IT WASN'T that long ago that FC Barcelona set the standard for innovation in European soccer. During coach Pep Guardiola's tenure, from 2008--09 to '11--12, the club won 14 trophies, including three La Liga and two Champions League titles. In each of the 247 games throughout Guardiola's reign, including their 21 defeats, Barça never lost the battle for possession on the field, thanks in part to a strategy known as tiki-taka, which focused more on keeping the ball than attacking the goal.
But that strategy fell out of favor not long after Guardiola's departure, and now the club, under recently hired manager Ernesto Valverde (above, center), is looking for a new way to gain an advantage—a search that has Barça turning to science.
In March the club unveiled a new initiative—the Barça Innovation Hub, aka the BiHub—and several club officials took time out from this summer's preseason U.S. tour to meet researchers at MIT. Daniel Medina, a club physician, sees the hub as a way for researchers to "apply science directly on the field."
The BiHub focuses on five main areas: medical and nutrition, performance, technology, team sports and social sciences. At the MIT meeting last month Maurici López-Felip, a representative of the BiHub who is also studying perception and cognition in sports at Connecticut, said of the team's strategy, "FC Barcelona is researching a new kind of analytics, viewing the whole panorama of the team as a single unit and analyzing performance in context.... We want to discuss the nature of complex behaviors emerging from nonlinear interactions between athletes and their surroundings."
Working with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI), Barcelona has also been seeking out marginal gains in nutrition and hydration, creating a 98-page internal treatise packed with references to academic research. To understand what the eating and drinking demands on elite players might be, Barça put them through their paces, including on match days, with a host of devices, from GPS trackers that measure movement to gas masks that gauge metabolism to patches that collect sweat.
The aim of all this is to keep players at their peak for longer. "The schedule is pretty congested," Medina says. "We basically look for any tool or any help in order to allow players to recover faster." Physical or mental fatigue can disrupt a team's tempo. Injury or illness might sideline a player, thus taking out a crucial link in the chain. Medina expects that this season "we will be able to individualize the hydration and nutrition for every player," using a Nespresso-like drink-mixing device.
GSSI's final Sports Nutrition for Football guide recommends that players consume specific types of protein postexercise (especially 2--3 grams of the amino acid leucine) and presleep (like 30 grams of casein, often found in dairy products) to optimize recovery. It suggests that players can get an almost zero-calorie boost during intense training sessions by rinsing their mouths with a carbohydrate solution. This is believed to help activate "brain areas involved with exercise regulation and reward through stimulation of receptors in the mouth." To increase levels of nitric oxide, which can improve blood flow and increase glucose uptake by muscles, players are advised to knock back a couple of shots of concentrated beet juice before a game. They can even try chewing gum with caffeine, a known performance enhancer that burns fat, among other benefits.
Anything to give the team a kick.
"FC Barcelona is researching a new kind of analytics," said López-Felip.