Analysis In Action: Part Four – Information On The Fly

There have been countless articles/webinars/etc. about performance analysis when the processes are clear – But what about when you have to act on the fly? When opponents change & adapt to you in new ways which you haven’t seen before – Leading to parity or your own side being left completely off guard?

In the first article of the return of Analysis In Action, I thought I’d write about an area of performance analysis writing that has been largely underserved for those interested in the topic. Over the course of the season, your workflows and processes that are consistent are, without a doubt, an analyst’s main bread and butter. However, there will be plenty of moments live in flow of a match (or pre match) that your work will be made much, much more difficult due to the presence of one key factor – The opposition. Sometimes they will play a new formation, start players who you haven’t seen before, or just generally play a different style.

It’s obvious that this area of football analysis is not covered that much – It’s difficult! As well, it’s much less clear to define/spell out, even for experienced practitioners. Ultimately, courses in university (or certifications) can give you the tools to do 90% of the job, but the other 10% requires first hand experience. Hopefully, this non-exhaustive piece will give you an insight to two of the most difficult things to overcome in analysis when your workflows and preparation are thrown as massive spanner in the works: When the opposition are completely unrecognisable to what you saw in your scouting reports, and as well how to deliver information that changes the game in your favour – Either when a match is a stalemate, or you are being dominated.

“What Formation Are They Even Playing?”

Hopefully, occasions when a team pulls something you’ve never seen before happen at most once a season. More often than not, this is the case. While changing an approach might confuse their opponents, it also serves to handicap them in similar fashion – Less training time in a new system being one of the major issues. However, sometimes it happens! Coaches are crazy, I don’t know what to tell you. When this does happens, though, there are ways to try and negate the effects this change will have.

The first of these comes pre-match when the team news comes in. After the expletives from coaches and staff are all used up, you have to consider various things:

  • Why did they change shape?
  • What individuals are missing/in the team?
  • How does this change what we wanted to do?

Of course, the game is about the players so all three are affected by how individuals work within a system. So, while the formation might have changed these considerations can help you bridge the information gap. For example, if they have a centre back who is great on the ball who plays in a back four and they now are playing three centre backs – How does this change his role and threat? Do we have to slightly alter our pressing scheme to adapt to this? etc. Using this information which you’ve gathered (hopefully) pre-match, you can suss out how the effect of structural changes will have. While a team might play a 4-2-3-1 and then play a 3-5-2 – A centre back who is good on the ball will always be good on the ball – You just need to use your knowledge of the game to answer some questions. Team shape is ultimately a vehicle to get the best out of players and while they asked to do slightly different things on and off the ball, your portfolio of reports on them can still be important!

When a team not only changes shape but always changes style, the same principles apply, but they require a slightly more team oriented focus rather than individuals. Obviously the players are important, they always are/will be, but if we are going back to our centre back example – Asking him to play long balls into the box obviously requires of a bit of tweaking on a structural level. How you react and provide the staff and players with his information differs for everybody – In times like this when the usual workflow is changed on the fly, you need to keep the same type of communication (more on this later) on how you work the staff to change things consistent. If you are a team who cares a lot about the opponents, perhaps you tweak your shape accordingly. If you want to play your own game, think about the benefits of said alterations.

“That First Half Was A ‘Tactical Chess Match'”

A wise man once said: “Goal’s change games.” This person was also, presumably, a fan of making obvious statements such as the “the sky is blue” and “Leo Messi is good at football.” In the flow of the match, an analyst’s job throughout is to help the coaches and players gain and advantage to increase the odds of scoring said game changing goals. However, this is obviously easier said than done.

For most games you will watch, there are clear periods of domination for each side – Game flows. As well, there are often matches which are completely one sided. Even more rare (thankfully), nothing happens. No shots, you chances, nothing. Sitting up in the gantry, this is the toughest position to be in – You can’t throw your hands up in the air and say nothing at half time or when speaking to the coaches pitch side. What you say can have a dramatic affect when the balance is so fine: If you stick with what you have, the other team can change and gain the upper hand. If you twist too much, the same thing can happen.

Sadly, there is no silver bullet with these things and you will provide the wrong information at times. There are ways to negate the negative effects that chopping and changing can have, however. For one, I like to look at the positive areas of the game (no matter how small they may be!) and find ways to reinforce these – Bolstering the positive sides to your game only serve to benefit you, and push the odds in your favour. For example, if you have done a really good job or progressing in the ball into the middle third of the pitch, make sure to report this and ensure any potential changes don’t detract from this: While creating chances from this build-up might be an issue that you’ve seen, make tweaks that don’t fundamentally break what is going well.

Once you have highlighted these strengths, I like to get out the preverbal crystal ball and project how the opposition will look to gain the upper hand – In conjunction, of course, with that they’ve been trying to do up till that point. To use another real world example, at Bath City, we recently played a team who were looking to play into the feet of their pivot player who would then find wide switches of play to the wingers. While they were able to play these big switches of play, we were often numerically advantaged against the winger – Their full back too deep to create overlapping support runs. It was clear to me that this would be a consistent point of emphasis for them, so negating this (within our system) was important.

If you use these two things together – Your own strengths and the opposition’s own, you can get a clearer picture of how to balance your adaptations/alternations so the scales don’t go against you as a a result. These same principles of analysis apply when you come out to start the game completely on the back foot. It might be tempting to completely rip up the blue print (and sometimes it’s necessary!), but you often need to consider both aspects to gain a foothold in the match.

Communicating & Implementing The Changes

Regular followers of my work, be it on Twitter, data-analysis pieces I’ve written on American Soccer Analysis, podcast appearances (I’m sorry for my voice, I don’t like it either), or this very website will be aware of how much I stress the importance of actionable analysis. That is, providing feedback and information which can effect change. This very topic – the live/in-match changes which are less regimented and pre-planned, is arguably where how you deliver the information above matters the most. During the game is hard due to football being a fluid game, and during half time you only have realistically a few minutes to relay your findings. Some tips on how to expedite this without losing the quality of information:

  • Don’t Change What Has Worked In The Past

Sure, things might be different than your normal workflows, but the worst thing you can do as an analyst is panic and throw all your pre-done work out the window. If players are used to the information through video, provide it to them the same say. If the staff to analyst relationship is collaborative, don’t provide your information as a “only this way will work” solution – Make sure to keep things consistent.

  • Keep Things Calm

Sure, this is easier said than done, and is less “technical” than the others but for the sake of the group/unit, and chiefly yourself, make sure to not panic and think of worse case scenarios. If you let the changes alter your normal state of mind, your ability to make clear judgments – judgements which will eventually alter the course of a game, is impaired. I have been guilty in the past of losing my head and thinking all previous work done throughout the week is now useless. As the previous sections of this touched on – No matter how much a team changes during the course of the match, if you did a thorough job of preparing you can still use bits and pieces!

  • Don’t Overload Them With New Information

This is something I’ve been quite guilty of in the past (and something I still can be guilty of!), but the worst thing you can do when presenting new findings is give your target audience a massive swell of new things to digest. This goes back to the “actionable analysis” idea. It’s unrealistic and ineffective of you to give them 40 different things to think of in such a short space of time – Keep it short, and relevant.

Clarity In The Chaos

This is, of course, not an article telling you that there is one way to work as a performance analyst. Everyone has their own style, strengths, weaknesses, etc. and it’s up to you to find what is best for you. However, I hope this edition of Analysis In Action was enlightening for you – Whether you are a practitioner or are simply interested in the field.

Football is an incredibly fluid game, and while you everyday workflows are the things that will allow you to work consistently over the course of the season, your ability to provide information on the fly can be the difference maker during key periods – Elevating the analyst to a more important & influential member of the support staff.

No match will go perfectly as you planned. It doesn’t matter if you’ve watched 15 of the opposition’s past matches, put together an incredibly detailed, or whatever you normally do – Players aren’t perfect, and mistakes will be made. While it might be overwhelming and confusing if you are thrown new bits of information minutes before a match (or even worse – during!) you need to be able to put together a plan of action as efficiently and quickly as possible to counteract problems. By contextualising your information and using all the topics I spoke upon throughout, you can help your players overcome any issues – Be it tactical wrinkles, a change in approach, or a match of complete and utter parity. Just make sure you don’t throw out what has worked before to do so!

Thanks for reading, as always! I am put out the next part of Analysis In Action within a month or so, but if you have any questions about what I’ve touched upon here, or would like to suggest a topic, feel free to let me know!

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