The difference between seeing and understanding in analysis

This article is part of our ‘Introduction to Football Analysis’ course. See more information and take the course for $59.99.

When it comes to analysis, it’s no secret that the goal is to think on a deeper level, scrutinizing over the finer minutia beyond what you see at first glance. But it’s also no secret that this skill takes dedicated time and energy to learn.

A lack of deep tactical understanding about the game often comes at a cost to coaches and amateur analysts. They are adequately able to perceive events on a football pitch, but they may be unsure of how to change what they are seeing for the better, or even fully comprehend what they are seeing to the level required. Coaches in my Mentorship Program often ask me – “How do you go from seeing to understanding?” Well that, my friends, is what we’re after today. In this series of notes, I’m going to give you a series of images and videos, where you can go from seeing, to understanding. If you’ve been doing analysis for years, no worries, this will still be an excellent way for you to practice and refine your skills.

First, let’s explore the difference between seeing and understanding. How would you define this difference?

Keep this answer in mind as you move along this section. It’s important to not only see and identify concerns and issues that may arise, but comprehend them on a deeper level. Let’s dive in.

PATTERNS, PATTERNS, PATTERNS

When analyzing football, it is imperative to look for patterns. So imperative, that I made a pattern in the header. A pattern on a football pitch is a repeated action, often coordinated by the team in training and then executed on game-day. One-off instances can provide beauty in their uniqueness, but patterns ultimately tell us more about the how, what, when, where and why of football. When I first notice a fun little trinket, I may make a mental note of it. But as that fun little trinket continues to be explored, I then make a written note about it, preparing to include it in any subsequent article, or even in any subsequent musings live in-match about how the opposition could adapt.

Here’s an example. At York United, it’s typically the left-back in Diyaeddine Abzi galloping forward and contributing to the attack, with their right-back in Chrisnovic N’Sa holding a more reserved role as part of the team’s rest-defense. But in their latest encounter against Pacific, N’Sa also made nice runs forward on the overlap, as his right winger drifted in-field. It’s not something totally out of the realm of possibility for N’Sa, but something that occurred repeatedly that helped York to successfully create chances from both sides. If I had seen the action one time and then written it down as a recurring theme, I would be doing a disservice to the whole minutia of patterns. So if you don’t know where to start, you can always begin by scanning for repeated actions, that are either helping or hindering a team’s progress. As an example, in any given match, studying build-up patterns and pressing structures, shapes and success stories may be a particular area of note.

WHEN PRESSING GOES WRONG….

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First up, let’s talk about pressing from the front. Pressing is an essential part of the modern game. Even the deepest of “low-block teams” still press from the front and attempt to win the ball back high up the pitch. But pressing must be a collective endeavour, and must be properly adjusted to match the opposition in the moment. So with that, let’s scrutinize moments where pressing structures could have been better adjusted to match the opposition.

In the white, FC Edmonton press with a front two, against a 2+3 build-up (the third York player remains out of the picture). Edmonton’s second line of pressure holds a considerable distance away from the first, and even York’s second line in their possession. So without giving the answer away…What’s wrong with this picture? Where are the holes? What are they sacrificing in pressing in this manner, in favour of other endeavours? Importantly, how could York (in the green) easily exploit Edmonton’s “static” pressing shape?

Here’s another example from NYCFC’s 2022 CONCACAF Champions League match against Santos de Guápiles. The exact same space is being vacated as the image above. But how? Why? Where? When?

How does this hurt the opposition? Where are the gaps? How could NYCFC (in the blue) easily exploit this pressing shape? REMEMBER: Go deeper beyond what you see at first glance.

Nice work. Keep on digging deep with your answers, going beyond what first pops into your head. Also take notice from the first image, that it can often be difficult to capture the entire picture when you clip an image as an analyst. Understand that you don’t necessarily ALWAYS need to. All you need to do is highlight the major points. But there are other ways around capturing a scenario that occurs on a football pitch, such as re-creating the image yourself. Speaking of things that are not secrets whatsoever, we often like to create our own diagrams, as it allows us to highlight the entire situation.

Not to kiss and tell, but here’s a nice example. In this re-creation, New England Revolution play out from the back against New York City FC. From the image below, what do you think might be wrong with NYCFC’s press? Through their positioning, shape and structures, how do they make it easy for New England to play through?

Dig deep in identifying as many answers to the questions posed as possible. There is not one unequivocal answer to any question posed in football. When you have your answer, don’t forget to send it our way so that we can collaborate with you.

Before you gloat about your genius, we must consider all the angles. NYCFC’s shape shows many examples of not only what can go wrong, but what can go right through pressing in a uniquely odd stance. Recognizing that it becomes difficult to compress and condense all spaces at once, pressing is often a give and take. In failing to cover the holes you elucidated in your answer, what do the defending team simultaneously accomplish?

Stumped? Consider where they achieve numerical superiorities. Ponder where they might funnel play via this shape. Even more – how can the shape be adjusted depending on movement from New England?

Great job so far. You’ve been able to identify various moments where pressing structures could be adapted to better suit the situation. But as someone with a keen eye for the game, you already know that pressing success is not just a matter of structure and shape.

Even pressing structures that are well assembled can still crumble. Let’s take this example from Monchengadblach under Adi Hütter in the 2021-22 season. On paper, Hütter’s pressing structures appear more than sound. Here we see that as the ball comes to the left-centre-back, the right winger pressures. Then as the ball travels to the opposition’s left-back, the Gladbach right-back steps up, and presumably the entire shape shifts across.

It’s not to say that these ideologies don’t have holes. But again, everything must be working in perfect harmony for pressing structures to fully pay off. In reality, Gladbach were beaten and bruised within this 4-2-3-1 pressing system to a level where we could call their lack of success a “pattern”. So what other factors might play a part in pressing success, beyond the manager’s ideologies? What else must achieve equilibrium?

If you’ve submitted answers for all of the questions above, I salute you for taking the time to put in the work. If you haven’t, I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that. As you know, my reason for setting up the course in this way is to have that 1on1 dialogue with you over each answer you present. I urge you to put in the work, so that we can learn together in this process. Now’s a good time to get some water and take a break. When you’re ready, let’s truck and trek on over to the world of Harry Maguire. Yes. The one and only, Harry Maguire.

WHEN DEFENDING GOES WRONG (FT. HARRY MAGUIRE)

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At this point, you’re probably tired of hearing Harry Maguire’s name. Whether you back him, love him, hate him, or think nothing of him, there’s no denying that Harry Maguire is one of the best examples of an excellent footballer who has got caught up in a web of tactical decisions and psychological mishaps that work to bring out the worst in his quality. It’s easy to say that Harry Maguire had a poor 2021-22 season. But why? Why do you say that? Seriously. Go deeper here.

Anyone who’s read my article on the ordeal will know that I pinpointed Harry Maguire’s main issues on an individual scale down to poor scanning, and his own ego in wanting to be the hero. But I also illustrated a variety of tactical reasons for his personal woes, that work in tandem to complicate his own lackluster decision making.

Let’s take two examples from United’s 3-2 win over Norwich this season. First, when you’re watching, I want you to focus solely on Harry Maguire (United’s no. 5). You can use the ball as context to studying Maguire’s positioning, movement and decision making, but train your eye to focus away from the ball, with Maguire as your main point of reference. Press play on the video, and follow Harry Maguire’s movement when he enters the picture at 0:06, all the way to 0:30.

Maguire is often lambasted not for the sheer act of stepping out of his line, but for the timing of those decisions. The clip begins with Maguire even making a great tackle and momentarily winning the ball. But as you can see, he wastes precious time side shuffling, and as the clip rolls on, he’s then caught too far out of position to help his team. He gets back in time to positively contribute, but the situation could have ended far differently had De Gea not stuck to his task.

Here’s another example worth scrutinization. Watch from the beginning of the move at 3:31 (Maguire enters at 3:35) to 4:19.

What is the fatal error that Maguire makes? Go on. Watch it again and focus on United’s right-centre-back. What tactical, psychological and physical factors contribute to his failure to properly assess and adjust in the situation?

Finally, we bring you a third example where Maguire makes a key error, only to perfectly recover. He’s got Neymar, he’s on him, and then….goal. So what happens?

Ask yourself – what did Maguire prioritize in the moment before the goal is scored, and why? That is, why did he fail to properly assess the situation at the crucial moment? If you desperately need a hint – where were his eyes looking before the pass came across? How did Neymar smartly adjust his positioning, where Maguire floundered under the uncertainty of wanting to be the hero?

Remember – analysis is all about asking questions and scrutinizing over every angle in the quest to find answers.

Let’s also remember here, Harry Maguire is an awesome player. But like many of his fellow pros, there are strengths of his game, and there are considerable weaknesses. With the videos we’ve drawn upon, and the answers you’ve created, how would you help Harry Maguire work on his key concerns in training? What would you focus on teaching and prioritizing?

Nice! But our work here isn’t finished yet. After all, why focus entirely on the negative? How about the peculiar? Even better…how about the peculiarly positive?

HOW DOES DIOGO JOTA DO IT?

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One thing is for certain in life. Diogo Jota is exceptional in the air. Right?

WRONG.

Here’s the thing. Diogo Jota is exceptional at scoring headed goals. But aerial prowess is not a particularly positive part of his game. In fact, every single striker we would consider to be “aerially dominant”, vastly outperforms him on aerial duel percentage.

Despite that, our data illustrates Jota to be in a league of his own when it comes to scoring goals on a low percentage of aerial duels won. On the other end of the spectrum, a player who we might think to be strong in the air, Wolves’ robust Raul Jimenez, failed to score a single headed goal in the 2021-22 season. Despite boasting better aerial percentages, the likes of Haaland, Toney, Lukaku and Ronaldo also scored fewer headed goals. This is to say that being good in the air does not automatically equate to scoring headed goals, and scoring headed goals does not automatically equate to being aerially dominant, or dare we say, good in the air.

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In fact there are a range of factors that may come to fruition in contributing to a player’s headed goal tally. We encourage you to name as many of those factors that you can conjure up below!

So you want to be like Diogo Jota? Well, it’s all about timing. But not just timing of the leap. It’s about the timing of the run into space. Here’s a perfect example. Just press and play, and remember to focus away from the ball. Take notice of Liverpool’s #20 and his movement, scanning and awareness of space in particular, with the ball as context.

Restart the clip as many times as you need, focusing on the angle where you can see Jota’s movement in full (2:02).

Ask yourself – how does Jota create half a yard of space for himself? What physical, tactical, technical and psychological components go into the end result of the Portuguese forward scoring a goal?

Here’s another example, where you can see that Diogo Jota’s ability to score a headed goal extends beyond aerial prowess. It’s all about timing, cleverness of movement, and power behind the bullet, not necessarily even behind the leap.

Obvious, right? Jota’s a clever player. We all know that. Small = creativity, doesn’t it? Definitely not. Dig deeper here. We can all see how Diogo Jota perfectly times his run to match the header. But what does that mean? What does he see in that moment, and how does he attack the space? Go from awareness to understanding here, and identify what Jota fantastically accomplishes here, before his head even connects with the ball. Even if you feel confident, replay the clip one more time, starting at 0:30. You might just surprise yourself on what new item of intrigue you see this time around.


Before moving on, let’s be real. As an analyst, coach, or even just as a fan of the game, you’ll be doing far more than just studying video. Analysts must be aware of how to study the game from various contexts, forms and mediums – where seeing transforms into understanding, which in turn transforms into conclusions and applications for the game.

Take graphs for example. Graphs are everywhere these days, particularly on Twitter, where it seems everyone has their own scatterplot or pie chart in the works. While they may look pretty, graphs can usually only tell us one or two sides of the story. Nevertheless, an analyst must know how to dissect visual representations, and even how to create them.

Take our example of what we called ‘Sweeper Keeper’ ratings across the 2021-22 season.

What does the graph say to you? What conclusions can we draw from the visual? Further, how might this graph be inherently biased?

From the visual, perhaps you could study the ‘Sweeping’ ability of Alisson and Pope in greater detail, and combine other data to assess who is the ‘Sweepiest’ of them all.

Here’s another example, where we’ve taken a heatmap from one of our favourite sites – SofaScore.

The heatmap, taken after eleven games into a season, showcases a player who evidently hits the high notes in a variety of areas on the field. But what does that mean? Consider these questions…

Think not only about the “hottest” red spots, but the areas of the field that remain relatively untouched. Where does the player mostly cohabit and what does this tell us about the player?

To check your answer in greater detail, see our analysis of the player behind the heatmap. The point is, analysis needs to go beyond what you see at first glance. It’s easy to look at a heatmap and identify the red spots. But consider what that actually says. Start to ask yourself questions, raising your own awareness on the topic at hand. Take time to think, reflect, and write – bringing about answers that you didn’t even know you had within you.

So with that, I leave you with one final challenge. What is a question that you can ask yourself when conducting analysis, without fail, that will help you to better comprehend any situation? This question could range from “What do I see off the ball?” to “What are the tactical, technical, physical and psychological factors that contributed to the situation?” If you’re stumped, consider your favourite of the questions we posed during this process.

Kudos to you and your hard work on completing this dauting, long-form section. Now is an excellent time to take a break, and to email any lingering questions. If you’re ready to start the next section, put on your thinking caps. Let’s go.


So there it is! How to go from “seeing” to “understanding” in analysis. If you’re interested in taking the course in its entirety, be sure to check out Introduction to Football Analysis – Online Course with Rhys Desmond.

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