The simple vs. complex language debate in football tactics writing & analysis

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If you’ve followed (or even found) my work through Twitter over the years, you may have noticed that I rarely tweet anything beyond the work of others or myself. It seems as though any time I head on over to the Twitter news feeds, I’m bound to find someone speaking of the way that football tactics writing should or shouldn’t be conducted. On the one hand, it’s nice that those in the community are continuously challenging each other to improve. On the other hand, I wish there was more of a recognition toward the simple fact that there is no right or wrong way to conducting analysis in football.

This week the debates stemmed around the notion that simple language is obviously, unequivocally, the best approach when it comes to writing and analyzing football. I’m not sure which one of us wrote the article that tipped the scale and confused everyone, but I’m here to say that complex language can be incredibly useful if used correctly.

Kevin de Bruyne operating in the half-spaces to deliver a cross to Erling Haaland.

Obviously the debate holds water. If you can’t communicate effectively, you won’t get anywhere in life. The same goes for facets of life like coaching, analysis, and writing. But “effective” communication does not always come (or need to come) from using simple language. If you can build understanding for your players, readers or audience, you can progress from one stage to the next in a clear and succinct way. If you take the time to show them what you mean, rather than just explaining, you will achieve even more success with your attempts to communicate your message.

Manchester United counter-pressing immediately after losing the ball, by having one nearby centre-back step up, and one nearby attacker hurry back to pressure from behind. Others provide angled support as the entire team compacts the width of the field.

Here’s the thing. I’ve broken down fairly complex concepts for U11 & U12 players to resounding success – where each of them could spew back to me what the term meant, and more importantly, the key elements to remember behind the phrase. Take transitions as an example. It’s a relatively complex term that means nothing to a U11/U12 player when they first hear you say it. But you don’t have to waste time explaining the concept. Instead, you use a short and succinct explanation (the first five-ten seconds after you either lose the ball, or win the ball) and then you let the players play. As you let the players play the game, you break down the moments in detail and explain the concepts around how to have “effective transitions”. Now they’ve had the opportunity to practice the elements around the term with their own two feet, and are more likely to not only remember the term itself, but remember the more important part – what to do when a transition occurs.

United counter-attacking through runners in behind, and a decoy runner bursting through the centre.

When I’m teaching coaches or university students about the art of effective coaching, I hammer home the notion of how important it is to demonstrate absolutely everything. The same goes for tactics writing. You can use complex terms like ‘half-spaces’ and ‘rest-defense’ through encapsulating a single moment of live footage or even through creating a diagram around the subject. You can show what you mean without even needing to delve into a deeper explanation around what each specific term means. At this point, those that are reading the work of people in our space, have a pre-existing understanding of what those terms mean. If they don’t, or they’re still unsure, we can inspire our readers to go scuba diving. It’s not about confusing them into oblivion through complex terminology. It’s about inspiring them to continuously challenge their own knowledge of the game.

Kamal Miller delivering a deep cross after overlapping down the left wing.

Obviously there comes a point where you are just spewing nonsense. If your sentence has more than three terms that the average reader would be confused by, it’s probably not an eloquent pronouncement for the humdrum consumer. That is, it’s probably not an understandable sentence for the average reader. But what most people fail to consider, is that the average reader is not the targeted audience for these complex individuals.

Jamie Hamilton is a fascinating example. He’s carved out a unique niche for himself as somewhat of a ‘football philosopher’. It’s almost a compliment to say that he can’t go a single sentence without using the words “positionism” (definitely not a word) or “relationism”. I don’t understand what he’s talking about eighty percent of the time that he’s musing about football, even despite him doing the hard work to show people like me what he means through live captures. But I’m not his targeted audience.

On that note, Jamie is a UEFA A Coach, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he spoke about the game differently to his players (unless… he’s coaching a team of philosophy majors). When the audience changes, communication changes to match that audience’s pre-existing knowledge base and experience. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sprinkle in complex language. Again, doing so helps others to learn and go “scuba diving” into the subject matter on a deeper level, and perhaps even improve their craft along the way.

He’s learning!

Looking at his tweets it would be very easy for me to say that Jamie does not communicate effectively. But the bottom line is that statement would simply say more about my own knowledge base on “positionism” (still not a word) and “relationism” than Jamie’s communication. I haven’t studied philosophy enough to comprehend how football relates to what Aristotle and Plato said about football before football even existed. But that does not mean he’s an inefficient communicator. In fact, I appreciate his desire to not fully explain what he means when using those complex terms, and his attempts to show what he means instead.

It would be an absolute fallacy of a football writer to explain the deeper-lying meaning behind every word they used. The same goes for conducting public analysis over say, a video. Take this Tifo video about AC Milan from earlier this year.

Jon tries to simplify the game in this video, but actually only makes it more complex. He goes into a full-blown explanation into what rest-defense is (even the etymology of the word!), before spending about ten seconds on how the addition of Tomori allowed AC Milan’s rest-defense to take off to new heights. For the coaching educators in the house, his ‘ball rolling time’ here is on the wrong end of the spectrum. That is – he spends more time on the term, and less time on the actual application of the term toward his topic.

Is the video on rest-defense? No. The context is on AC Milan, and if he can quickly explain rest-defense and then show more into the nuisances of AC Milan’s particularities, you might say he’d communicate more “effectively” about his subject. But if his context was actually meant to be entirely centered around rest-defense, there’s nothing here to suggest that Jon conducted his analysis in “the wrong way”. In fact, in that case, it’s an outstanding video.

Unai Emery’s addition of a double pivot has improved Villa’s rest-defense, through having more numbers around the ball in transition.

Going back to the point about progressing your audience to a level where they are ready to understand the subject matter, this can be done more quickly than you might think through a simple and succinct explanation. This is where the notion of “simplifying the game” is valuable. But the longer that explanation goes on and the less time we have to practice our learning, the more you end up actually making the game more complex.

He’s not just sad, but confused.

Again, the complex language is not the problem here. I commend Jon for dropping these terms to an audience that may or may not be prepared to understand what they mean. After all, an article or video that simply used simple terms and nothing else would be rather boring. I just wish he spent less time explaining, and more time showing. And not just showing what the term means, but showing how the term relates to his context.

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Like everything in life (football analysis and writing included), it must be a balance. Or if you like it complex, it must achieve equilibrium. You can use complex terms so long as you progress your audience to the moment where that complex term makes sense. But even if you fail to do exactly that, you can even use complex terms so long as you effectively show what you mean. The art of effective communication has very little to do with complexity. It’s more about sharing your passion for the subject matter in a way that envelops and enthralls the audience. If you can move and inspire people, you’re an effective communicator. Both Jon and Jamie have achieved exactly that in their work over the years, through the use of complex terms in their quest to share their knowledge of the game.

Simplifying the game and simplifying your analysis is not always the best approach to achieving greater understanding or moving an audience (or the humdrum consumer), and the art of simplifying must be done with complex and careful consideration. There is no one right or wrong way to conduct football analysis across the board, and the next time you don’t understand something, I urge you to go scuba diving.

So there it is! My thoughts on the debate around the simple vs. complex language debate in football tactics writing & analysis. Be sure to check out more of my Tactical Theory pieces and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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