game, or in the way that data analysis has led to more innovative set-piece coaching strategies at clubs like Brentford,
Caused by the seemingly constant increases in length of playing seasons and density of fixtures at the highest level, the GPS tracking trend is an innovative solution that allows clubs to respond to these developments by better understanding play workload and strain and ultimately maximising performance overall. The initial setup costs and level of detailed analysis work required have meant that GPS tracking is mainly the reserve of pro clubs, but don't be surprised to see it gradually trickle down the pyramid and continue to have a greater influence. And in the meantime, plenty of other forward-thinking uses of technology are making headway across professional soccer.
Thankfully for any big fans of data, analytics and technology in soccer, our blog is packed with lots more content about the role these aspects of the game are playing in 2023 (and beyond). If you're interested in a career in one of football's most rapidly growing sectors, for instance, you should check out our guide to how to become a sports analyst in soccer. Or for a more rounded look at how soccer analysis has developed in recent times, take a look at our guide to 10 great