If Aymeric Laporte wants to prepare for facing Mohamed Salah in a few weeks, the technology at his disposal means that he literally can face the Liverpool attacker without leaving his city-centre flat.
By popping on a virtual reality headset, the Manchester City defender can – as many times as he likes – put himself back into the game at Anfield earlier this season where Salah danced past him to score and practise how to stop it from happening at the Etihad. Or he could train against a 110 per cent version of Salah, potentially making the real player easier to keep quiet by comparison.
These are just a few of the tools available to the Blues as part of the partnership they have with Rezzil, a Manchester company whose early investors included Vincent Kompany and whose list of clients at the top of world football are growing with every month. City have been working with them since 2018 on a range of aspects in the game.
Training drills obviously came into their own during the pandemic when the squad were forced to train alone at their homes, but are also useful at building players back up from injury as they can simulate the technique of doing everything and test their relative sharpness. There is also the analysis aspect, which allows players and coaches to pick apart footage from games to work out how to improve in the future.
“We have the capability to recreate a game as it was on Saturday and drop you at any point in that position in the stadium,” explained Andy Etches, one of the three co-founders of Rezzil and an ex-City employee, “whether that is a player’s point of view, whether it is in the stand, whether it is a helicopter view: an infinite camera system.
“It just makes understanding why a player made a decision easier. It removes some of the conflicts between players and coaches and gives coaches some empathy over why a player might have made a decision. Let’s say Marcus Rashford running at you at 37km/h – on screen it doesn’t look that fast but if I put you on the field and you’re Laporte and you make a misstep all of a sudden there’s a lot going on and a lot for a player to take in.
“Sometimes you might have four players running at you at 37km/h – which is faster than most people would be on a bike – and trying to work out what decision to make in real time while they’re moving as well and they have to get their body position right. Sometimes you put a coach in the headset and instead of them critiquing the player they’re able to give more valuable feedback that isn’t necessarily saying they could have done better.
“It is more likely to be ‘if you find yourself in this situation again stand one metre to your left, look at the difference between standing here and standing there’. It is a real empathetic approach to a player’s position and it really helps to coach players in that way.”
City’s head of performance analysis was quick to grasp how useful the technology could be and it is now common across the Premier League to see analysts communicating with coaches in the dugout through matches. As video analysis – both live and retrospective – has grown in importance at the top end of the game, it should not be a surprise that virtual reality is doing the same as the technology advances.
That greater understanding of the game lends itself to a sport that is more compassionate and empathic than it was even a decade ago, with an arm around their shoulder proving far more effective with the current generation of players than the sort of knocking down that previously worked so well for managers such as Jose Mourinho.
Pep Guardiola has had to change to stay at the top. He has become far less strict over the years over what his players get up to around matches, and it was interesting to hear him talk recently about how he rarely speaks to them after matches in the locker room because he would prefer to analyse the game first to avoid saying something in the heat of the moment that is, on review, unfair.
Using the technology that Rezzil offers in their working week is one of the ways in which City keep up to date with their first-team and academy players, and more and more clubs are signing up to it as they don’t want to be left behind.
“There’s a gaming element to it which helps us engage the players,” said Etches. “The modern player is a born gamer. They call them digital natives so when they put them in these environments they are used to them and engage really well with them and immediately be at one with that.
“Also, if we stick a leaderboard on it and ask them to compete against their mate they are more likely to do it as well. That’s what happens. We prompt natural responses to people while they’re doing it. An injured player might be on it four hours a day, depending on the type of injury and location of the team. We’d typically recommend a couple of sessions a week of around 20 minutes.
“There’s a lad at one club who is injured at the minute and he is literally on it the entire time that he’s at the training ground – but that is out of choice and he’s doing different things. So he will do an actual tactical drill that his manager wants him to do, but then five minutes later he’ll be playing foot golf in a virtual world because he can’t walk properly but he can stand on one foot and kick a ball.
“The acceptance is wider, that has increased its usage. When we first started people first looked at us like we’ve got three heads because we said ‘put this on and we’re going to improve you’ or ‘we’re going to make you recover better from injury’.
“It was hard just to get through the door but we instantly flipped people as soon as they put it on. You walk in, put your headset on, and you’re stood in the middle of the Bernabeu with something to deal with. It’s very cool but people don’t believe us until they try it. Now people are seeing it.
“We have about 40 teams who we work with, and then countless other players individually. We’ve just moved into other sports – we’ve done a deal with the NBA – one of five companies they’re working with to look at new technology in the NBA.
“It’s a massive scalp for us as a company and we are moving into college sports in America, tennis is coming soon. The fact that we’re spreading a little bit further into these different worlds is just massive.”
If the influence of virtual reality is growing in elite sport, City are also part of attempts to see it take off with fans. Earlier this year the club became the first in the world to partner with Rezzil’s Player 22 programme.
That allows anyone who pays the £3.99 it costs for the City pack (on top of the £10.99 for Player 22) to complete training drills on the pitch at the Etihad – something only currently possible in real life if you happen to be one of the most talented footballers on the planet. The cost of an Oculus – a headset to put you in the virtual reality world – is not cheap and will currently set you back around £300. However, that price has come down markedly as the technology improved and is also not unreasonable in the gaming market.
Moreover, believes Etches, it is cheaper than the hundreds of thousands of pounds it would cost to replicate the equipment and expertise contained within somewhere such as the £200m City Football Academy.
“We’ve got a global bunch of teams that we work with so we have an incredible knowledge base of what it takes to make a top player, that little bit of difference between the good and the best and so on. We always had a plan of taking those learnings and taking them to the general public and say train like a pro at home using the same tools and skills,” he said.
“We released Player 22 last year as the first foray into that market but we always wanted to bring brand partnerships with us on that. Man City do tend to be at the front of everything as an innovation department and the way that they view things. They’re always out there and get it right every time.
“Me and the other two founders always wanted to democratise access to equipment. A team like City have got the CFA and it is full of amazing equipment but it is stuff that people can’t get access to at home. That isn’t just hardware, it is also coach input and coach feedback and little tips and tricks that you don’t tend to get told unless you’re being taught by a top coach. We always thought that we wanted to try and make that thing available.”
If fans can train inside the Etihad now – and other stadiums in all likelihood as others follow City’s path – the intention is that they will be able to replicate goals. Rezzil are in talks with the Premier League over highlights and think the supporters could start recreating the weekend’s goals from their own homes in the next six months if all goes to plan.
Having already worked with City to feature their stadium, that could also throw up the prospect of replicating Sergio Aguero’s famous goal against QPR or Vincent Kompany against Leicester. In the not-too-distant future, fans will literally be able to put their money where their mouth is.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see where we go and what happens in a year’s time or two years’ time when we can take a moment from a game and put you on the field and there’s a Bernardo Silva chip and he dinks the crossbar and someone says ‘I could have scored that’,” said Etches. “And we can go, ‘ok then, let’s see if you can. We’ll drop you in the living room and you can do it’.
“We spoke to some of our players who we work with and they almost always go ‘some bloke in the pub says they could have scored that, we’d love to see them try’. We’re going to be able to do it, get a ball delivered to you at 84mph and see whether you can get your head or your foot on the end of it.
“That is where this is going from a future perspective and a fan engagement level. We’re already doing it in a way secretly but in a couple of years’ time that will be the future. You won’t just be watching it, you’ll be playing it and part of the game.”