Performance Analysis Guide: How To Contextualise Your Tactical Analysis

When working in football – Whether it’s coaching/analysis/etc. Outside of the general technical skills required to do your job at a high level, the most important (and useful) attribute one can have is the ability to communicate your information effectively and in a way which is actionable and effective. I’ve spoken on this topic a number of times via my Twitter account, but was mostly inspired about this from a conversation I had with good friend Jon Mackenzie on his now sadly defunct podcast (fittingly named A Podcast About Tactics) Within the various roles I’ve been fortunate enough to hold, utilising these skills makes the difference between effective work & that which is laboured/taxing/and out-right not providing insight. 

There are various ways to provide effective feedback: Whether it be through your basic technical workflows (having information in a timely fashion, the ability to work with different software, etc.) or how you tailor your work for the needs of your players & staff. My conversation with Jon covered the latter of these, specifically the tactical information. 

There are an unlimited amount of things an analyst can cover within the actual “on the grass” side of things – Build up, final third finishing, individual player roles, etc. and all of it doesn’t exist in a vacuum: There is an another side the team (either your own or the opponent) on the pitch who changes much of what a team tries/is able to do. Because of this, presenting the information to cover all of this in a way that makes sense is invaluable. In writing this, I will hopefully be able to break it down for you – Allowing you to do similar within your own workflows.

Your Own Game Model

Ultimately, the role of an analyst is to act as support staff. As the name implies, you support the needs of the coach in implementing their style of play. The first conversation I have with any new coach I work with (or at the start of any new season) is to get an understanding of this game model – How do you want to play in possession/out of possession? What are the various principles & sub-principles? Etc. Using this information, I can build out a list of various KPIs that link to this. Getting an understanding of how the coach wants to play in this way has a huge importance on my own workflows as a result, saving me time, and presenting tactical knowledge that I know actually matters to them. Let’s look at an example. 

Above is a basic look at what constitutes a game model. Given this prior to implementing a structure to the season, I can see that the coach cares a progressive, high pressing, style of play: Manipulating the ball in our favour and defending with the end goal of turning it into chances for ourselves. This allows me to “disregard” or place less of a focus on crossing, sitting in a deep block, etc. It ultimately saves me tons of time. I can also see the various principles of play, and define what we consider to be “success” both individually and collectively. Highlight things that matter.

On top of your own game model, to a certain degree, every team needs to worry about the opposition (plus, as an analyst, that’s kind of your job!) But the split of how you detail and present this information matters a great deal. This part of the role coalesces nicely with the previous point regarding your game model/style. When putting together a report, how much detail should go into how we will look to deal with the opposition’s threat? How much should we “ignore” them, and instead see how can instil our style of play? 50/50? 60/40? Outside of the basic benefits this provides you with in terms of speed & ease of the job, it increases your buy in the coaching staff. Your game model details this from the off – Naturally, proactive styles of play will likely lend themselves to focusing on your own tactics and vice versa. Getting this ratio right can make or break how good your ability to detail tactics clearly and concisely can be. Focusing too much on yourself and you can be caught off guard in a change of system, focus too much on them and you can negate your own attacking threat.

Breaking Down Tactics For A Reason – Not Just “What Happened”

There are hundreds of people out there who can watch a game, tell you what systems were used, and what happened – That’s not the job of an analyst. You need to be able to add another layer on top of this: Why were these tactics used? Why did one team win the match (and what inhibited the other from winning it)? Who were the key players that allowed the collective unit to succeed? And finally, how can we improve or how can we manipulate the opposition in an upcoming match?

These are the things which separate the good & effective analysts, from the rest. Using the points I highlighted in the previous section (and will continue to highlight in subsequent areas) you can further contextualise your tactical breakdown. Football matches never happen in a vacuum and noting these in your pre/post match analysis allows you to be at your most effective: Here is how the match was won & lost on the pitch, and how we can use this information effectively going forward – Things can which can trained on the pitch. And, of course, as the previous section highlighted, making sure these tweaks you focus on match the style of play you hope to employ.

Team Specific Needs

While some people are lucky to work for some of the top teams on earth, with huge budgets, and with players who are completely all-in with analysis – Most of us are not so lucky. Because of this, you need to tailor your tactical information to suit these constraints: Avoid “paralysis by analysis.”

  • The first of these is obviously the level of player – Would I go into extreme detail about various pressing triggers if I was in charge of a u12 team? No. Why would I focus on stuff like that when they are still learning to kick a ball straight? This is clearly a bit of hyperbole, but the point remains: Scale your tactical breakdowns to the level. Focus on what they can feasibly understand and implement.
  • You also need to know your players, and make sure the work you do is presented in a way they can understand, or better yet – What they actually enjoy. Video analysis sessions are notorious for being long, and boring. This doesn’t need to be the case! Add variations to your presentations, make them focused and sharp, add in visual aids, or written reports, etc. – Whatever you need to do to get buy-in from the players. If you do this side of the job well, players will be encouraged and emboldened to take ownership of their own learning, which is the best thing that can happen.
  • Finally, each team you will work for will have various schedules during a season – It’s essential your tactical work works within the scope with what is possible over the course of a season. Using my own experiences in the U.S. college game & various tournament settings, the season (at the time I was there) was truncated from August-December: Without fail, we had two matches a week. If I went into excruciating detail each and every single time, none of this would be digested and taken in. This doesn’t mean be lazy with it – Far from it. It just means you need to choose what is important and can applied quickly and easily. More of that in the next section.

What Is Actionable On The Pitch?

Finally, and this goes without saying, everything you share with the coaching staff needs to be things which can be trained. The game is about the players on the grass, so tactical information needs to be applicable for these realities: “Here is how the opposition build up, and if we do this to their patterns, we can win the ball back – Let’s practice it.” These are the things which matter most to coaches. Theory in the game is important, don’t get me wrong (much of game models and principles of play are theory after all), but in the week to week flow your work on tactics needs to have tangible impacts. There are two main sectors in which feedback can have this sort of influence on your team – Helping to plan training sessions, and in-match assistance.

The impact tactical analysis can have on training sessions is ultimately where you can see the most gains in regards to adding context. Using the concepts mentioned previously such as your game model, what is feasible for your team, etc. you need to be able to provide the coaching staff with objective findings they can look at, and with very little translation, put into practice. The emphasis and importance placed on your presentation techniques cannot be understated. Let’s look at an example: If I showed a manager a still image of how many pressure regains a team got and where they got them, that’s useful information. However, if you supply them with this as well as videos about the schemes they utilised to get into these positions – That’s like gold dust. The staff can then plan drills that note this, so on match day the players are familiar with the situations in what is essentially a 1:1 conversion.

Live and in-match feedback is slightly more difficult as you’d expect – You can’t call a timeout and run out onto the pitch to place players where you want them. Even the 15 minutes you have at halftime to talk with the rest of the team is very limited. There is no perfect way to bridge this gap, and very much relies on the strengths of individual analyst. For my own personal experience, however, video is the preferred medium in this setting – It’s the quickest and often in most cases the easiest to clip/have ready at a moment’s notice. If you look at it from afar it makes sense. Players & coaches are watching/playing the game at pitch level – Their scope for seeing the tactics at a macro level are greatly diminished. Showing them video (hopefully which zoomed out enough to see the tactics more completely), can do this in an instant. Bonus points if you can nail home the points you are trying to make with telestration!

In Conclusion…

Coaches are a demanding bunch, we all know that (if you’re reading this, coaches…..take it as a compliment): In my experience, if a manager asks you for something, they probably wanted it by yesterday. Tactics and how the analyst frames and presents them, is, in my experience what they care about most and it makes sense: Managers are judged on how they are viewed in their ability to put together a cohesive unit on the pitch, and if their analysts cannot supply them with this information well, they will find one who can. The article is not the be-all and end-all for how to properly succeed as a performance analyst – Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and everyone views the game differently. I merely wrote this article as a “guide” about ways you can improve your workflows and utilise these concepts yourself. As a member of staff, an analyst cannot merely serve as a recapitulatory. Presenting tactics (both of your own team and of opponents) while also making sure to understand the various situations around it – Both imposed as well as self-imposed, makes you a better analyst. Simple as that.

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