Can you teach tactics in a lockdown?

|| And even if you can, would it make a difference? ||

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If an international pandemic wasn’t so awful, it’d be fun to joke about how most teams would love 100 days to plan how to face Manchester City, as Arsenal have now had. That’s 2400 hours, or 1600 matches back-to-back-to-back -- even more if you fast-forward over the stoppages!

Fitness levels have, of course, dropped. Much of the coverage has focused on the physical side of the game, but with so much free time will players have been able to turn to study the sport instead?

Mentions of tactical training in interviews seem few and far between. Gabriel Jesus hinted at something in an interview with the City club website, while being coyer than a koi fish:

“The concept [of our training] is always the same. There are one or two things that have changed, but I will not be revealing them here!

“Pep is creative and intense, so he always has ways to make sure that the players’ fusion always works.”

But that’s pretty much it.

Granted, fitness is an understandable focus, given how much energy is expended being a professional footballer. But given the length of time between the last matches that were played and the ones set to kick-off this week, could this be the most tactically well-prepared we ever see Premier League footballers?

Maybe.

Although there’s been a lot of time to be watching video -- and at least some squads in the English football pyramid have been getting players to review and report on previous games -- not being on the training pitch could affect things. Viewing football on a screen is quite different to experiencing the positions you should be in on the field itself, so there’s no guaranteeing that sending a player clips on their positioning in build-up, say, will translate to them absorbing it in practice.

Making it as easy as possible for them to imagine themselves in those scenarios could be very important then.

“I think the effect can be close to normal training if you can visualise the actions for each player from their perspective as they would have it in a game,” Judah Davies, writer at Spielverlagerung and a coach, told me.

“I think a lot of tactical and decision making things are about familiarity,” Davies said, “particularly given that a lot of them are performed intuitively due to time constraints. So to give the most familiarity, the player needs to be put in the situation in question, and see how it should appear.”

The use of virtual reality systems created specifically for footballers is still in its infancy, but perhaps if a whole team had taken Michael Antonio’s lead in getting a set-up installed in their own home they could’ve had a real advantage. They might not be able to run around, but being able to stand on a pitch (of sorts) and look around as play evolves around them would surely be a bonus.


Along the lines of cutting-edge things in football, read my piece from Christmastime last year, about the silliest things you could do with the most advanced data and tech in the sport.


This is assuming, of course, that the motivation is there. Shadow play -- moving through positions without an opponent -- may not be players’ favourite type training, and with the added emotional and mental complications of lockdown it’d be intriguing to know how many of them would take this up if it were available to them.

Some tactical aspects are presumably easier than others to study and internalise, which could have influenced what players have been up to behind closed doors when the Instagram cameras are off. I imagine that positioning in more static phases of the game is one of these, while counterpressing -- where every situation is different and quickly evolving -- could be harder.

But there’s the elephant in the room: fitness matters. We’ve all seen the early-season (or in summer international tournaments, late-season) games that become increasingly raggedy in the last 20 minutes. Fitness undeniably helps keep fatigue at bay.

“Perhaps if [the break and opportunity for study] was just a couple of weeks, it might be a slight advantage,” Davies said. “But the decrements in fitness will just be too big to balance I think.”

And, importantly, fitness is a cyclical issue. Not only (to put it in simple terms) does the state of being fit mean players can run more, but it allows them to build on their progress more easily.

“The fitter you are the better and/or more you can train with no drop in quality,” Patrick Eibenberger, fitness coach at Borussia Mönchengladbach told me. “This helps to accumulate more quality actions in training. Having said this the second benefit is that usually you recover quicker in between sessions. Therefore being fit benefits you twofold: in a vertical way (within a session) and horizontally (in successive sessions).”

Perhaps, as well as the crowd noise, this interconnectivity is why some of the matches in the newly-returned leagues have seemed a little off. If the benefits of fitness accumulate like this, then the penalties of lack of fitness will surely follow a similar pattern. It might be easy to think of fitness as something linear, like the way they’re shown as status bars on video games, but the effects can be more complicated than that.

It might be convincing, then, to say that the fitness impact of the lockdown period will be far more important than the opportunities to knuckle down and study that lockdown also could have yielded. It wouldn’t be surprising (especially considering some attitudes towards tactical focuses in more traditional parts of the media) if some went further, to say that this is definitive proof that football is more about being fitter and faster than it is about Xs and Os.

But in the realm of physical conditioning as well as the tactics board, it pays to be strategic. Instead of asking about how fitness will affect the gameplan, “you could ask the other way around, like how does my strategy affect fitness training,” Eibenberger said.

“Do I want to follow a holistic periodization model or will I break decision-making strategies into small blocks and overload a certain physical quality more often? It is a little bit like a chicken-or-egg question. The perspective from where you’re trying to observe is paramount.”

I was, perhaps, a little optimistic when I thought that this could be a revolutionary three months in player tactical education. For a start, it’s the coaches who’ll have had the most extra free time. They may have had more time to study, but as far as the results on the pitch go they’ll still be relying on the players to be able to internalise the instructions.

On match-specific matters, there’s also no guarantee that the league’s teams will play the same way when the season begins again. Whether because of fitness concerns on one hand or the opportunity to tweak things themselves, there’s a chance that studying for upcoming opponents based on matches played three months ago is just a slight waste of time.

But it will be fascinating to take a look at these teams in their first games back and play a (very lengthy) game of spot the difference.

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I really enjoyed this vis below from @CrumpledJumper, given that I’m someone who almost exclusively uses Twitter on mobile.

Landscape charts are so often impossible to read on mobile (usually because people make them sitting close to a larger, landscape-orientated screen) but this one is incredible readable.

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