Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Context Is Everything When Analyzing Performance In Football

Posted on 25 November 2019 by Alfredo Rodriguez Ruiz

Imagine a hub of football coaches, analysts, experts and researchers from the most prestigious London clubs discussing Performance Analysis in modern football. 

The Suite of Football Programmes at St. Mary’s University managed to do just that, assembling a Football Performance Analysis Symposium earlier in November. Theories and notions of performance analysis in the modern game were discussed. Eight speakers — two of them lecturers at St. Mary’s — presented their research on football performance analysis, the impact of technology in analyzing the game, the role of psychology, and a vast range of notions on how to enhance the performance of footballers. 

Jamie Sellers earned a Bachelor degree in Sports Coaching Science from St. Mary’s University and currently works as an Academy Performance Analyst at Chelsea. Sellers argues the importance of context while analyzing performance before jumping to conclusions.

Sellers’ first example is a graphic on which Premier League footballer ran the most kilometers throughout the season. The former St. Mary’s student said that these type of graphics might be misleading because they ignore whether footballers played during the week in other competitions (European competition, cup fixture or international football) which might affect their tiredness. 

The former St. Mary’s student argues that if the player who ran the most kilometers played 37 out of the 38 games throughout the season, then stating that he is the hardest working footballer in the league might not be accurate because a longer playing time would obviously mean a longer running distance. 

The Chelsea analyst also states that statistics do not tell the story of the game. Sellers urges analysts and coaches to use video instead of data in order to look at the technical and tactical aspects that each player needs to develop and in this way come up with Individual Action Plans for each footballer.

‘As a football club we pride ourselves in the development of young players rather than winning. A common example is playing footballers out of position to expose them to different elements of the game, to build up their general understanding of positional play; all of our players at the club (Chelsea) have Individual Action Plans in which they go around the different areas of performance that they really want to improve,’ Sellers said. 

‘For us in the Academy, results and success aren’t necessarily synonymous so the development we are trying to get (in the players) is our most important thing,’ he added. 

Tom Hounsell is the Programme Director for the suite of Foundation, BSc and MSc football programmes at St Mary’s. He explained about understanding football coaching from a behavioral perspective and stated that there are mediating factors which might affect the behavior of coaches such as their emotions, the time at which practices take place, time of the year and the players they coach. 

Tom Hounsell- Programme Director for the Suite of Foundation, BSC and MSC Football Programmes, U-15 Fulham FC

With the purpose of reducing the gap between what coaches say they do in relation to what they actually do, Hounsell and his team recorded three practice sessions at Fulham Football Club Academy over the course of last season. The sessions covered three different topics (defending turnovers, attacking turnovers and control of possession), took place on three different days of the week, at three different times of the year, after players had played the previous weekend and after they had not. 

The finding was that coaches have a similar behavior over time despite the different situations the team might face and that there is a lot of player-specific instructions on individualized programs in order to embrace the playing identity and philosophy at Fulham. 

Hounsell outlined that sports coaching literature is embedded in space and time. Therefore, besides examining the coaches’ behaviors in 90-minute training sessions and matches, the analysis also took into consideration every coaching behavior from the coaches such as WhatsApp messages, calls and emails. 

Both the coaching behavior analysis inside and outside the pitch is done with the purpose of allowing coaches to be more self-aware, reduce the gap between what they say they do or want to do with their actions, and ultimately engage coaches in critical reflection to enhance their coaching process and player learning. 

Tom Shanks is the founder of Technical Sports Solutions; a performance analysis company which works with the Premier League International Cup, the National Football Youth League,  Fulham Foundation and Fulham Women FC among others. 

Tom Shanks- Founder of Technical Sports Solutions & Coach Logic Account Manager

Shanks said that there are dangers of analyzing games, player learning and development using a single method. He bases this notion on the fact that no two individuals are the same and that each personality in a football team — whether it is a coach or a player — comes from a different background and has gone through different experiences both personally and professionally. 

The Performance Analyst mentioned that the traditional approach of a coach standing in front of a room while players listen ‘certainly has a place’ but should not be the only method of feedback since ‘footballers need to be doing things rather than just watching and being told.’ 

According to Shanks, some of these things players might do instead of receiving traditional feedback include task-based activities such as keeping journals, interactive ten-minute sessions through web apps or social workshops that enhance interaction with their teammates. Shanks says that even these approaches might not be effective for some players and therefore he points out the importance of corridor coaching

‘You might accidentally or purposely bump into the corridor and have a quick chat with them (the players); just engage where they are because some people won’t like the scenario you are trying to create,’ said Shanks

Whether it is through technological efforts, keeping journals, social interaction, task-based activities or corridor coaching, Shanks argues that different methods of learning and analysis have to take place in football teams because it is necessary to build different player profiles since no two individuals are the same.