IT puts AC Milan at top of table

29 Jan 2004

In the race to be Europe’s top football club, Real Madrid may have the players and Chelsea the money, but AC Milan have the technology. Last year Milan won the Champions League for a sixth time. In the same season, the club claim to have seen an incredible 91pc drop in injuries suffered by players during training thanks to software that analyses player performance in training to a level never before seen in football.

Even without the appliance of science, the club’s Milanello training complex would be remarkable. There are six pitches, an extensive exercise room, a reception area with media facilities and even apartments where the players occasionally stay. What sets it apart are a series of rooms in the bowels of the training complex where data on every squad member is fed into servers and analysed.

Computer Associates provided software, design and consultancy for the project that involved developing applications that collect information from a range of sources: physiological data from the testing devices, the players’ personalised training programmes, medical treatments and dietary details. The data is stored and secured; then analysis tools extract vital player information. A secure portal allows club officials and occasionally outside consultants, to view the information online in a format that can be easily read even by those with just a basic grasp of technology.

Based on the reports, Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti and his backroom staff can customise training programmes designed to keep individual players in prime condition or to ease them back to full fitness, with the aim of having the best possible squad to choose from.

The research centre, dubbed MilanLab, has been in place for 18 months. From the moment that players enter the training complex, they undergo a series of tests designed to check their mental, physical and biochemical well-being. What results is a reading of each player’s condition in statistical terms. The system has just entered final phase of testing but the club is happy with results so far.

Football may be a game of opinions, but what this system offers is starkly objective: the data built up over time is an accurate historical record of player fitness and form that doesn’t just rely on the manager’s subjective view. The data remains the property of AC Milan, giving the club a store of information about its squad that won’t simply disappear when the time comes, as it surely will if the coach was to leave or be sacked.

Milan staff stress that the technology doesn’t remove a manager’s expertise and insight; it adds a depth to this knowledge, but it doesn’t replace it – yet. Team psychologist Bruno Demichelis regularly refers to MilanLab as a decision-support system, a term normally heard in the upper echelons of big business. “It’s helping us to have data instead of opinions,” he says. Milan’s investment in IT means the cliché of picking a player because he looked good in training has a ring to it like at no other club.

Milan’s project is definitely leading edge, but talk of IT revolutionising the sport is probably premature. Club officials are coy about the cost of the system, but understands that the software and systems provided by CA are worth a six-figure sum and the entire MilanLab setup cost in the region of €2.5m to fit out. These ballpark figures put such technology beyond the reach of all but the richest clubs. Famously, AC Milan enjoys the patronage of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after all, so a similar system is unlikely to be adopted by Bohemians or Shelbourne any time soon.

The MilanLab concept also pits technology against tradition, which all football clubs and supporters cling to; it’s the reason why cost and a non-disclosure agreement are not the only factors preventing other clubs from embracing IT to such a degree. Even in the 21st century, many managers prefer to rely on their own observation and often make their decisions on nothing more informed than gut feeling.

Milan staff are understandably enthused by the project, however. Fitness trainer Daniele Tognaccini notes how the system is changing the nature of football training from the collective to the individual. We’re all used to seeing footage of players running around in large groups but Milan’s approach may change all that.

Among the players, scepticism has given way to self-interest as they have slowly come to see the benefits of a system that can potentially extend their careers – and therefore their earning potential – by a few extra seasons. Possible new signings will also be analysed at MilanLab and the results from the tests will have a bearing on whether any deal goes ahead.

Football has countless stories of players who have come back too soon from injury only to do themselves more harm. But just as importantly, for every one of those instances there have been half-fit players playing through the pain to help their team eke out a vital result.

Any club that has invested millions in a player wants to see them on the pitch every week and the same is true for the team’s supporters. If technology makes this happen, then its passage into the mainstream will be easier. But who’d want to be in the shoes of the manager who has to risk the wrath of fans when his software tells him his star player is not fit enough to play in the cup final?

By Gordon Smith