Marcelino García Toral isn’t easily impressed.
The Spanish coach has led 10 teams in Spain, including three in LaLiga, over a 23-year career in the dugout. He has managed in the later stages of European competitions, led clubs to promotion and won the Spanish cup.
It is fair to say he has seen a lot.
But, in 2014, a young academic-turned-entrepreneur showed Marcelino, then head coach of Villarreal CF, something he hadn’t seen before. Something new in the world of soccer analysis.
“He saw it and said in Spanish ‘esta es la bomba‘, ‘this is the bomb’. He loved it,” Ruben Saavedra, the CEO and co-founder of Metrica Sports, tells me in an interview.
“Then I had to start my presentation for a third time for the sporting director. They wanted to sign and the company wasn’t even founded.”
Villarreal became Metrica’s first client and not long after FC Barcelona, one of the world’s biggest clubs, was its second. Today the company provides data and video analysis to more than 80 soccer teams in 27 countries, including the Spanish and Portuguese national sides.
It’s an impressive journey for a business that was founded over beers in an Amsterdam pub in 2013 by three soccer fanatics with no experience working in the industry.
Saavedra, from Spain, was studying for a PhD in neuroscience, using data to track the movement of mice and rats, when he met Argentines Bruno Dagnino and Enzo Angilletta. Dagnino, Metrica’s CTO, was researching human and monkey decision-making behavior through tracking-data analysis, while Angilletta, Metrica’s CMO, was building a video production company. The trio bonded over soccer and, with Saavedra an FC Barcelona fan, a shared love of Argentine Lionel Messi.
“We saw what the media was doing with tracking data, which was very basic analysis, and we wondered what clubs did with this data,” Saavedra, who, with his two co-founders, retains a “big majority shareholding” in the business, says.
“We saw that clubs didn’t have the expertise, they didn’t know what to do with this data. Football is our passion and science was our background, and this was the opportunity to combine it.”
The trio quickly learned that, when analyzing a performance, professional teams needed to identify key moments from the match automatically and communicate their findings to players in an engaging way.
“We realized that everything had to be linked to video,” Saavedra says.
“You can do any data analysis you want, but in the end coaches and analysts want to see things to believe them. You cannot just show them a graph, they want to see examples of those clips that represent the graph.
“We developed a video analysis solution that was driven by data. In a nutshell, basically (clubs) can visualize absolutely anything in the game with data – the distance between players, player speeds, all kinds of things. And we could also automate the detection of specific phases of the game from data.”
They knew they had something, but breaking into the traditionally-closed world of professional soccer wasn’t easy. Numerous handwritten letters and personalized videos were sent to coaches and analysts before an interaction over Twitter led to that first meeting with Villarreal.
Saavedra believes the ease with which coaches and analysts can use the software, and the visualization for players, is key to the company’s success.
“There’s a heavy algorithm and data analysis behind the software, but all they do is click buttons and they see videos or a table summarizing data.”
For larger clubs, able to afford in-house data scientists, there is the ability to develop their own algorithms unique to the club. For example, clubs developing their own ‘DNA’ or specific playing style can use the software to compare patterns of play across academy teams or specific players who play the same position.
While elite clubs are increasingly harnessing technology and science for better performance insights, Metrica isn’t only interested in providing services to the biggest teams.
The company this week launched Play by Metrica Sports Free, a video analysis tool that mirrors the technology Metrica’s professional clients use. The tool, a striped down version of Metrica’s “Elite” license, is available to anyone, anywhere in the world, for free.
Using machine learning, any video can be “tracked” by the software, even matches filmed in a local park on a smartphone. The idea of the free tool is to offer grassroots coaches and players the ability to analyze their matches by quickly creating annotated clips and visualizations.
“We believe that we can provide a big analysis solution to anyone nowadays, to people that have always been dreaming of being able to do some video analysis but couldn’t afford the solution,” Saavedra says.
“Unless you’re one of those clubs in the first divisions around the world, you don’t have access to anything. Everything is too expensive and too inaccessible.
“We want to change the whole market. We know there is a huge community of people who can do amazing work if they can get their hands on the right technology. Football is for everybody, so why shouldn’t a team of friends playing in the park, or an academy of promising youngsters, be able to use the same tools as the international stars they idolize every weekend?
“Metrica Sports was founded by three football fans, and we are really proud that seven years later, we are able to give something back to the grassroots football community.”