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Gareth Southgate On Google Cloud Empowering English Football

‘We needed to modernize our thinking,’ says Gareth Southgate, manager of England’s national senior men’s football team. ‘In the early stages, that's hard because of high turnover of staff, reluctance to move forward with new ideas. It's a change project, and that's always going to find resistance.’

Google Cloud is helping inform and improve the performance of the national football teams of England, where – in the words of women’s director Baroness Sue Campbell – the sport “is as close to a religion as you could imagine.”

Google Cloud is the official cloud of England’s 28 youth, men’s and women’s teams under a multiyear partnership announced earlier this year with the Football Association (FA), the country’s football governing body. It’s helping the 156-year-old FA undergo a digital transformation to keep an edge against the competition with its analytics tools and machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities.

“The game isn't just about the most skillful team, it's about having the understanding of important moments,” according to Gareth Southgate, manager of England’s senior men’s team, which has qualified for next summer’s UEFA Euro 2020.

The Google Cloud partnership is powering a player profile system that measures players’ performance, fitness, training and form by tracking everything from how fast they’re running and the distances that they’re covering to how long and well they sleep.

“It's about improving their strategy and decision-making through better data analysis, strengthening internal and external outreach, and about creating new opportunities for collaboration and ideation through the organization,” Google Cloud chief marketing officer Alison Wagonfeld said at the cloud computing provider's Next ’19 UK conference in London last week.

Southgate sat down with Wagonfeld at Next '19 UK to discuss challenges and progress under the partnership, and how the FA is delivering better insights through data.

Wagonfeld: So let's talk a little bit about transformation. When you arrived at the FA in 2013, I heard you say that the organization needed some change. Tell us a little bit about that.

Southgate: Although I arrived as head coach of the under 21s and the junior teams, we also had a new chief executive pretty quickly and a new technical director who oversaw everything that happens within football. The biggest thing was changing culture. The Football Association has historically been viewed as old men with blazers, out of touch with the rest of society. We had national teams that haven't performed well, and we knew that we needed to modernize. One of the great advantages that we had was that we were just opening a new performance center at St. George's Park, where previously everything had been based at Wembley. So we had our own training facility but, of course, we then needed to be able to communicate between the two sites, as well as having that insight to performances at St. George's.

Wagonfeld: How did technology play a role in the transformation?

Southgate: It's been ongoing, and I have to be honest, at times uncomfortable. Although I'm reasonably technology-literate, every time we started a new system and I had a new password and new software to learn how to use, I think for a lot of us as coaches, that can be a difficult space. But we've been able to coordinate all of our junior teams. We have consistency in the way that we work. All of the… playbooks can be stored. When I took over, there were no records of the past (from) all the England managers that there had been over 30 years. There weren't even written reports of what had happened in the tournaments to be able to pass the learnings on. Now everything we do is stored, everything we do is shared. When we are planning for a camp, the weekly planning document is shared. Although we have 23 players, we have more staff that work with the team than we have players. Some of them are at Wembley, some of them are at St. George's, but they can all update those documents and tap into those documents, wherever they are in the world at whatever time of day they're working. The ability to share those things in particular, whether it's been playing or planning, has made a huge advance for us.

Wagonfeld: I was thrilled when you were telling me about being a G Suite customer for a couple of years and how big a difference it's made. Often with digital transformation, and we see this with many of our customers, sometimes you can get a little stuck along the way. What were some of the challenges that you faced, and how did you help move things forward?

Southgate: Ours is a game where generally when you ask people, 'Why do you do things?' The answer is, 'Well, because that's what we do in football. We've always done it that way. Why would we do it differently?' And that was the mentality shift we had to find, whether that was in terms of how we wanted to play, in terms of our preparation for things like penalty shootouts, and in terms of learning maybe from other sports or other businesses. So we needed to modernize our thinking. In the early stages, that's hard because of high turnover of staff, reluctance to move forward with new ideas. It's a change project, and that's always going to find resistance. And until you start to have small wins, which at times can take maybe two, three years, then there is always a slight reticence to really follow the path of the new leaders.

Wagonfeld: It sounds like one of your next areas of innovation is looking at player performance. And you mentioned that you're starting to build a new player performance system and hoping to use data and analytics in some more advanced ways. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Southgate: We monitor the players' training mode, we monitor how they sleep, we monitor their performance. So we are awash with data. Our challenge is to find really what is relevant for us. What do we need to know as a coaching team? How much of that do we need to share with the players, because we can overload them with information? Where do we store all this? Data is great, but actually what's the bit that makes a difference? What are the pieces that can help us inform where we want to work on coaching, where we want to focus our coaching time? We're still coming to terms with that as a sport. I think in a lot of other sports, it's very clear. If you do X, Y and Z, you win. In football, we're a low-scoring game with a lot of random events. And so blips in the data you can read too much into, but there are some consistent things that we know that we need to do to be able to win.

Wagonfeld: I know you don't want to share anything proprietary, but I did hear that data came into play a little bit in one very important shootout that you had, a penalty kick shootout. How did you use data to the extent that you're comfortable sharing?

Southgate: I had some experience in penalty shootouts. People in the audience might be aware of that or not. But what was clear to me was that this isn't a case of luck. This is about performing a skill under pressure. And when you analyze through that process, there are some key areas that we were able to work on, some key data that we were able to tap into, and some key processes that we were able to share with the players and staff to prepare us in the best way possible. Ultimately, the players still have to have the nerve to put the ball on the spot and execute it, so I'm always conscious when we're talking about the part everybody else played. The players are probably thinking, 'Well, hang on a minute, you know, we were involved in this as well.' To prepare any team, you're maximizing their opportunities and minimizing the noise and the disturbance that could happen. That was the process we went through with penalty shootouts. We were able to analyze thousands and thousands of penalty kicks, preferences, traits for outfield players and goalkeepers. We were able to share all of that across our analysis and performance team.

Wagonfeld: I'm sure as you build out more of these analytics, there will be other parts of the game that it will be able to influence. Looking ahead, when you're thinking about how else technology can help the team, help the FA more broadly, what else can you share with us about what you see on the horizon?

Southgate: It's an ever-changing world. Only in the last six months, we are now allowed to have an iPad on the bench. You'll see other sports where -- rugby for example -- the coaches sit in the stand, and they can watch the game, and they can get live data feedback. In football, it’s, again, a strange cultural thing, but all the coaches sit lower down. And for years, we weren't allowed to access footage on the bench, we weren't allowed to access that data. Now that can advance the way that we work during a game. So that's a big shift. All the time, there are advances. Every game that's played in the Premier League, I can have that footage now to my laptop on a Sunday morning. I don't have to go and visit every match. I can visit a couple and then those that I can't get to, I've watched all of the footage of the players. That footage is clipped for me into individual actions. So within 12 hours of the game, I know wherever my players are in Europe, I can access how they've played, how far they've run -- all of that insight -- which helps us with selection. And in the end, selection is one of our most key things. Like for any business, recruitment is key, and selecting the right players is the same for us.

Wagonfeld: I'm sure there's a lot of fans in here, and they're thinking about the Euros. Anything that you want to share as kind of a final thought about what's getting you excited? I know they're under a lot of pressure, but certainly a great opportunity.

Southgate: We're a very young team and with that has come some real shifts in the way they think, what we think is achievable. And the balance of that is that for a lot of the players, they don't have experience yet in the big matches where fine margins and experience and performing under pressure is really key. So my job is I'm the one that has to take the pressure from them and give them the environment to go and perform. But we really feel the next few years for English football are very exciting. We were world champions at under 17s two years ago, we were world champions at under 20s. So the next four, five, six years with England, there should be a depth of talent that that is capable of achieving at (the senior level), and we've got to make sure that happens.

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