One of the best things a football player can do at any level to improve their overall game is develop an understanding of football tactics, formations, and differing styles of play. Not only will this drastically improve your chances of understanding what your coach wants out of you, but you’ll also be able to anticipate your opponent’s movements and remain one step ahead throughout the 90 minutes.
The most obvious way for football players to gain an understanding of these things is to watch the professionals in the top leagues and see what they do, but how do you know what to look out for when analysing football matches?
The next time you sit down to watch your favourite team, break up your analysis into these areas; formations, style of play, positioning, strengths and weaknesses.
At the core of all football analysis is the team formation. Before the players even step out onto the pitch this can provide hints as to how a team will approach the game. A 4-3-3 formation suggests a side will favour the wings, especially when transitioning into attack. A 4-5-1 might indicate a team will prioritise possession in a compact midfield to control possession.
But during the game, these same formations could all look very different. For that team playing with a 4-5-1 formation, consider if they are playing with two defensive midfielders to provide that extra cover, or if that spare central midfielder is playing in a more advanced role to provide extra numbers in attacking situations. For any team these set-ups may even alternate depending on whether they have possession or not.
Style of play
Spotting these differences in individual formations is key to helping you learn how to identify varying styles of play on the football pitch. But it’s important to note the two aren’t always linked. Regardless of what formation it plays, any team may favour counter-attacking football as their main source of goal-scoring opportunities, particularly if attacking players in the side have the speed to run into those open spaces and run clear through to the goal. However, if key players’ strengths lie in aerial dominance, you may see slower build-up play from a side looking to play out to wide players to deliver those dangerous crosses into the box.
Whenever you watch games, it’s just as important to consider how a team plays when they don’t have possession, as it is when they do have possession. For instance, look out to see how many players take up defensive positions, and whether they are marking individual opponents and applying pressure to the ball carrier, or if they are covering zones on the pitch. Perhaps one or two players stay high, ready for the counterattack. For example, watch how Tottenham Hotspur have played this season under Jose Mourinho. While a signature of Mourinho’s game is having players positioned behind the ball, he has used the attacking partnership of Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min to great effect, with Kane oftentimes dropping into a deeper position to unleash Son’s pace on the counter with the long ball. While Kane’s own goal-scoring ability has been the headline act in previous seasons, this new team role under Mourinho has also showcased his vision and passing ability, and has been the highlight of Spurs’ season.
For players looking to improve on your individual game, pay close attention to those who play in a similar position to you. Which areas of the field do they take up when the team is defending or attacking?
For defensive players, do they play a high line or do they sit deep? Are the full backs more advanced or do they maintain an equal line with the central defenders?
While in recent years at Liverpool, the class of wingers like Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane has helped the Reds challenge for trophies, it was the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson which proved to be that extra ingredient in the 2019-20 season to help them claim their first Premier League title in 30 years. Many fullbacks of the modern era are now unafraid – even expected – to contribute in attack and Liverpool’s strength in numbers with Alexander-Arnold and Robertson always capable of penetrating crosses even from relatively deeper positions means they are always never far away from creating goal-scoring opportunities.
For midfielders, are they looking to provide that extra defensive cover like N’Golo Kante, or are they looking for that killer pass like Kevin de Bruyne? How and where do they receive the ball? And how do they look to distribute the ball to teammates?
For forwards, are they looking to run at the defenders? Peel off the defenders? Or find those pockets in front of the defensive line to receive the ball in space to shoot?
Consider which players have similar strengths and weaknesses of their game to your own, and see how you can replicate their style to make the most of it.
Strengths and weaknesses
Not all tactics are created equal. When analysing football games, it’s important to be critical, even of those professionals playing at the highest level.
Pay close attention to key moments in the game and consider some key points. Did chances or goals come from individual errors, or were there gaps in the team’s structure which were easily exploited? If a defensive player is forced to commit to a challenge or wander out of position, how do their teammates provide effective cover?
Most importantly, as the game progresses, consider how coaches and teams respond to their side’s position. Whether through tactical tweaks or bringing on fresh legs off the bench, coaches will continually demand change if they feel their team is on the back foot. The players that can most comfortably adapt to their coach’s demands as tactics change will ensure continuous selection in the starting eleven each week.