Identifying Tactical Issues

I get asked an awful lot on how I identify issues while watching games and how I fix them. Firstly identifying the issues is of the most importance because if you haven’t or can’t identify issues then you’ll never have an idea of how it might be possible to fix them. People often say I don’t know how to identify issues because of their lack of understanding of the game but in all honesty you don’t need an understanding really. You just need to watch a game it really is that simple. Hopefully what follows below will show you how simple it can be and doesn’t need to be as daunting as people think it is.

When I am trying to spot issues I keep it very simple and split it into two categories;

  • With the ball
  • Without the ball

That’s it, nothing more. I don’t even pay attention to what the opposition is doing which is what people seem to get hung upon and confuses the situation. The reasons for not paying attention to the opposition is simple, it will always be different in every match so instead of focusing on an area that is always changing I’d rather focus on my own style and philosophy that I am creating at the club. This then allows me to focus on what my players are or aren’t doing during a game which is a lot more helpful that focusing on the opposition. By also doing it this way it allows me to focus on my team as a unit and see how all the roles, personal instructions, team instructions and the general shape all work together to provide the defensive cover and attacking threat that I need.

The reason for splitting what I am looking at during a match into with and without the ball is because it shows us what’s happening during different phases of the game. Just because you defend solid or cause the opposition a massive threat in the final third, doesn’t mean you have balance and can do both simultaneous. It also makes it very quickly to identify issues because you have a lot less going on.

Without The Ball

When viewing games and looking for what my players are doing without the ball this includes both defensive and attacking phases. So immediately you can see the positions the players take up when defending as well as seeing how they move off the ball when attacking. I’ve banged on about this for the past 10 years but the most important aspect of trying to identify these issue is using the pause button. Pause the game at random stages throughout, to see what positions the players have taken up and to enable you to see what is happening around them. Not only that but also use different camera angles to view things as it gives you a much better picture of what’s going on seeing incidents from a different view.

That’s a little example of what I am talking about, after randomly pausing the game to have a look around. You can see my back four just in front of the white line and the three circled players are my midfielders. As you can see my three midfielders are quite narrow leaving the flanks exposed. I could panic here and see this as an issue or I could remember that the formation I use is a 4-3-1-2 so the midfield being narrow isn’t a bad thing. This is just one angle though, what does it look like from a different one?!

That’s the exact same as the first screenshot just from a different angle. In the first one, it looks like I’m more stretched than I actually am and that the opposition could really exploit the flank if they wanted. But the second screenshot shows it in a different light and shows that while the flanks might be uncovered, I’m anything but stretched and players are in a position to be able to deal with any kind of threat down my left hand side. There really isn’t a point to this example, it was more showing you how pausing the game and viewing from different angles can be beneficial and show you things in a different light.

Let’s take a look at some examples now that show how we can try to identify issues.

This is again another random time in the game were I paused it when we didn’t have possession of the ball.  You can see my midfield and how they are position as well as seeing the defence and how they line up. As I use a flat three in the centre of the park, the space between defence and midfield will be an issue as I don’t play with a particularly high line. So the opposition will at times be unmarked and free in these kinds of areas. It’s not ideal but it’s the downside of using a flat midfield. The most central midfielder who is on a defensive duty will drop back deep and track though. It’s just initially he won’t be as deep as someone who plays in the defensive midfield position.

My ball winning midfielder should be able to deal with the oppositions wide player in this screenshot as he’s facing the correct way and already running back. Plus my wingback is in a good position and is also retreating to a deeper position meaning my defensive players are all playing as a unit and staying tight rather than pushing higher up and causing gaps to appear. If my wingback did push up a bit higher you can see that the opposition player who is circled would have lots of space to run into in the little channel between wingback and central defender. I’d be surprised or very unlucky if the opposition could hurt me from here. I have the numbers advantage and have players able to deal with the threat. It would take something rather special to cost me here (or an individual error I suppose).

If you do this with your own systems then you should try to remember how you’ve set up, what roles you’ve used and even personal instructions and then check to see if you have players positioned where possible danger areas from the opposition could be. In fact, I’ll use the same screenshot as above but this time I’ll just focus on the areas the opposition could possibly use against me, as that might help a few people out who are struggling with identifying issues.

The screenshot looks a bit messy but hopefully I can explain the reasonings behind it correctly so it makes sense.

1 - This player can hurt me by running from deep especially as my own wingback is facing away from him and moving back. My ball winning midfielder is also facing towards my own goal, so he is blindsided by the opposition here. This means that the oppositions wide man has free run unless something changes here. Deep runners are always hard to pick up for anyone. This isn’t a worry for me though because do you remember me saying I ignore the opposition at the beginning of the article? Well I do so because my side are set up to play a specific way and I want them to play as a cohesive unit rather than trying to deal with things themselves. This means at times that I will easily give up space like this because to deal with it would mean straying from what I am creating and how I’ve set up to play. I do have players positioned to deal with him as highlighted in the part above though. It’s just I don’t need to rush to deal with the issue.

2 - Although the opposition's player who is marked number three in the above screenshot is facing away from this player and heading the opposite way, he is still a threat for the same reasons as the example above. He’s a late runner and he might not be an immediate threat but if he drives forward then he could be problematic later in the move. So when looking if something is a threat or an issue, be aware that players making late runs can be very problematic later in the move. So not only are you looking for immediate threats, you are looking for possible threats too.

3 - Everything that will or won’t happen in this move all starts here as he’s the player on the ball. This player can either dwell on the ball and pick a pass to either the number four and make a forward run or pass to the number one. Another option here is he could drive forward with the ball himself, he has the space initially to do this. He can run with the ball in two different directions though and both would cause different kind of issues. One is he drives towards the touchline which could potentially cause an overlap if the opposition's player who is marked number one, carries on his run. I think this option is unlikely but we still need to identify that it is possible. The other option is he runs between the wingback and central defender and if he did do that then space would open up elsewhere on the pitch because my wingback would become more narrow and come across to deal with it. While at the same time this would mean the player with the number one on the pitch, would be totally free for a simple sideways pass.

4 - This is the problematic player because he’s the runner and he could go whichever way he wanted, so you can’t really plan for that type of movement. Even if he makes a run and doesn’t receive the ball his movement will still have caused some kind of damage because movement creates space appearing.

So those are the types of things you should be looking for. It’s not complicated and when trying to identify issues just remember not to over think it and keep it to simple terms and be as basic as possible. Is someone a runner? If so they’ll cause movement and what happens if someone goes across to cover, does this then leave a gap that the opposition could use?! Those are the kind of basic questions you should be asking. You don’t need any knowledge of football to really understand the simple things, you should be able to identify stuff easy.

I know the above is just two short examples but it still should be more than enough to show you the basics and how you should be viewing games when looking to find possible issues or trying to discover why something might have happened.

With The Ball

This is just as easy as the above but remember you want to look at the positions of the players not on the ball too as everyone who is currently on the ball needs support.

This is just a typical move started by my left wingback. It’s important here that I can gauge the kind of areas my players are taking up. If my attackers and midfield are too advanced then how do I get the ball from the wingback to the attacking players? It would be a very hard task and would likely result in me giving possession away. So it’s important I have options and players who are capable of linking play up, it means the move can flow if everyone is staggered.  As you can see my two strikers are positioned high which is their job and the attacking midfielder is hanging back in space the same as my advanced playmaker. The strikers are already being a nuisance due to their movement and looking to run in behind already. Gilberto is the player currently on the ball, so now he can either move forward if he wishes and tries to take his man on (this option would be a waste though seeing how I have control over the middle) or he could easily pass it inside to the advanced playmaker. He could technically drive forward a bit and still pass sideways.

That’s the exact same move but just from a different angle. The aerial view shows how much space the advanced playmaker and attacking midfielder have to play in. They have space and time so if they did receive the ball they should be able to dictate the play. You’ll also notice that there are three triangles too that the players create between each other which also allows for link up play.

Advanced Playmaker  - He is a creator so it’s highly unlikely he’ll get into the box that often or be a direct goal threat. So if he picks the ball up he will be looking to make something happen in terms of a pass or some kind of through ball. He might dribble forward but if he does he is still likely to release the ball to someone else at some stage because he is a creator above all else. He has plenty of options though for a pass or through ball so this is good and shows he is taking up the positions he should be taking up.

Attacking Midfielder - This lad does a bit of everything but he is a runner and a direct goal threat because he will look to make those run in behind the defence and get into the oppositions box. he’s basically central to everything in attack and is an option for the advanced playmaker to so he isn’t crowded out.

Deep-Lying Forward - Not only is he a goal threat but he is a creative striker. But in this move he is both a direct goal threat and also a decoy. He’s a decoy because he is occupying one of the two centre backs which means if the attacking midfielder makes a run forward the opposition have a choice to make. Do they step up and deal with him or leave him be to carry on marking the deep-lying forward? Either decision they make is the wrong one as it means I have a free man. For me it’s win win.

Advanced Forward - The exact same as above, he is occupying the second opposition central defender. Again he is both a decoy and goal threat because he is making a run and can be available for a pass if needs be. So he has a dual role in this move.

All of the above are what working as a team and having roles and duties that compliment each other is all about. So pausing the game has allowed me to see that they are indeed functioning as a unit rather than individuals, which I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t watched games back and paused at random times.

I know I’ve only really used one example of each but if I keep showing more examples I would be here all day long just repeating what I’ve wrote above so rather than waffle on I thought I’d keep it rather short to just give you an idea of how you can simplify things for yourself and spot potential issues or to see if your side is working both in attacking and defensive phases of play.

5 thoughts on “Identifying Tactical Issues”

  1. While this article is pretty great, I still seem to not be able to spot problems. Or I should say I don’t know if I’m spotting the problems.

    Whenever I go about trying to spot problems I do feel like I spot problems but when I then try to fix them, either the fix does nothing or the problem maintains but I can’t find more issues. That’s when I’m getting the idea that I’m trying to fix problems that aren’t problems or am simply missing something.

    It also doesn’t help they I mostly don’t have a good idea of how exactly my team likes to play.

    1. If you don’t know how you want to the team to play then how can you possibly fix issues? You can’t really. In order to fix issues you need a vision of how you want to play and the style of football you want to create. Then and only then does fixing issues and spotting them become much easier.

      Without knowing how you want to play, then any changes you make are just for the sake of it and with no end goal in sight. It’s confusing for most parts. That’s why you should always have a basic general idea of how to play, it simplifies the game in the way you view them and spot potential issues. It also makes any changes easier too. For example if I was playing a possession game and wanted my midfielder to hold his position and redistribute the ball frequently, if I watched a game and saw he was being more advanced than I like then I’d know I would need to make him deeper , so I’d look at a duty change or a role that sits deeper. Then reevaluate again afterwards. Start with small changes don’t do drastic ones. And try not to many many changes at once because then it becomes too hard to keep track of what is working and what hasn’t.

      1. That sounds completely reasonable, the problem is how do I start with something like that? Have any tips about that or even an article?

  2. Cleon hi! Help me please, i don’t know how to beat narrow formations 🙁

    they always use high intensive zonal pressing, and I can’t do anything, my players just kick the ball to the wings, in hopes striker or winger can catch it (mostly not).

    my formation doesn’t matter, because i always have same issue, playing 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1.

    For example now i play 4-4-2 vs 4-3-1-2, and when we try to build our attack from the back it looks like this: my left FB with ball pressed by opponent ST or MCR easily, and he don’t have enough time to make something. My ML tight marked by opponent defender. My DMC rarely got the ball because opponent have 4 central midfielders. My FB just don’t have enough options to do something.

    They always use vs me very high defensive line and tight marking. You said – watch where they leave space and exploit it. But only space what they leave – behind their defensive line… i feel hopeless.

    Please give me idea what to do in this situation.
    Thank you.

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