TGG Podcast #56: Mark Leyland - Evolving the role of the analyst
FOR the last decade, Mark Leyland has been one of the foremost analysts in this country - and has gone on to become even more than that.
Starting his career at Everton's Academy, he went on to work for Burnley, Liverpool and Newcastle. He is one of the few backroom staff to be name-checked by managers, with Eddie Howe describing him as "integral" and Jurgen Klopp saying he played "a big part" in Liverpool's recent success.
Leyland was a Post-Match Analyst for Liverpool, evolved into a Coach-Analyst at Newcastle and is now the Head of Coaching Methodology for City Football Group. Simon Austin spoke to him in front of a live audience at Hudl's UK Football Conference at Loughborough University in September.
You can listen to the episode via the player below and read an edited transcript after that.
Written by Training Ground Guru — October 22, 2023
GETTING STARTED IN FOOTBALL
Mark Leyland: I never played to a high level - I played Sunday league, Saturday leagues locally - but I always knew I wanted to do something in football.
My best friend in school, Dave Raven, played for Liverpool as a kid. He used to get his games on VHS and we’d watch them back and analyse them together. We used to talk about his performance and what he could do better. I was 15 or 16 at the time.
Four years after my undergraduate degree I started a Masters in motor skills and got an unpaid internship at Everton. It really exposed me to what life was like in an elite football environment, which I’d never seen before.
I was responsible for coding some game footage. Back then we’d use Sportscode to cut video and provide the coach with some material to present a post-match or training review.
There were six interns with one Head of Analysis from U9s to U23s. We covered everything and provided the coaches with as much information as we could, without any real processes.
It gave me a start point, something I really appreciated. The first exposure to coaches or players is quite a nerve wracking one, especially when you don’t come from a professional football environment.
Sitting in front of 20 players and an elite coach is very different. You have to learn very quickly and you learn there isn’t a lot of room for mistakes. I’ve had some terrible experiences with computer failures, websites popping up in the background of meetings.
The Academy was very new, so when things went wrong there was room for negotiation. Now there is no room for error as an analyst. You create a list of how-tos in your brain and what not to dos. That grows over time and never really stops growing.
An outstanding part of my career progression is my relationships with people. At Everton, I got given an opportunity by James Bell-Walker, who’s now a Senior Scout at Chelsea. He was a great character and taught me how to use all the equipment.
And I had a Head Coach called Neil Dewsnip, who was really experienced, and it was my experience with those two that gave me the opportunity. I knew Neil had 20 years' experience I didn’t and I wanted, so I spent every minute of every day learning from him. It was an unpaid internship, but I was there seven days a week, I was 21 years old.
I listened to everything, I wrote everything down. I built up a library of Neil’s knowledge. All the coaches that worked there - I learnt everything I could from them all. Neil saw something in me he maybe hadn’t seen in other people and that gave me my first full-time role, six months after my internship.
AREAS TO IMPROVE, NOT A STICK TO BEAT THEM WITH
The battle we had originally - and there’s still a battle in the game at times - was moving away from the difficult process of having negative conversations.
At the time, whenever there was a negative conversation, it felt as though we were hammering someone. We had to try and educate people that it wasn’t, that this was a development environment.
A lot of it was the terminology we used. There were no negative aspects of play, it was areas to improve. This wasn’t a tool to beat them with, it was a carrot. 'This is what we can do better and how you can become a better footballer and a better team.' It was a challenge but they were all open to it.
There are moments where a conversation has to have a negative element, but we always try and lean in a positive direction. Your relationships with players and the way you communicate is really important - particularly with young players in a senior environment.
It’s important for them to know you’re on the journey with them, it’s a process you are trying to develop alongside them.
If you’re working with elite athletes, they just want to get better, and anything you can do to help them in that they will use and absorb. As I’ve progressed through my career that has only become more intense. Players in the Premier League absorb more and more and more, whether it's video or data or in-depth analytics.
If a player is playing in the first team and knows there is something they can do better to help their team win, they will try. If a player is not playing in the first team and trying to get in, they will want to know why and what they can do to improve. It’s very logical.
EDDIE HOWE AND BURNLEY
Whenever I went on any away trip, I would spend every minute pestering people and asking questions. I met a guy called Harrison Kingston, who now works as Director of Analysis for the Moroccan FA.
He was working for Tottenham’s Academy and I just asked him questions - ‘What do you use? How do you feed back? What’s your relationship with coaches? What do you do with individual players?' And we just struck up a friendship.
He went to work for Burnley and then left them to work for Liverpool and phoned me and said ‘Would you like to come and talk to Eddie Howe about the possibility of working alongside him?’ It was something I’d jumped at, because I really wanted to test myself in the waters of the first team.
From an early point in my career, because I didn’t have a professional playing background, I always had a bit of an imposter syndrome and wanted to probe myself. I wanted to prove I could work in a first team with a young elite coach who was really going to push me.
He (Howe) is obsessed with football, it’s his whole life. He is an incredible human being, an unbelievable football coach and an incredible thinker on the game. Almost immediately put me out of depth, it put me in a really uncomfortable zone, because he had a clear idea of what elite looked like.
I thought I did from Everton’s Academy but realistically I was miles off. Working alongside Ed - even though it was only for three or four months - and Jason Tindall, Simon Weatherstone and his coaching staff, it was a huge huge progression in my career.
It was a huge shock moment at first and it was sink or swim quickly. Thankfully I kept my head above water, I think.
Then, unfortunately, Eddie left and went back to his home town in Bournemouth and Sean Dyche came in. He progressed me again. A whole new skillset, whole new style of football, whole new identity, but a real process-driven approach to analysis and the other disciplines in the game. I was fortunate to have the opportiynuty to work with two real elite coaches in those nine months at Burnley.
JOINING HARRISON KINGSTON AT LIVERPOOL
Nine months later, Harrison offered me a job to work alongside him at Liverpool. It was in that time that Harrison really opened up. It could have been a senior/ junior relationship, but Harrison said, 'This is a department and I want you to work as closely alongside me as you can, because sharing the workload is the only way that we can be successful within a club the size of Liverpool.'
It was an open environment and I was eternally grateful to him for that. It was something I would like to think I have also done as I’ve progressed into different roles.
We used a variety of different software at the time. The hardware we used wasn’t great in terms of training ground solutions. It was very much get the game footage back - we travelled to all the games and did live and post match analysis - for a post match review meeting. There were no real longitudinal projects or databasing of information.
We’d started to work on it, but the processes didn’t really work, because organiser projects didn’t exist at the time. It was just a post-match job role and then that developed over time.
BECOMING PART OF THE COACHING PROCESS
We had a group of players called the elite development players, who were coming from the Academy and were on the fringes of impacting the first team, and some more senior players who were in and out of the team, and we worked really closely with them trying to help them improve.
That really brought me closer to the coaching group.
I sat in a lot of meetings with Pep (Lijnders) and the Elite Development Coach, Vitor Matos, and we came up with a lot of work around our own game plan and paired it up with the opposition game plan. We would sit down and talk about our tactical plan for the upcoming games. So it just made sense for me or Harrison to be on the training pitch for all tactical sessions, whether it be 11 v 11 or pressing game plan sessions.
We had live access to the video feed as well, so Hudl Replay on the side of the pitch. So Pep focusing on the high pressing element of our pressing game plan and we maybe seeing something behind the ball and I could take it to him or an individual player at any point. The coaching staff were really open for us to do it and that comes from trust and working together for six or seven years.
I knew how the coaching staff were thinking and that comes over time. In all the tactical sessions we became part of the coaching process.
The line between analysts and coaches is becoming a little bit more blurred, which is leading to a lot of people crossing paths, mainly from analysis to coaching. It’s a process I think will continue to grow, as the skillsets are very similar.
When I first started, the young players very much saw you as the computer guy. I very much wanted to be able to have football conversations with players and coaches. The education of the players now, they know that the analysis process drives a lot of coaching practice.
The coaches have their methodology, but a lot of it is driven by video and data from the analysis team and the players understand that. They are aware I would only tell them a message if it was relevant and important.
CONDUIT BETWEEN DATA SCIENTISTS AND COACHES
From the moment Jurgen Klopp gets in the building to the moment he leaves, he has his hands on things, whether it’s media or player conversations or a sport science debrief. He very rarely has time to sit down and process. Some of the things we could help him with was the data input side.
Jurgen was quite visual - and so were his support staff, so Peter (Krawietz) and Per, so rather than take them a plethora of data, we tried to understand the message that Ian and his team wanted us to get across and we tried to pair that up with some video or visual cues to try and help that process.
They were incredibly open to it, incredibly mindful of the fact it was part of the process and it really drive some of their processes, particularly with Pep Lijnders, who is continually trying to enhance his role.
The coaches I have worked with are now more likely to understand just having a data source. They see Sky Sports and are all familiar with the software and use it on a daily basis.
If I was to present a piece of data to a coach or player now, I would expect them to absorb it pretty quickly. In the past, I always tried to pair it with video, because I thought it was the most effective way to help football people, but now coaches aren’t just football people, they are sport scientists, they have leadership degrees and they understand different information sets. The variety of different information they can take in is a lot bigger than it was previously.
PLAYERS EMPLOYING THEIR OWN ANALYSTS
There are players I’ve worked with who have their own Wyscout accounts or their own analyst working alongside them and they get sent organiser projects onto their Mac and they work through Sportscode on their own now. The game is definitely changing and the environment is definitely a learning environment, even at the elite level.
I know it’s a debate within football, whether it’s a positive or negative sometimes, because what their analyst is trying to educate them on and what the coaching staff are trying to educate them on might look slightly different, but there’s lots of players who have their own therapists now, their own physio, their own mindset coach, so it is a multi-disciplinary approach to the bigger picture of football now.
So it’s silly for a club or analyst or coach to try and fight it, it’s better to bring it in and try and embrace it and enhance it from within. So yeah, there’s more and more players doing it.
From my experience it hasn’t been a challenge. There have been times when someone has brought a few clips, a few timestamps even, or an organiser project - they are very handy at using their own software now - and asked for opinion. But it’s very much a conversation rather than an argument; it’s a discussion rather than a heated debate.
Everyone wants to get better. If the player thinks this may make them better, the coach may be able to explain yes it can or no it can’t.
I very rarely talk about individuals, but Divock (Origi) was someone who was really intelligent. He spoke four or five different languages fluently and he had his own Wyscout account and his own access to an analyst and therapist.
He was very much at the forefront of what an elite athlete should look like, despite being a young man. He was someone I worked quite closely with and really enjoyed my time working with him and he’s still doing pretty well for himself at the moment and hopefully continues to do so.
EVEN INVOLVING THE BALLBOYS IN ANALYSIS
(In the 2019 Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona, a Liverpool ball boy helped Trent Alexander-Arnold take a quick corner, leading to the crucial fourth goal).
It was actually Harrison Kingston who was the brains behind it. He identified that the ballboys weren’t getting the ball back in quick enough when we weren’t winning. We were an intense team that wanted things to be quick.
He produced a video and it was sent to them (the ballboys) and also shown to them at the stadium before the game. It’s the same as coaching process - you’re reinforcing key principles.
We got to 3-0 up and it was one of those moments where you can’t write it, it was almost too good. The ballboy (Oakley Cannonier) just dropped the ball down. He’s now playing in Liverpool’s U21s.
JOINING NEWCASTLE AS A COACH-ANALYST
(In December 2021, Leyland joined Newcastle as Coach-Analyst).
It was something I drove myself, really. It probably goes back to the imposter syndrome theory. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be accepted within a coaching group. If I was going to make a move, it had to be a big move, because it was away from my hometown club where all my family were based.
The opportunity came to work with Eddie Howe again and I asked him whether he would allow me to be part of his coaching staff and he was more than accepting of it. Although most of my work was hands-on analysis work, being able to have the conversations with him in his office and being the link between the analysis processes and his processes, I think benefited the group in general.
It will happen more and more. You only have to look at the elite European managers - so Jurgen Klopp has an analyst as his assistant, Pep, the same, Thomas Tuchel, the same. Most elite level European managers who have come over in the last five years have had an analyst attached very closely to them.
A lot of English coaches now come into an environment with an assistant manager, a sport scientist and an analyst of some variety, because they know how they work and the importance of hitting the ground running, especially at the elite level. Having three or four people around you who really understand the message you want to deliver to your players is key, and the assistant and analyst know that more than anyone.
The way the manager works, he has a core group of staff around him and they work work 12, 13, 14 hour days in his office. We would get there 630 in the morning and work all the way through, planning training, delivering training, assessing training, seeing how the training sessions fits in the bigger picture of his global idea, his football game model.
I was having conversations with the manager than ever before, with the assistant and players more than ever before, I was building my skillset and diversifying what I did on a day-to-day basis.
Although I was only there 18 months, it 100% made me a better practitioner, just by changing the environment, the feel and the people I worked with.
The job they have done is just mind-blowing. No team has ever come back from the relegation zone like Newcastle were in and to finish where they were after only 18 months, in the top four of the Premier League. They are almost Hollywood moment.
The way the manager works at Newcastle, and his coaching staff, they are incredible, they are so elite. Their processes, their delivery of training sessions, their review of matches and the detail they go into in analysing the performance of themselves and the players is mind blowing. They are an incredible bunch of staff.
Newcastle was already a huge club and had great people working there, it was more about aligning them to Ed’s vision.
It was a case of, 'If we want to get to where we want to get to, what are we going to have to do?' And that involved bringing in more staff, because they are very demanding, particularly of the analysis group. The first two or three months was really difficult for us, because we needed more manpower and resource. The only way we did it was by bringing in more people to support us.
LEAVING NEWCASTLE: HARDEST DECISION
A former physio that I worked with at Liverpool, who I remain really close with, Lee Nobes, he put me in contact with Brian Marwood, who’s the Managing Director of City Football Group.
We had a chat and it transpired there was a role within his team that was quite suited to my skillset. It sounds really ridiculous, but leaving Newcastle was probably more difficult than leaving Liverpool, because I felt we’d just started the process.
My relationship with the coaching staff was improving daily, I was understanding more and more what the manager wanted from me, so I was getting to a process where I think we were starting to work more efficiently, more effectively.
It was a really difficult one. My family, I’ve got three young children now and had two young children at the time, and decided to leave because it was a strain. The job was all-consuming, it was seven days a week. Despite being at home some days, the workload was still 10, 12 hours a day.
I know that most analysts in this room, and most people who are recruitment in this room, will understand that is the case [but] it was probably more challenging than I imagined it to be, as someone who has been local in the North West my whole life.
Newcastle was an unbelievable city, but it was just something I found incredibly difficult and it probably affected my ability to perform my job to the level I would have liked to.
I felt as though the opportunity to come to City Group, with the job role I was given, was something I would have been silly to have turned down. It’s a football decision and a family decision and if you pair them together you’ve got a life decision you have to make.
'FOOTBALL CONSUMES YOU'
I was living at home for the three seasons Liverpool were in the Champions League when I was there and I think I saw my wife once a month. I was never home. We had no days off, there was no space within the calendar, and I had two daughters who were under the age of three at the time.
I think that’s ok at the time and I look back at them now, as a six and four-year-old, and think that’s not fair on them. It consumes you, football consumes you. If you want to be successful at the elite level of football, it consumes every part of your life. You never switch off, you can never switch off.
It was very difficult for them, more than it was for me, because I was in a process where I was trying to achieve something and luckily for me I was in a place where we did achieve. I know there are hundreds of staff who are putting in equally as much work, or even more, and not seeing the success.
I knew I was lucky, but I was also mindful that the effect it was having on my wife and children was something I wasn’t comfortable with and that’s global in football, there are people all over the world who are struggling with that every single day and it’s not easy to solve.
I know for a fact if I said to the manager at Newcastle, ‘I need a day’, he would have been more than willing to do it, but you almost feel like you can’t, you’re so driven, you’re so focused on your process that you can’t do that.
I’ve been really lucky. Peter Krawietz, who was kind of the coach-analyst at Liverpool, he would very rarely contact me on those down days, because he was all consumed as well, with the European travel and everything.
If he needed anything, it would be the morning of the next day we were back in, which always gave us enough time to prepare it. That is something that coaches are mindful of, they are all very aware. They are not just football coaches any more, they are leaders and applied psychologists as well and understand the processes.
I think managers understand sometimes you need a bit of time, but the amount of work you need to get through to be successful at that level is more than an individual can.
Because teams are so tight, because its essential to know exactly what they (the managers) are thinking at all times, they keep their groups quite small. And when you do that, you can’t spread yourself into two or three people, you have to do the work yourself, because you know exactly what he is picturing and demanding from you.
HEAD OF COACHING METHODOLOGY
(In July 2023, Leyland was appointed to the new role of Head of Coaching Methodology at City Football Group).
We have 13 teams in the City Football Group. It’s grown pretty rapidly over the last few years, starting with Manchester obviously as the first and flagship team.
The ownership group have expanded across the globe and, as a group, as City Football Services, we want our teams to play with a collective identity or ideology and to do that there needs to be a methodology.
It needs to be founded on objective data and based on fact. My role is to try and align that across the 13 teams within the group. I’m quite new to it, I’m only two or three months into it.
The variety of people within the group and the variety of cultures and languages and identities is so far-reaching that it’s something I’m going into every day and learning something new.
It’s a huge shock to your system when you realise football isn’t just a one-club environment, which is what most of us are exposed to. That’s the bulk of it - trying to align the methodology across the group and trying to work with the coaches and Sporting Directors within the individual clubs to help them understand the way we want to approach football with our game model and training periodisation.
Obviously we have Manchester, who are possibly one of the most attractive football teams we have ever seen. But the stakeholders are from everywhere - the managers who are in our group want to align to the group; the Sporting Directors within our group want to play with a coaching methodology that is similar to something that looks like beautiful football or the City Way.
So there are multiple stakeholders. That comes from the ownership, from the Managing Director Brian, from Sporting Directors, from Head Coaches, from players within the group that we recruit - they are all aligned to the same vision.
It’s a huge funnelling of information into a final point of having 13 teams with staff and players who are all aligned.