At any level of football, it takes a lot to win.
Gaining an edge against competitors is paramount to success, so surely fraternising with the enemy is a bad idea?
At Loughborough University campus last Thursday, football’s top club practitioners — from analysts to coaches, to scouts and sporting directors — congregated to do exactly that.
The event was hosted by Hudl, a performance analysis technology company with worldwide reach, providing teams across multiple sports with a streamlined platform to use data and video in the most efficient way possible.
It was a meeting of minds among the backbone of football’s training ground staff — a chance to reflect, refine and re-evaluate the way we analyse the game.
It is easy to forget just how far performance analysis has come within football as the availability of data and technology has mushroomed. As recently as the turn of the century, coaches and analysts were using VHS recordings to manually clip up games and physically share them with others.
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As individual skill sets grow alongside the technology, the lines are becoming (positively) blurred among coaches and performance staff within the training ground.
This was reflected during a session with Mark Leyland — head of coaching methodology at City Football Group — during a live session of the Training Ground Guru Podcast with Simon Austin.
Leyland’s career path evolved from performance analyst roles at Everton and Burnley to a post-match analyst role at Liverpool, before taking up a coach analyst role at Newcastle United under Eddie Howe.
Leyland discussed how analysts might have previously been perceived solely as the ones to film and code the video clips from training sessions or games — locked away in the corner of the training ground. Now, it is not uncommon to see these same staff members out on the grass at the training ground or in the dugout on a matchday.
During his time at Newcastle, Leyland became a familiar presence among the Newcastle squad, with Howe giving him the freedom and autonomy to engage with each player and be a key part of the conversation during a session.
Crucially, that appetite and openness among players to speak with analysts has grown over time. Players are commonly reaching out to analytics companies or sports consultancies to help them negotiate contracts, identify suitable clubs or to simply improve their game.
“If I have a little more information than my opponent — even 10 per cent more — I have an advantage over him,” explained Bruno Guimaraes on Brazilian podcast Tres na Area last year. “That’s why I have my analysis guys.”
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Just as analysts are contributing towards coaching, coaches are becoming increasingly literate in the use of video and data analysis, making the sharing of knowledge quicker and more efficient to impact what happens on the pitch.
The two roles are converging, as Steve Rands — head of performance analysis for Nottingham Forest — outlined during his session.
Crucially, it is one thing to use such analysis to identify an ‘issue’ or an area of improvement, but it is quite another to provide solutions.
For example, Rands outlined how he and his staff found Forest to be the most-pressed team during their build-up phase in the early months of the 2022-23 Premier League season — a period when they were sitting in 18th position going into the timely World Cup break.
This interlude provided Rands’ performance team with the opportunity to reflect and adjust their stylistic approach ahead of their return to domestic action.
The outcome? A more direct approach that placed them as the 12th-best team in the Premier League table from December onwards. For Rands, providing the problem and a method by which to solve it is where performance analysts really earn their money.
Throughout the event, Hudl’s Insight Analysis tool was on show for people to observe the benefits of a full synchronisation between event data, video, and tracking data.
With an explosion of information in the hands of most analysts, the challenge is to condense such input into clear and concise output — whether that is during pre-match, live, or post-match analysis, or during the scouting and recruitment processes.
A common theme from many analysts was to highlight the importance of combining data with video evidence when speaking with coaching staff, adding credence to a piece of work with tangible, real-life examples.
The future now looks to be a single platform that can do that in real-time, allowing coaches to adapt their approach in-game based on the live data.
Crucially, the metrics fed to each club analyst can be bespoke to their needs.
Where previously clubs would be reliant on a data provider’s accepted criteria of a certain metric (e.g. a progressive pass), clubs can now customise their data and derive context-specific metrics based on their own game model — in other words, a bespoke tactical and strategic approach for their team’s style of play.
Does your club’s version of an intense press differ from others? Would you consider a line-breaking pass to have stricter criteria? Perhaps your version of a mid-block is two metres deeper than the rest of the league?
The ability to tailor metrics to the needs of each team can be key to success, allowing clubs to benchmark prospective players during the recruitment process and assess how they fulfil the precise tactical demands of a matchday.
While many performance staff might share the same day-to-day challenges in an ever-unpredictable footballing landscape, there is a buzz that reverberates around the room when reflecting upon the progress made since the turn of the century.
The closing question turns to the future of performance in football — where will we be in another 20 years’ time?
(Top photo via Hudl)