Data, Diet and Better Set Pieces: Seeking Soccer’s Future

Now, of course, all those ideas have been adopted at clubs of far greater scale, of far richer history. Where Midtjylland has gone, Europe has generally followed. Danish academies train every day. The vast majority of teams across Europe are committing vast resources to building teams of analysts and statisticians and physicists. Thomas Gronnemark, the throw-in coach, now works for Liverpool.

That is the fate of the pioneer, of course: Once the trail has been blazed, everyone and anyone is free to follow it. Ideas forged in Herning have been adopted and adapted and occasionally lifted wholesale. All Midtjylland can do is what it has always done: try, once again, to see what the future looks like, so that everyone else might, once again, follow.

In the days after the death of Diego Maradona, Ankersen found himself — like so many others — trawling through grainy footage of the maestro at work. He would not have been alone in noticing that Maradona seemed to be a Technicolor player in a black-and-white world. “In those clips from the ’80s and ’90s, the game seems so slow,” he said.

What is important, though, is that it did not seem that way at the time. “The coaches would have said that they could not train more, that they could not make the players get thinner or more athletic,” he said. It is a reminder, to him, of a kind of end-of-history illusion: how easily the current version of something — soccer, in this case — is assumed to be final, complete.

Awareness of that illusion is baked into everything Midtjylland does. “The first thing you have to remember is that success now does not mean success in the future,” said Berg, the head of analysis. “We try to be innovative, but it is fundamental that you have to stay curious.”