Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

How I watch football

May 24, 2023 — This is how I watch a football match. I will take you through the first 15 minutes of the Europa League quarter-final match between Roma and Feyenoord to give you a basic view of what I look for.

The first 15 minutes are the most important part of the match for me. This is where I learn the most about both teams. This is when they experiment and reveal their plan. I am looking for patterns and then changes in those patterns.

Figure 1.1 - Roma's in possession structure.

The period immediately after kickoff is always hectic, but once play settles down, I will first determine what structure the team with the ball is using, in this case, Roma.

How long I focus on one team depends on how familiar I am with them or if I’m looking for a change in a particular pattern from a past match.

Figure 1.2 - Feyenoord's out of possession structure.

Once I’ve got Roma’s shape down, I’ll then focus on Feyenoord.

Figure 2.1 - Feyenoord's defensive structure in their own half.
Figure 2.2 - Roma's attacking structure in Feyenoord's half.

I split the pitch into three sections:

  1. Defensive end
  2. Middle third
  3. Final third
Figure 3.1 - Illustration of the three sections of the pitch.

The structure of both teams will change once they enter a different section of the pitch, so I will repeat this process of identifying the shape in each section.

If there’s a break in play or nothing interesting is happening, I’ll write a note on Twitter at @TacticsJournal if I think something is worth sharing. Otherwise, I don’t write anything down or read anything during a match.

To get all of the smaller details, you have to remain fully focused on the match.

Figure 4.1 - Feyenoord counter-pressing in the middle third.
Figure 5.1 - Feyenoord throw-in in their own half.
Figure 5.2 - Feyenoord playing out from the back.
Figure 6.1 - Roma's defensive structure in their own half.

This whole process of identifying the structure normally takes only a few minutes or less; usually within the first five minutes, I’ll have everything memorized. If I’m familiar with a team, then none of this is necessary because things will carry over from the past match.

Once I have the initial structure down, then the fun begins. Now I can fully focus on the players.

Now, we look for changes, new patterns of play, areas of weakness, open space, free players on the edges, or in pockets of space, mismatches in height or speed, and read the body language of players. How does each team react in the four game phases?

  1. Attacking
  2. Transition to attack
  3. Transition to defense
  4. Defense
Figure 7.1 - Feyenoord transitioning to attack.
Figure 8.1 - Roma transitioning to attack.

I zone in and focus on one team. It’s too hard to pick up on the specifics if you try to follow both teams. If a team becomes predictable, then I’ll switch to watching the other team.

If I’m watching a match to scout a specific player, I’ll follow them, but otherwise, most of the time, I will not look at the ball carrier. I watch the other players who are off-the-ball, keeping the ball in my peripheral vision.

Figure 9.1 - What I'm looking at when viewing play; the ball is with the player close to the touchline.
Figure 9.2 - Spotting a free player in space, unmarked.

And then I’ll try to spot players that are free, looking for lapses in judgment from defenders that allow space to open up. Watching player movement off-the-ball to see plays before they develop. I’m looking at who the ball could be played to, putting myself in the shoes of the player with the ball.

Every player and team is different, but most teams will stick with the same shapes. I’m looking for deviations from that shape, who moves where, when, and then trying to identify why. Try to find the things players aren’t doing.

I never comment on a team unless I have watched them play several times, several matches. I can have initial simple thoughts, but it’s impossible to have a full developed opinion without knowing the players.

Profiling the players is more important than identifying the structure, but knowing what the team’s structure is is something I focus on so I can detect changes in patterns of play.

I am not fully familiar with the way Roma or Feyenoord play today, so I’ll refrain from commenting on whether what they’re doing is working or hurting them. I can’t say if a play is good or bad because I don’t have a good enough understanding of the individual players. One player change can completely alter the way any given team performs.

There is no correct way to watch a football match, but this is how I watch.

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