Iglance over my left shoulder to check Raheem Sterling is still there, then whip back to face the play. As the left-back I just need to make sure I’m level with my Monaco team-mates, always scanning, Kevin De Bruyne is nearby with nobody close. I turn my head back to see where Sterling is as City work the ball down their left wing.
City are 20 yards from goal now, Sterling’s still behind me… but now their winger’s in behind! I snap back to Sterling – he’s not there! Before I even have a chance to work out where he has disappeared, Sterling races past my shoulder into the box and taps into an empty net. I’ve lost my man. It’s my fault.
Everything stops – literally, in this instance, as this whole scenario has played out on a Virtual Reality headset in a small office in Manchester. Mi Hiepa is a company at the forefront of virtual reality technology, which is increasingly seen as the new frontier in football coaching. Several elite clubs, including Liverpool, use their Rezzil software to train players in the mental side of the game while Vincent Kompany – an investor and advisor to the company – has helped develop training drills available in this VR world.
They have allowed me to see what it is like to play in a Champions League match and I can confirm that it is quick. Very quick.
„No matter how fast a player is, the first yard is made in the mind,“ says Andy Etches, co-founder and sports director of Rezzil. „Where you’re positioned on the pitch determines if you’re going to catch Leroy Sane or not, because if you’re half a metre to the left he’s going to blast you but if you’re a metre to the right you’ll stop him. The best players know and understand – and that makes the difference.“
With the headset still on, I am dropped inside a different match in another stadium and offered the vantage point of a goalkeeper as a cross comes into the area. Do I try and catch it? Punch it away? Bodies are everywhere, the action is frantic, the cross comes in… and although I am no goalkeeper, it is obvious I should have been more decisive.
In the white heat of a Premier League match, that kind of a mistake can be fatal; in the comfort of a VR suite, a coach can spot and correct the error.
„Individual coaching is really powerful,“ says Etches. „If you have a player who doesn’t understand or needs to learn a position or specific formation and it’s freezing cold over winter, for example, you’ve 21 other players who need to be mimicking formations – with this you have one player in a warm room going over and over it until they understand.“
Virtual reality has been a more familiar sight to Premier League watchers this season – Sky Sports have used a system built by rival company Beyond Sports to analyse action in their coverage of live games – but Rezzil’s software allows you to actually play football in virtual reality.
For this, the ‚player‘ dons trainers and shinpads with sensors attached and which transport you to a sunny training pitch. Looking down, my trainers now look like brightly coloured football boots, complete with studs. And – strangest of all – when I kick the virtual ball in front of me, it feels like I’m really kicking a football.
It is a sensory illusion involving sound, science and magic, while a handy neon ring that surrounds me at all times prevents collisions with the surrounding walls.
One drill tests reaction speed by firing balls at you from random locations, and having you hit them on different coloured parts of your boots; another is designed to measure your peripheral vision, having you count how many players are over your shoulder and then pass a moving ball into the corresponding numbered goal. If there are five red players and four yellow and the ball fired at you is red, you pass it into the goal with ‚5‘ superimposed on it.
Just like a video game these training drills provide a score out of 100 determining how good you are. Professional footballers in America (MLS) usually score around a 72, while a college level player is 70.5. A UK professional scores around 80 and elite players about 90. Etches explains that they „usually write off the first three goes to get used to it but a Premier League player will just come in and smash it straight away, no problem“.
I scored a 62 on my third try which apparently is quite good, even if I cannot shake that feeling this is what they tell all the boys. Sadly I now have empirical data which proves I am not Paul Scholes.
There are more serious applications, too. A new version of the HTC headset used by Rezzil can spot early signs of concussion, using eye tracking to identify issues medical staff could not otherwise spot. Players coming back from injury can regain ‚match sharpness‘ by working on reaction, vision and awareness without having to take part in risky physical work too. Hull City use it for precisely this reason.
Youngsters who score highly are monitored and given adapted coaching to help them reach their potential. This software might identify a Lionel Messi of the future, putting an end to talent dismissed for not having the necessary physical attributes.
„One of the things we have to combat is people think we’re trying to replace going out on the pitch and playing football,“ says Etches. „This is supplementary, it’s deliberate practice on top of what you’re doing without fatigue, without chance of injury, without impacting on other players.
„There’s a Johan Cruyff quote about young players where in a 90-minute game they get three minutes on the ball – that’s all you get. With this you get 20 minutes with the ball at your feet, constantly on your feet, constantly overloaded cognitively, specifically prescribed“.
Given the whole experience of using the software is reminiscent of being in a giant video game, it all begs the question as to whether this might soon be a consumer product to be enjoyed at home.
„That’s where we’re going to end up,“ Etches says. „You’ll be able to train at home like the elite players do. There’s not enough hardware out there at the moment but we’ve got some very strong ideas. Eventually we’ll be able to say you can train like a pro at home.“
Image: The headset wearer sees what’s on the bottom right screen in this example CREDIT: CHARLOTTE GRAHAM