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Football performance is judged by analysing video and data from a match, or from many matches.  But do video and data provide all the information we need to judge performance accurately?  I don’t think so.  A vital piece of information is missing: the head coach tactical plan(s).

A team should have a tactical plan.  In fact, it should have at least two: an offensive and a defensive one.  Winning in football is about scoring goals, and stopping the opposition doing the same.  So an attacking plan is needed to specify how to create goal opportunities, and a defence one to prevent the opposition creating them.   But even two plans are not enough. Other plans are needed  to cope with the changing circumstances of the game: winning/losing positions, players sent off or injured, etc.   Decision making may get complicated during the ups and downs of a football match, but the coach who has planned in advance for all (most?) of  them has a better chance of making the right decision, and get an edge on the opposition.

But let’s keep it simple and just look at the attacking and defensive plan.  The attacking plan should specify a sequence of passes aimed at reaching a shooting position.   It should start from a possession and include the position of the players and their movement on and off the ball.  A defensive one would specify what players should do (position, action) when the opposition has the ball.

But… is there a plan?

Although the need for such plan (or plans) seems obvious to me, I wonder what is happening out there, in real football, in the training grounds.  Do coaches make plans to such level of detail? Do they write them down, communicate them to the players, and practise them in training?  Somehow I doubt it: rarely the word plan is mentioned by pundits and media analysts of the game.  A notable exception was after England’s unexpected defeat by Iceland when the manager was blamed for not having one.  Formation is the word that seems to be used in its place.  But formation only specifies position, not action.  Should we then assume that whatever players do is part of a plan, and just judge the execution?

Given a formation, for example,  how can we judge accurately the performance of a midfielder that always attempts  long passes (and loses most of them) when he also had the option of an easy forward pass to his right?  We can’t!   Our stats will show that he has performed poorly.  But without knowing the plan this may be the wrong conclusion.  We don’t know if the coach has instructed him to act in this way. Perhaps the forward is at fault for not taking the right position to collect the passes.  As for the free player on his right, may be the plan says that he should not be there, but yards forward, and thus taking a defender with him, etc. etc…

So, what is the worth of our analysis if we only know what we can see?