“We had 18 corners though.” A regular, post-match exclamation on the back of yet another poor performance. That the result of the match was a 2-0 defeat, and the particular stat used to try and impart any kind of positive spin on a poor day at the office, has no relevance to the scoreline, seems lost on a manager under pressure. Press conferences reek of irony, as journalists gleefully thrust microphones under quivering chins, and all manner of recording devices sit on the table in front, blinking red and occasionally bleeping, just to let him know they are taking note of every, single word, awaiting the ‘foot in mouth’ moment that captures the headline.
It’s a self-preservation mechanism of course. No one likes losing and everyone, even the best, like to find excuses for doing so. The last thing you want to do when you go in front of the press after the game (although it would be refreshing to hear it more often) is hold your hands up and admit you were shit. They know their observations will be the following days headline and this is their opportunity to convince you, the punter, that what you’ve just suffered and just about managed to make it through ‘til the last, harrowing, minute of the 90 without losing your voice, wasn’t actually as bad as you thought. He clearly doesn’t realise that you’ve only just managed to keep your precious, 25-year-old ceremonial scarf that has seen many, many similar defeats over the years, around your neck rather than lob it trackside, frustrated at the lack of invention and quality from the aforementioned corner after corner.
Mark Twain summed it up perfectly with his immortal observation; ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics’ and in an era where we have more close up cameras than a Ron Jeremy movie, video analysis and the information gleaned from it have become both a useful tool and a comfort blanket in equal measure.
On a weekend where several managers have lost their jobs, it is far more important in my opinion that managers look beyond the stats. Fans will quickly see through an attempt to pull the wool over their eyes. One defeat in six, will suddenly become one win in seven on the back of another loss the following Saturday when the run contains four draws and they’re fed up with your defence losing soft goals and suffering through yet another drab, performance.
Whilst stats should NEVER be used in an attempt to cover up a poor run of results, or another defeat, there is no doubt that video analysis and the information gathered should be used in order to gain any type of advantage you can when preparing your team for a particular challenge. Indeed, as I alluded to last week, if you’re not using whatever means you can to give your team an edge, you are being contemptible. One incredible thing that came out from the weekend was that Liverpool players, under Jurgen Klopp, are running on average more than 1km more per game than they were under Brendan Rodgers. An incredible statistic at any level and I’ll leave you to make of it what you will.
But how do you use the information and the endless hours of analysis to your advantage?
As soon as the weekend’s match is finished, your mind immediately turns to your next opponent. As the manager suffers his way through the after match press conference, the assistant will usually be finding out who’s fit, who’s suspended and who’s likely to be available for the following Saturday. The video analyst will be sought out (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and a copy of the game you have just watched will be despatched into the Louis Vuitton (Primark) toilet bag.
You use every possible resource you can to gain an advantage and in Scotland, outside the big guns, things are ALWAYS done on a budget. We used our contacts at Dundee University to have intern production media students, film games for us. We were fortunate that the great Dundee broadcaster Dick Donnelly’s son Ian, a Dundee fan, had developed a sports analytical programme called Focus, that was being used by sporting organistaions worldwide, and we used our Dennistoun charm to convince him to procure his services for the best of ‘mates rates.’
All of this meant that by 6pm on a Saturday as we left the ground, we had DVD copies and a laptop programme of the match that highlighted everything from corners, free kicks and set-plays to turnovers, attacking plays and defensive situations.
Sunday nights would be spent poring over hours of video action, pulling what little hair I had left from its roots and screaming at defenders on the laptop screen. Taking notes in order to highlight individual errors and moments our ‘shape’ was awry and left us vulnerable. Our defenders must have dreaded the sight of me walking toward them, with laptop under one arm and pen in paper in the other before Monday’s training, seeking out that week’s hapless combatant. Because that’s it you see, players rarely enjoy video analysis, because there’s no hiding place. You scream and shout after a game and tell a player where he has gone wrong and they will stand up and deny it ‘til the cows come home, but when they are presented with the evidence in full, high definition, there aren’t many who would still argue that they weren’t picking the guy up who has just scored the last minute winner.
We also had two ex-managers – John McCormack and Dennis Newall – watching our following two weeks opposition. By Sunday night we had a dossier on them and by the time the players had arrived for training we had a match report sitting at their place, preparing them for the week ahead and giving them an idea of the opposition, their shape and their patterns of play.
We’d do deals with opposition coaches and swap DVD’s of matches, to give us a further insight into how they would play. We’d use the highlights on the BBC website. Club websites provided the most comprehensive coverage of previous games but were often password protected, but I’d use my contacts at the college to gain access to those clubs sites I used to work with, all so I could use the information to gain a little more knowledge of our opponents. To gain that extra one percent.
If they’d scored a lot of goals from crosses we might need to sacrifice our full backs and ask them to go tighter on wide players, giving centre backs greater than normal responsibility. If they scored a lot of goals from set pieces, we’d play higher up the pitch to avoid giving them away in more dangerous areas and if they lost goals as their lumbering defenders struggled with balls in behind, we’d have to consider playing with our quickest striker. Even though he often played like a braindead corpse. That’s why manager’s sometimes make changes in personnel that you, as a fan, never understand and play players seemingly out of form, or bring people in from the cold. Because the stats, and the knowledge and influence of video analysis, told him to do so.
And then, after Monday training, armed with more stats than a mathematician explaining Pythagoras Theorem and a video presentation George Lucas would have been proud of, we’d go through everything. What we could improve on, what we should have done better, what couldn’t have been any worse, the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses and then, the formulation of the plan and how we, as a group of warriors, are going to beat them.
What was also important was always to finish on a positive. A 10-minute montage of all the good play, crosses and goals. Last ditch slide tackles and crunching challenges, alongside bullet headers and periods of dominance, would have them bouncing back out of the door feeling great about themselves again, without realising they had just been battered over the head with Captain Caveman’s club for the first hour. All that was missing was a Haka.
I sometimes wished we could have gone out and played the game there and then on the Monday afternoon.
And that’s why, on Monday night, Jose Mourinho said that he felt ‘betrayed’ by his players.
He had given his team all the information they required to win the game and had prepared them as best he could. Warning them of the opposition’s strengths and encouraging them to exploit their weaknesses. He had given them everything in the hope that they could turn that one percent in their favour, that the small margins, so often blamed by managers for a run of defeats, can be minimised to such an extent, that they take on little, or no significance.
But the game isn’t played by pen and paper, nor can it be won on computer screens with elaborate video presentations. It’s played by footballers, and whilst there is no question stats and analysis are a key element of modern day football, please don’t credit them for winning, never mind losing a football match. In doing so, you might just find you become just another statistic yourself.
My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available from http://www.tecklebooks.co.uk on all formats and from most good book shops.
All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell