“He’s great, tactically”. TV-pundits, newspaper writers, and colleagues at the water cooler have all said it about good football players. But do they all mean the same thing? Tactical ability is such a big spectrum of qualities, that it is hard to define what exactly makes one player better than another, tactically. Everyone can see that there is something that makes the player special, but putting your finger on it is harder than it looks. It also works the other way around. A player can be very important to the team, in a tactical sense, without him standing out.  

Most people probably assess a player’s tactical ability by the choices he makes when he’s on the ball. Does he pass forward or backward, does he make a strong tackle or does his opponent dribble past him? That makes sense, because at that time his decisions affect the team performance the most. But on average, a player is only in possession of the ball for 53 seconds per game, according to a study in the Journal of Sport Sciences. That’s less than 1% of a 90-minute match! So judging him by only his on-the-ball actions is hardly fair, but it’s still a very important aspect of tactical ability. And the easiest to assess, for that matter! 

Statistics only incorporate the on-the-ball actions of a player. These statistics can be very useful in determining what a player is good at when he’s in possession of the ball, and some statistics (such as interceptions and blocks) might even indicate that a player has good positioning skills, but they can only account for 1% of what a player does during a match. In the future, systems that can track all players’ movements combined with regular statistics might give better assessments of a player’s tactical ability, but these systems are not used widely yet. Until then, video analysis is the only way of qualitatively assessing a player’s tactical ability.  

With video analysis, a player’s on-the-ball actions and his activity when he’s not on the ball are taken into account. These off-the-ball actions are vital for tactical analysis. So, what are the most important aspects of tactical ability that can be derived from video analysis that can’t be extracted from statistics? If you’ve read our previous blogs you probably know one of the answers already: it’s awareness. That’s right, the thing we’ve been rambling about for five blogs already. But what exactly is awareness and how can we see when a player is tactically aware? 

Being aware in a tactical sense means knowing what situations are developing around you on the pitch. A prerequisite for awareness is observation. You have to see what is going on. Not only look at the ball, but check your shoulders regularly to see the situation behind you. Even when the ball is far away from you, you have to observe the whole pitch to know what to do when the ball does get close. To grant yourself as much space as possible before receiving a pass, you have to look all around you. See this clip of a player we worked with last season checking his shoulders before receiving a pass to position himself as far away from opponents as possible.  

FOOTAGE – Your Tactical Analyst: Mark Diemers

Only observing and being aware of the situation is of course not enough. With the information players receive through observation, they need to act. Processing the information and choosing the right action to undertake is tactical ability. Of course, there are many different situations that require different actions, and a player might be better at recognizing and acting according to one situation rather than another, but whether a player is tactically aware can be determined by the way he observes his surroundings. Does the player only watch the ball, or does he look around him regularly in all directions?  

Mapping the pitch constantly, means you will know where your teammates and opponents are at all times. This can help you make an informed and good decision, especially when you don’t have a lot of time to think. Good observational behavior is key in this. Don’t be a ball-watcher’, check your shoulders and surroundings regularly. The next step is recognizing the situation you are in, using the information you gather with your observations. The right action to perform will then depend on whether you assessed the situation correctly. Performing the right action is obviously important in tactical performance, but observing and being aware of the game is a key factor in this.  

 Written by: Mats de Leeuw den Bouter