Mustafa Amini stands in the middle of a cage. Rest assured, this isn’t what it seems. Contrary to appearances, the Borussia Dortmund youngster isn’t the club’s captive. This isn’t some draconian punishment for a poor performance, ill discipline or threatening to grow back that outrageous auburn afro.
No, this here is an experiment and Amini is a willing guinea pig. Why? Because, with time, he might leave the cage a Footbonaut. That’s the name of the new state-of-the-art training machine Dortmund unveiled at their Brackel training ground back in late September.
Sounds Space Age, doesn’t it? The cage is 14m square with a grass surface. A player takes up a position in a centre circle and receives the ball from one of eight different traps. Two are placed in the centre of each of the four walls. One low. One high. And a bleep signifies the release of the ball.
The walls of the cage are made up of 64 grids, each 1.4m square. They are framed by light bars and one of the 64 illuminates after every ball release. The player then has to hit the designated target as fast as he can. The light bars around a grid flash green, yellow then red depending on how long it takes him to find his spot.
Just to make things that little bit more challenging the speed of the ball can be adjusted up to 120km/h too, as can other variables like spin. A player’s performance can then be downloaded to smartphones or tablet devices for analysis.
Though faintly reminiscent of the training regime Ivan Drago put himself through in preparation for his fight with Rocky Balboa, equipment like the Footbonaut are yet another example of how modern technology is enhancing the development of sportsmen and women.
It calls to mind the high-tech colour screen, used by McClaren F1 drivers and the USA basketball team, that Chelsea goalkeeping coach Christoph Lollichon introduced at the club’s Cobham training ground with a view to improving his players’ reaction times. Petr Cech, for instance, is made to stand in front of the screen every week for 12 minutes and attempts to hit one of 500 lights as soon as it flashes as quickly as possible. His reaction times apparently improved by as much as 26%.
The Footbonaut goes further, training more attributes. “We’re convinced that at the very least the Footbonaut will improve the technique but will also benefit spacial awareness and peripheral vision,” explained Dortmund’s chief scout Sven Mislintat. “There is no reason why a player cannot translate the actions practised in this environment onto the actual playing field.”
Its developer, Christian Güttler, added: “When a player has spent 15 minutes in the cage he will have received and passed as many balls as he would in a normal week of training.” No wonder Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp has described it as “quite a package!”
What, though, does the Footbonaut tell us about where football is headed? Klopp sees it from the perspective that the game today “demands precise skills used at speed in a physically tough environment.”
Already in the 1950s, the great Willy Meisl noted football’s “fetishisation of speed.” More than ever, it has become one of the principal focuses of the game at the highest level. Not so long ago, Roberto Mancini claimed that, whereas the tactical development of the game has perhaps reached its limits, football’s evolution now lies in pushing physical and mental boundaries.
A lot of that is seen in Klopp’s Dortmund. He insists that a team’s “optimal mileage” is 130km per game with each outfield player covering 13km. He dismisses the claim made by several high profile coaches that they train exclusively with the ball. “That’s nonsense,” Klopp told Der Tagesspiegel.
“Stamina can’t be developed with the ball but with running, running, running. The better a player’s stamina the more they can concentrate on their role on the field. At our level you have to be trained exceptionally so that you can stay mentally focused.”
Still, Klopp understands that he is teaching footballers and not marathon runners. When it’s put to him that Xavi believes he has to know what to do with the ball before he even touches it, Klopp replied: “He’s right. Thinking faster is more important than running faster. Players have to make decisions in split seconds.” It’s a view shared by Germany manager Jogi Löw and one that greatly informs his philosophy too.
Talking to Die Ziet before Euro 2012 about the quick transition play that has become such a feature of German football in the 21st century, he said: “We used to play too slowly. Our game was characterized by not enough movement and moves taking too long. From the moment the ball was received to when it was passed, it used to take an average of 2.8 seconds. So we asked ourselves what can we do to minimize instances of passing the ball from side-to-side or back to the goalkeeper.
“We introduced a different distribution of space, different sequences of movement and we practiced more sprints both with and without the ball. We created training sessions which led to [our] game increasing in speed.”
Depending on the opponent, Löw revealed that, “in good matches, we’re down to about a second; we’ve even measured 0.9 seconds on occasions.” That right there is probably what Meisl meant all those years ago when he alluded to the “fetishisation of speed.” And it’s within this context, where speed of thought and action are so highly valued, that the development of training equipment like the Footbonaut can probably be best understood.