By Dan Duffield
In the first part of this series, we explored why coaching and performance teams should work backward from their desired style of play to assess game day demands, and then use an athlete management system to monitor development of the physical qualities necessary to execute the game plan.
Now let’s shift focus and examine how an opponent’s playing style and data insights about their recent performances can inform tactical adjustments that increase the chance of success in competition.
The research I’ve done and evidence I’ve seen among teams in multiple sports suggests that the brief time between games precludes major adjustments in physical preparation, at least if developing traits like speed, strength, and power to any meaningful degree is the aim. Even if coaches were to completely change up their group practices and strength and conditioning sessions, the few days or week before the next game would be insufficient to improve players’ physical characteristics in the next game, not to mention the risk of increasing training loads.
As such, I believe coaches’ time is better spent making tactical changes based on analysis of their opposition’s playing style and game day performance statistics, and that an Athlete Management System (AMS) like Smartabase can assist in such analysis and preparation.
More Games, Less Downtime
In most sports today, there are increasingly small windows of time on the calendar once the season is underway. And in some leagues, players must compete domestically, in inter-country club competitions, and play for their countries.
Thomas Tuchel, who recently led Chelsea to a Champion’s League title over Manchester City, summarized the crowded fixture schedule as “More, more, more games.”[i] He could have easily added “Less, less, less breaks,” because where the former is true, so is the latter.
There are several results of this “more games/less rest” scenario. From the performance and coaching staff’s perspective, it places greater emphasis on squad rotation, load management, and minimizing the risk of injury as much as possible. We’ll explore these more physical ramifications of dense competitive calendars in a future article. Just as significant are the tactical considerations of playing a lot of games in a short amount of time with minimal interludes between them.
This makes it more important than ever for teams to not only have insights into the performance of their own roster, but also to assess each opponent in as much depth as possible. Opposition analysis must be both thorough and fast as any insights gleaned need to be put into context and applied as quickly as possible if they are to have any bearing on team preparation before the next game.
Informing Tactical Preparation
To this end, an AMS like Smartabase can be very useful. Such a platform is often thought of in terms of how it assists with tracking physical capabilities but can also be wielded to inform tactical elements of each game day preparation plan.
For example, some leagues make competition data publicly available, while others have third parties tracking how far and fast players ran, the number of times they ran certain plays, and so on. If a performance staff can obtain access to such metrics obtained via GPS, game film, and other athlete tracking methodologies, they can use Smartabase or a similar system to compare these statistics against the recent performances of their own players.
A lot of opposition analysis is conducted in the offseason and intensified when the league releases the match schedule. At this earlier stage, combining such assessment with targets tied to how your team intends to play can still influence physical preparation, as there’s still enough time to fit in a significant training block or cycle before the season opener.
However, prompting different physical adaptations will take several weeks at the minimum and sometimes up to two or three months. Which is why once the competitive calendar kicks in, the emphasis of opposition analysis should switch to tactical changes that can be implemented for individual opponents.
Doing so can serve several purposes. First, it will highlight any mismatches that exist. As Cameron Josse wrote in an article for SimpliFaster, “While maintaining team principles, coaches might recognize a dominant quality in the opposing team that needs to be mitigated, such as the threat of a game-breaking player. Coaches might also find a limiting factor in the opposing team that can be exploited, so they can design tactics to take advantage of this.”[ii]
For example, the upcoming opponent has a fast striker who might exploit your slow center back in, or your rugby team’s small forward line is likely to be out-muscled by the other team’s larger pack. Knowing such things in advance can lead a coach or manager to switch up their starting lineup or substitution pattern to make matchups more advantageous.
Data-driven in-season opposition analysis can also help a team identify its opponents’ weaknesses. If you see from game stats that a team allowed opponents to score or create scoring opportunities when faced with a certain kind of offense, then it’s likely your team will find similar tactics to be effective. In contrast, if the opponent played stingy defense against a different play, then it might be best to avoid running this kind of offense too often as it’s unlikely to yield dividends.
Consistent Principles, Adaptive Tactics
This isn’t to say that a team should completely abandon its game plan or preferred style of play. The most dominant squads in any sport have confidence that they will be able to execute their offensive and defensive schemes no matter what opponents throw at them and prepare accordingly. As Bruce Lee once said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
Yet the best teams aren’t inflexible either. They understand that their strategy will likely be effective against most opponents, but their tactics might need to change slightly. In a paper published in Movement and Sports Sciences, researchers identified this important difference by writing, “While strategy appears to be linked to a long-term perspective, tactics represent the short-term adaptation required by the developing situation.” In other words, your style of play can be similar throughout a season, but you can make game-by-game adjustments[iii].
Let’s look at how a dominant basketball team might maintain its overall strategy while individualizing its tactics based on opposition analysis. The Golden State Warriors’ goal in any game will still be to pass the ball freely and get Steph Curry and Klay Thompson a lot of three point shot opportunities, but if they know an upcoming opponent closes out well at the three-point line, they will need to run plays that misdirect wing defenders to create space for their best shooters to operate.
Continual opposition analysis can prove even more useful when two teams are unevenly matched. For example, if a club from a lower division played against Manchester United in the FA Cup, they would likely be overwhelmed if trying to take on the likes of Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, and Marcus Rashford in open play. So even if they typically played a more free-flowing style against teams in their own league, they might evaluate United’s recent game stats and see that they’d be better off changing their formation to contain the most talented offensive players and then hit them with counterattacks when possible. Perhaps such analysis reveals that United tends to concede goals just before or after halftime, so the players can be prepared to exploit this vulnerability.
Maximizing Strengths, Minimizing Weaknesses
In other words, with game-by-game opposition analysis, it’s advisable to use data to assess an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, match these against your own, and put personnel head-to-head. Doing so will allow your staff to mitigate the impact of the competitor’s desired style of play, while allowing you to maximize the positive outcomes of your own game plan. Your principles will remain the same from week to week, but your tactics and lineup might well change.
An AMS like Smartabase will enable you to make better tactical decisions by allowing comparison between your players’ performance and that of their upcoming opponents. While physical preparation will remain largely unchanged from game to game, the AMS will also enable the performance staff to closely monitor the preparation of the team, identify any players who appear to be overloaded, and add such considerations into the head coach’s planning for the starting lineup, formation, and substitution pattern.
From a physical standpoint, the information that an AMS visualizes also keeps everyone up to date on the status of injured players, their return-to-play timelines, and the overall readiness of the squad. When combined with data-centric opposition analysis, this monitoring approach will ensure your team is as prepared as possible to execute your game plan and thwart your opponent’s aims.
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[i] Brian Phillips, “Soccer’s Endless Season,” The Ringer, June 8, 2021, available online at https://www.theringer.com/2021/6/8/22523267/uefa-euro-2020-champions-league-expansion-soccer-endless-season.
[ii] Cameron Josse, “The Four-Coactive Model of Player Preparation,” SimpliFaster, available online at https://simplifaster.com/articles/four-coactive-model-player-preparation/.
[iii] Martinus J Buekers, Gilles Montagne, and Jorge Ibáñez-Gijón, “Strategy and Tactics in Sports from an Ecological-Dynamical-Perspective: What is in There for Coaches and Players?” Movement and Sports Sciences, January 2019, available online at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335848846_Strategy_and_tactics_in_sports_from_an_ecological-dynamical-perspective_What_is_in_there_for_coaches_and_players.