Back of the net? Google's DeepMind is coming for football tactics

2026 FIFA World Cup in US could be first to see ML models play a part... and you thought video referees were crap

A team at Google's DeepMind claim to have demonstrated the efficacy of an AI model in predicting outcomes in soccer football game set pieces, as well as generating on-field tactics.

Football - referred to as soccer stateside - is the most popular sport on the planet by a long way. It has been estimated that around 1.5 billion people tuned in to watch the 2022 World Cup, which took place in Qatar.

Using a graph machine learning model and data from 7,176 corner kicks, the team at Deep Mind were able to build a tool called TacticAI which accurately predicted the first receiver of the ball and the direct result of the kick. It could also predict the possible outcomes with different set-up positions and create tactical variations that could help improve the game outcomes, according to a paper published in Nature Communications.

Zhe Wang and his team of Deepmind researchers worked with Liverpool FC, six-time winner of the UEFA Champions League, Europe's most prestigious competition, to collect the data and evaluate the model with five football experts.

The model was built to analyze corner kicks, a set-play in which a team has the opportunity to launch the spherical ball in front of the goal which they are attacking. The developers said it could also be adapted for other set plays including free kicks and throw-ins.

"Identifying key patterns of tactics implemented by rival teams, and developing effective responses, lies at the heart of modern football. However, doing so algorithmically remains an open research challenge," the paper says.

TacticAI involves both a predictive and a generative component, DeepMind adds, "allowing the coaches to effectively sample and explore alternative player setups for each corner kick routine and to select those with the highest predicted likelihood of success."

A survey of football experts showed the model's suggestions are favored over existing tactics 90 percent of the time. "TacticAI achieves these results despite the limited availability of gold standard data," the team says in the research paper.

"We have demonstrated an AI assistant for football tactics and provided statistical evidence of its efficacy through a comprehensive case study with expert human raters from Liverpool FC," the paper concludes. "The system's latent player representations are a powerful means to retrieve similar set-piece tactics, allowing coaches to analyze relevant tactics and counter-tactics that have been successful in the past."

As the USA looks forward to hosting the next FIFA World Cup football tournament in 2026, it seems reasonable to speculate it will be the first when teams widely employ AI as a tactical assistant.

Algorithms or not, it'll take more than AI to help England win the tournament, especially if penalties are involved. ®

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