Quite possibly, this article needs no introduction whatsoever. The title says it all. As coaches, analysts, players, fans, and football obsessed individuals, we all want to grow our tactical understanding of the game. In fact, it’s one of the top five questions I get thrown my way on social media or email (links at the end of the article), where people either want to know how I developed my degree of tactical knowledge, or want to know how they too can take their tactical and analytical understanding to the next level. I even did a podcast with Sam Holmshaw all about the topic, where I detailed how coaches can develop their tactical and analytical eye. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to be a mathematician, statistician, data scientist, or rocket fuel engineer. You don’t have to be a genius (or a mastermind). You just have to watch football (which you already do), and think more deeply about the football that you are watching in ways going beyond the simplistic on-the-ball actions.
But, even better, here is a structured process that you can follow to develop your own tactical knowledge, and continuously learn about the game on repeat.
IDENTIFY YOUR CONTEXT
When first going through the motions of developing your tactical understanding, the best place to start is within your own context. Ask yourself – what is your relationship with the game, and what roles do you hold within the game? Are you a coach? Player? Fan? Analyst? Groundskeeper? All of the above except for groundskeeper? That is where you start.
For example, as a coach of a U12 girls team back in 2019, I spoke to Sam about how I wanted to help my team understand how to play out from the back. So what did I do? I read a countless number of books and articles about how to coach players to play out from the back. But, I also studied professional examples of teams who excellently built their attacks right from the first third of the pitch. How did they achieve success? How did they break a high press? What players were often involved and in what shapes? How did they correctly assess for decision making in terms of timing and execution of passes? When did they go long and progressive vs. playing short and simple? How did players move off the ball, or perhaps even rotate in and out of position to receive? These were all questions that I attempted to answer as I studied the topic at hand, in relation to the goal of helping my players improve. Importantly though, I didn’t just study professional examples. I turned to knowledgeable coaches in my own context, and watched how their teams achieved success in build-up play. What did they do to break lines and advance up the pitch? Even asking – in what ways did they fail in correctly assessing decisions out from the back, losing possession in the process?
I took notes, both voice recordings and written notations, on my thoughts, insights, etc., and studied relentlessly to identify the best practices for helping my own players play out from the back. Then I put that into action on the football pitch, and helped my players answer all the questions I detailed above. That is, how to play under pressure, when to go short vs. long, how to correctly assess and scan for the ball, opposition, teammates and space to make decisions, how to involve the goalkeeper in the process, when to go forwards vs. backwards, and how to execute the techniques of short and long passing to perfection. Having gone through the process of reading books, reading the theory behind things like Thomas Tuchel’s lavolpiana at Borussia Dortmund, watching build-up patterns in a countless number of real life football matches, and then coaching my players through a problem I identified, I now have a greater tactical understanding of build-up play and how to coach players into build-up warriors.
WHAT IF I’M JUST A FAN?Embed from Getty Images
While evidently this takes time and energy, this is an easy process to follow, that will instantly help you think more deeply about the game, learn new concepts, and develop your craft. Let’s take another example. Say you’re a football obsessed fan not involved in coaching, analysis, or any other type of role at a club. Right now, identify a problem that your favourite team is having on the pitch. For me, that would be Borussia Dortmund’s incredibly poor ability to defend in transition. I would then take that problem, and identify potential roots of the problem. Why is it occurring? What are the various solutions (not just one or two) that could solve this issue, or even turn the complication into an area of strength? Why might being poor in defensive transitions actually be a positive part of their identity (i.e. what does it allow them to do in attack?). After beginning to think about these questions, I would watch match footage, highlights, clips, etc. of teams defending extraordinarily well in transition, and how they were able to solve the problem. I would also watch Dortmund’s transitions by comparison, and see where they went wrong in the process of transitioning from attack to defense. I would read books, articles, perhaps even research articles on defensive transitions, and how to excel in the art. I would make pages and pages of notes detailing the first action in a defensive transition, and what the other players closest to the situation need to immediately do.Embed from Getty Images
Recognizing nothing in football is ever linear, I would then make inferences about what comes next in a defensive transition (often some kind of need to stop verticality (forward passing or movement) from the opposition. I would detail how certain teams or even individual players are often so well positioned or so sound in their timing of decisions, that they win back possession with ease. I would detail the structures, the shapes, the coordination of off the ball movement that teams deploy to mitigate risk and hold a sound rest-defense in order to better handle these moments. I would write down everything that may or may not occur in a defensive transition, and think deeply about how that influences and affects my own team, and how I could help them overcome that concern if I was an analyst (BVB sign me up anytime!). As a coach, analyst or player, you can even go one step further – and put those new insights into action on a football pitch yourself.
Regardless of who you are, this process can be repeated continuously. Identify a problem, study the problem, identify potential solutions (not just one or two – nothing in football is ever that simple), and if you’re lucky enough, put it into action on the pitch. Again…
1. Identify the problem, opportunity, or peculiarity.
2. Study that topic and identify potential reasons for its occurrence. Research relentlessly.
3. Identify potential solutions to the problem or ways to expand upon the opportunity.
4. Put your insights into action on the pitch (or in an article).
This process has helped develop several articles on this very site, thinking more deeply about the problems and opportunities occurring on the pitch at a host of professional clubs this season, some of which are listed below.
-> The real problem with Harry Maguire’s defending
-> United’s Tactical Follies in the Post-Ronaldo Era – In-Depth Analysis
-> How Diogo Jota scores so many headed goals
-> How to beat a low-block like Antonio Conte’s Spurs
-> Why Dortmund are so bad in defensive transitions
In addition to enhancing the articles on this site, this relatively simple process has helped continuously develop my tactical understanding of the game, as I’m constantly researching and writing about the game beyond what you see at first glance. If you too want to follow this process, all you need as a basic starting place is access to football matches, and a recognition that what occurs on the ball is so much more complex due to the off-the-ball context around the situation. This recognition will help you to start thinking more deeply about the beautiful game, where you can then go on to read and research all the more about what you see. Anyone can do it, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist.
So there it is! The simple (but time-dedicated) task anyone can do to improve their tactical knowledge of the game. Be sure to check out more Tactical Theory based articles, and see more in my process, such as how I watch football matches for tactical analyses. Also be sure to follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys and keep your questions coming via the links below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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Off-the-ball movement is, of course, the most important facet to the game. But saying that all passing patterns or attempts to make decision making automatic are “stupid” fails to account for the fact that these things don’t have to be trained in isolation. After all, if they were stupid, why would coaches like Jurgen Klopp or Ralph Hasenhuttl deploy them as training methods?
If you’re reading this article, chances are you love to analyze football. So allow me to help with your love for analysis with this call to action. Stop taking information from single-match occurrences, or single-match statistics, even statistics over time on their own, as a mechanism for making inferences about the wider context at hand. Recognizing patterns over time, and the wider context behind those patterns, are the essentials behind analysis in football, allowing you to more accurately assess performance, and improve upon performance problems.
Let’s face it. You’re tired of hearing about Harry Maguire. So are we! So with that, we debunk the Harry Maguire myth, and pose an alternative perspective as to why he’s having a “difficult season” for Manchester United.