An ‘Innovation Hub’ in top sport

An Innovation Hub in the world of top sport Barcelona, the greatest football club in the world, quietly launched its ‘Innovation Hub’ in 2017, which Maria Bartomeu, its president, now regards as its most important project. What can we learn from it?

A few people have extraordinary skills (such as reading the game, facilitating others) suggests a piece in the FT, skills that can be identified, nurtured, sustained and put to good use, but are difficult to emulate (but not impossible – see footnote).

The Hub’s 16 staff are about spreading the best innovations around the club, but also more than an internal tool: ‘helping to invent the football of the future’. They search for incremental gains both on and off the field.

The club’s reputation has been made on the field – with its outstanding record of success. The team’s basic playing style and match tactics are ‘only a crutch’, though derived from intense analysis of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and their likely tactics for this game. But football belongs to the players – ‘they take their own decisions’ says Valverde, the Head Coach. ‘The great players analyse the game better than I do’.

The great Lionel Messi ‘reserves the first minutes of each match for interpretation’…’ignoring the ball and taking a reconnaissance walk around the opposition defense, fixing each man’s position in his head. Then as the game advances, he gets in little by little. But he knows perfectly well where the rival’s weaknesses are.’

Barcelona’s data analysts spend their lives looking for an edge for their team; and players like advice that is specific. The analysts’ focus used to be on passes, tackles, shots etc, but the question may now be how a player positions himself: is he controlling crucial spaces and creating space for teammates?

The club now uses a new tracking system, developed with Spanish startup RealTrackSystems, which relies on wearable sensors to track players’ positions, speeds, accelerations, recovery distance, heartbeat, force of collisions etc. The club hopes that this information will help players to create ‘superiorities’ – that are numerical (two players against one), positional (your player controls a space) or qualitative (Messi dribbling against an inferior opponent).

But, says Velverde, ‘for now, the club’s analysts can barely help the players do that. On the contrary, the analysts learn about football by observing the club’s most intelligent players.’ (‘Midfielder Sergio Basquets, knows just how to draw an opponent towards him and then release a team mate into the space the man has left.’)

So how do you identify the most intelligent players? One long-standing theory is that they are those who almost always face the right way on the field. Some would say that Barcelona simply attracts great players (it pays them each more than £10mn pa), but Valverde say ‘nobody comes here for the money; they come here because they like playing football’; and grumbles that the club cannot attract all of those whom it would like to. When we are buying a player, says Valverde, ‘we look at his speed, his number of ball recoveries, the attacks he has interrupted, but above all the club asks people around the player about his psychology…he may come with amazing data, but is he ‘[psychologically]’ a satellite….?’

Those words suggest another (perhaps vital) touchstone: that Barcelona may now be focusing on how its players help each other to make use of their special talents – as much as their own (like Basquets).

And then there are issues about fitness. All players now wear a chip that monitors the training sessions, with the aim of trying to predict stress or injury. ‘But the club will need to build up a knowledge base largely by themselves [as] medicine has little to say about football injuries.’ So the club is now partnering about 40 studies of such injuries. It is also focusing on a player’s external load: how many games of what intensity has he played recently; and how is he reacting internally – with the overall aim of individualising each player’s care, (although as much as the club may want to ensure that they have the very best that is available, players have their own regimes and lives.)

The Board member who oversees the Hub talks about Barcelona as becoming the Silicon Valley of sport. The club plans to launch investment funds to invest in tech and sports projects worldwide; and it exchanges ideas less with their football rivals than with American sports franchises – from San Francisco’s 49ers of gridiron football to basketballs Golden State Warriors.

And Barcelona also has plans to build ‘the best sporting complex in the world in the centre of a great city’ – that will set the tone in global sport. Social impact is part of the Club’s mission, and it informs the work of the Innovation Hub as it does everything else – as a society, to perform at your very best.

Footnote: My book ‘Releasing Creativity’ has eighteen stories of leaders (in a variety of fields) who have this talent. One is of an Olympic Athletics coach; another was an Olympic Kayak coach – out of a total of 40 in a research project for the then Department of Trade and Industry. (Available from Amazon.)

From ‘How FC Barcelona are preparing for the future of football’, Simon Kuper; FT Weekend Magazine, March 2/3, 2019

 John Whatmore, March 2019

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