Uncovering the work of football's tactical analysts
Written by Simon Austin — May 4, 2018
AFTER 46 league games, Derby County's season has reached the knock-out stages.
On Friday, they take on Fulham at Pride Park in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final, with a place at Wembley awaiting for the eventual winners.
As ever, Derby manager Gary Rowett will be in the spotlight in the home technical area, but backing him up will be a tactical surveillance network most fans don't get to see and know little about.
High up in the gantry, an analyst will be filming the match with a bird’s eye view. Six other cameras will be dotted around the stadium, capturing the action from a variety of angles. All this footage will be fed back to an analysis suite in the tunnel, just a few strides away from the maelstrom on the pitch.
In there you’ll find Joe Carnall, Derby’s Head of Tactical Analysis, coding clips, analysing action and feeding back to the coaches on the bench. At various points during the game, one of those coaches will dash down the tunnel to consult Carnall in this surveillance centre.
When half-time arrives, Rowett and his coaches will get a quick tactical debrief before giving their key messages - accompanied by video clips and data - to the players. All this is possible thanks to Hudl’s Sportscode, the industry-leading software used by every club in both the Premier League and Championship.
Hudl’s analysis software isn’t just used at the elite end, either. Even Hyde United, of Northern Premier League Division One North, say it's been key to their recent revival, and the US firm has 4.3 million active users and 160,000 active teams.
Although tactical analysis has become incredibly important in football, the work of practitioners like Carnall tends to go unseen by the wider public.
“People see the sports science team warming the team up before the game, and the physios going on to treat players, but we are the ones in the background,” he tells TGG.
We set about putting this right, with a detailed insight from Carnall into what he and his analysis team do in a typical week.
Joe Carnall: “Before the game we will have a meeting in the dressing room, both with individual players and the team as a whole. We tend to use the big-screen TV in the dressing room for team analysis and iPads for individual work. We’ll do a lot on set pieces, how we think the opposition will set up and what we think their tactics will be.”
JC: “We have three tactical analysts for a home game at Pride Park. The first controls the six fixed remote cameras we have covering different angles, and codes technical events. The second will be in the gantry taking a wide angle of the game. The third - me - is in the analysis suite, which is at the end of the tunnel, next to the home dressing room, near the dugouts. For an away game, there will be two analysts - myself and a colleague - and we’ll both be in the gantry.
Up there we get a much better representation of where the space is and what the shape of the teams are than from the benches, where the coaches are. The quality of gantry positions varies a lot, although we’re lucky to have a great view from ours at Pride Park.
I code everything live using Sportscode. This gives me a live feed of the game and within a second I can be watching a clip back and feeding it to the manager and coaches. I code tactical stuff, which will include events like shots, goals for and against, but also a lot more in-depth stuff too. From the preparation we’ve done during the week, I’ll have an in-depth knowledge of what we expect the opposition to be doing.
Someone will also code technical events – where the ball spends the majority of the time, where possession is won and lost, where shots come from, passes and so on – and we feed that back live during the game as well. That means we can give the coaches numbers. So at half-time they can tell the players, ‘The opposition usually give the ball away 10 times in their defensive third, but we’ve only won it four times.’
I’ll be mic’d up to the bench, giving a lot of tactical feedback to the manager and the coaches in terms of shape and space. The coaches can also come straight into the analysis suite to look at events during the game. If we’ve conceded a chance or goal or I feel there’s space we’re not exploiting, they can see exactly what I'm talking about. It means we’re having an input into the game and that's always positive.
As a tactical analyst, the most important things are an understanding of the game and a really good relationship with the coaching staff.
I first started working with the manager at Birmingham and we have a really good relationship. He codes and buys into what we’re doing.
At half time, the manager will come into my suite before he addresses the players. I’ll show him a few bits of analysis and that can be fed that back to the players on the TV in the dressing room. Usually it will be a case of ‘this is what we asked you to do before the game and these are examples of us doing it well and not so well,’ and ‘these are examples of the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and where we’ve exploited them and how we can do it better.’
If it’s an away game, I’ll cut the feed from the gantry two minutes before half-time and come down ready for when the manager and the players come into the dressing room. We always try and use tactical analysis as a positive tool rather than a way of criticising. You get a lot more buy-in from the players if you do it like that."
JC: “I’ll put my timecode on the manager's Macbook after the game and he'll also code elements of a game himself. We will combine our timelines together and the manager will review them at home. A lot of young coaches have had a taste of analysis as part of their education. A good analyst is still needed to guide them, because it’s easy to go down the wrong channel as the software is advanced, even though it’s straightforward to use. This is why the relationship between the manager and analyst is so important.
Sportscode is extremely user-friendly, despite its power. You can tailor it for what you want to do. Post match it’s easy to access the clips and the turnaround time is quick. It’s also compatible with different software. Someone who’s new to analysis could use it after a day’s training if they’re doing things properly. Time is really at a premium for an analyst, which is why everyone in the analysis world uses Sportscode.
The analysis team will feed back to the coaches on a Sunday. Our video clips will have been exported as data, which we call XML files. Sportscode knows how many shots there have been on target, for example, from the number of times I’ve hit that macro on my keyboard. It converts that into data in an Excel spreadsheet. So you have video clips and accompanying data.
On a Monday, we’ll go into unit reviews with the players and analyse their performances. They get tactical information along with physical and technical data.
Analysis within the media tends to be used to show a lot of negatives but in football clubs it needs to be used as a positive tool. It’s hard to get buy-in from the players but it’s easy to lose it. You have to give them a fair reflection of what the game was about, because modern players are very intelligent. You can’t fool them, you have to be completely transparent with them. Whenever we feed back, we make sure we are showing them as close to correct as possible.
All the meetings and the information we’ve used will also be available to the players via an app the club built. This means the players have access to everything to watch in their own time and they might then come back to a coach or analyst for more 1 v 1 feedback."
JC: “Our preparation for the next game will start seeping through to the players on a Tuesday. We’ll start giving them little snippets about the opposition. We’re lucky that our owner (Mel Morris) is very into his tech, so there are TVs in the dressing room, in the corridors. This means we can start to subconsciously get things into the players while they’re moving around the training ground.
As an analyst team, we will probably watch up to 15 of the opposition games during the week. Our opposition analysts will have been coding opposition games through Sportscode. On Tuesday, we have a big meeting with the coaches and manager. That might be 50 minutes long and include clips from six or seven of the opposition’s games.
Thursday and Friday are ‘prepare to perform’ days. Before the players train on Thursday, we give them a condensed summary of what we’ve been looking at, so they know that the training and drills are match specific. We will also show them where the opposition might find weaknesses in our system and how we can negate that. This is the process if the next game is on a Saturday, but it’s more condensed if the game is on a Tuesday.
I started working as an analyst at Birmingham City in 2006, when I was 17. Analysis was in its infancy then and we were still using DVDs and VHS. It’s moved on unbelievably since then. Whenever anyone asks me about starting a career in analysis, I say go to Uni and get your degree. Knowledge of football is key too, and a massive work ethic, because of how much you have to commit yourself to the job and the effect it has on your social life.
You have to have a passion for the game and watch a lot of football. Listen to the people you’re working with as well. I’ve been lucky to work with different managers with different philosophies and you learn a lot from being around them.”