Analyzing the Game

Contrary to what some people may think I do not have multiple personality disorder.
Bet that opening statement got your attention, didn’t it? People do sometimes see very different sides of me at soccer matches. While I am usually pretty laidback there are times I get a “little”excitable. There is a rational and simple explanation for this. Watching a soccer match and analyzing a soccer match are two very different things. Most times when I watch a match I am analyzing it. I cannot help myself. This is the laidback person people most often see. However, there are times when the fan inside of me emerges and I do become a “little”more animated and vociferous. It is the analytical mode that I wish to write about today.

How does one analyze a soccer match?

I begin by looking at a team’s structure which I define as formation and system of play. A team’s formation or shape is how they align their players on the field. A system of play is how they utilize players within the alignment. Below are two examples of team structure. Notice that both formations are described as 1-4-4-2 but the systems of play are very different.
1-4-4-2 played with a flat back 4, flat midfield, and zonal defense

1-4-4-2 played with a diamond back and a diamond midfield, man marking sweeper defense
There is actually a little more to determining a team’s system of play than noting the teams shape within a formation or whether they man marking or zonal defense. There are three separate phases of play and how a team approaches each of these really defines their system.

The defending phase
The transition phase

The attacking phase
We begin with the defensive phase of the game because most formations and systems of play are put in place with defending in mind. Obviously the goal of defending is to prevent the other team from scoring. What we want to discern is how they go about doing this. Where do they draw the line of confrontation? Where do they wish to funnel play? Do they press or look to contain? How do they defend throw-ins? How do they defend goal kicks and goal keeper distributions? Which player or players does the design of their defensive system favor to win balls? Understanding this can be crucial to understanding the other phases of play.

The transition phase of play is actually subdivided in two; Transitioning from defense to attack and transitioning from attack to defense. We will look first at transitioning from defending to attack. It is important to remember here that most teams choose a formation based on how they wish to defend. They may wish to attack in a different formation. For example, a 1-4-4-2 shape when defending might morph into a 1-4-3-3 in attack. This is a rather simple transition to make and can be accomplished by pushing an attacking midfielder forward and drawing the outside midfielders in more centrally. the point here is to identify the opponents target player or players. That is, upon winning the ball, is there a particular player or position the opponents looks to play the ball to in order to initiate their offense? If there is, it may be possible to disrupt or at least slow the opponents attack by closely marking this person.
The attacking phase is simply how a team likes to attack. How does the goal keeper seek to distribute the ball? Is the team most dangerous playing a direct counter attack? Is there a key player that facilitates the offense, the target mentioned above? Does the team like to play in the wide channels and cross the ball? Do they have set plays for throw-ins? What are the teams preferred patterns of play? Do the backs get involved in the attack?

The transition phase comes back into play when a team goes from attacking back to defending. How do they recover to their basic shape? Do they immediately bring pressure? Do they drop people back behind the ball to a defined line of confrontation? Do they immediately seek to compress play and cut off both advance and a switch of fields?
By now you should be developing an understanding that analyzing play is a bit more in depth than just understanding a team’s strengths and weaknesses or tendencies of play. Most teams have a design to their system of play. There is a certain measure of thought put into how a team plays. Discerning what that thought process is and why is what analyzing a game is all about.

A fourth part of the game to analyze is set pieces or how a team approaches free kicks, corner kicks and goal kicks. Some teams, especially teams that might struggle to generate a lot of quality chances, spend a lot of time perfecting their set pieces. Scoring from set pieces is becoming a larger part of the modern game as defenses have become much stingier. Most teams will have a limited number of looks on set pieces with a couple of different options off each look. Recognizing these looks, the cues, the target players and knowing the type of ball the kicker plays are important in defending set pieces.
The attacking team will want to know how the opponents defend set pieces. Are they quick to get positioned? Do they have a lot of height to defend flighted balls or are they relatively short? Does the goalkeeper set the wall or does a field player set the wall? Do the goalkeeper and defense immediately identify whether a corner kick will be in-swinging or out-swinging and deploy accordingly. Do the goalkeeper and defenders keep hips open to the field on corner kicks or do they close their hips to the ball? How many people do they commit to defend free kicks? How many people do they place in a wall and just as importantly which players do they place in the wall?

We have spent a lot of time discussing a team’s tendencies but it is just as important to identify the tendencies of individual players. One position touched on briefly above is the goalkeeper.

Does the goalkeeper function as part of the team?
Do field players use him to relieve pressure by passing back to him?
Does the goalkeeper mindlessly clear the ball down the field or does he pass the ball to the field players?
Does he play passes to teammates with his feet and if so does he do so well and with confidence?
Does he distribute the ball via  throwing the ball? To players feet or to space? Are they strong throws?
Does he distribute the ball via rolling the ball to players feet?
Does he command the penalty area?
Does he command the goal area?
How does he handle high balls?
How does he handle low balls?
How well does he organize walls and set pieces?
Each position group and individual within a position group can be analyzed in the same manner. Knowing individual players strengths, weaknesses and tendencies can shed light on a team’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.

Can anyone actually observe and note all of the things listed above while watching a soccer match? Is it even necessary to do so? The answer to both questions is yes… and no. It takes time to learn how to analyze a soccer match. With practice you may note all of the above and more. At the same time you will likely want to focus on a few key observations from each phase of play. Identify opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies and how you can counter or exploit them. The reason to analyze play is to 1) prepare your team to face an opponent and 2) improve your own team’s performance by recognizing weaknesses to address in training. Yes, learn to analyze your own team just as you would analyze an opponent. Take what you see and design your next training sessions around your observations. Players can even learn to analyze their own play as a means to improve.
Analyzing a soccer game can be a difficult skill to learn but one coaches and players alike need to spend time developing. Often times it is the difference between playing at soccer and actually playing soccer. But that is a topic for another article.

And remember, sometimes we just need to allow the alter ego of the fan escape!

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