Guide to Analyzing Football Matches

By: Adin Osmanbasic
(twitter: @counterpressing)

Guide to Analyzing Football Matches

This is some insight on how I look at games and I hope this guide can give you the tools
you need to better understand the games you watch.
I will describe things to look for in a match, and picture examples of each thing I list.
However, I couldn’t possibly list every single thing that happens tactically in every single
match. Each game of football is different, there are various different formations, various
different coaching philosophies, and various different players with different playing
characteristics on a field at one time. That’s part of the reason we love the sport though,
because so many different variables go into creating a single football match that its
impossible for two matches to be exactly the same, every game is new so the sport will
always be exciting!

It is important that you understand how positioning and movements affect the game
overall. Learn to watch the game as a whole and understand how each action of a team
causes a reaction and how that affects the game.
Here we have an example of Dortmund playing vs. Bayern in the 2013 CL final,
Dortmund is playing a high line, but their forwards are not aggressively pressing.
are laying
off the
passes into
the Bayern Munich central midfielders, this makes the midfield very congested and
forces Bayern’s defenders to try and play long balls over the midfield in behind the
Dortmund defense to their forwards, or else they would lose the ball in a dangerous
area and risk being countered while they are very disorganized. Dortmund’s
positioning and movement of their defensive line and forwards forced Bayern to
alter their approach in their offensive organization and made them play long balls,
they found Robben in behind Dortmund a couple of times throughout the match.

. so there is a 4 vs. Here we have an example of a 4-42 vs. a 4-3-3 formation in the 2010 CL Final with Barcelona vs. United’s 2 central midfielders (sometimes 3 when Rooney drops deeper.FORMATION MATCHUPS Pay attention to the formations (and change of formations) of both teams and how they match up with each other during a game. As you can see the matchups show that Barcelona have 3 central midfielders (sometimes 4 when Messi drops deeper) vs. 4 situation there. you can also see that United has 2 wide players and 2 strikers matched up with Barcelona’s back 4. but he did a poor job of marking Busquets in this match). Manchester United.

2 advantage in the center of the field with Napoli having 3 center backs on only Mario Gomez. Barcelona and Real Madrid initially matched up man to man in the . Napoli plays a 3-4-3 in this match and Bayern played their usual 4-2-3-1. the interesting part here is that Napoli should have had a 3 on 2 man advantage. The Napoli wide midfielders and Bayern’s wide midfielders matched up man to man. Here we have an example of a formation switch in the middle of a match. This gave Bayern a 3 vs. Their 3 center backs vs. Kroos would make runs from deep unmarked and eventually scored from the edge of the box. and Bayern’s two holding midfielders matched up man to man with Napoli’s 2 central midfielders. in this El Clasico in 2011. Kroos and Gomez. but what Kroos did intelligently was he played deeper as 3rd central midfielder instead of closer to Gomez.Another interesting formation matchup is Bayern vs. Napoli in the 2011 CL.

center perfectly and each had a spare man in defense. .


PLAYER CHARACTERISTICS . moves Sanchez into the center forward position and drops Messi deep into a #10 playmaker role. it is very important to always know how the teams on the field set out to play each other.20 minutes into the match Guardiola switches the tactics. 3 advantage in the center. but it gave them a 4 vs. This formation switch left Barcelona at the back 3 vs. 3 against Madrid’s attackers. He pushes Alves high on the right. These are some examples of formation matchups and how they effect a football match tactically.

Look at the characteristics of each player and how they affect the team’s formation and the opponents positioning. Also notice whether the team is vertically compact or not. if they aren’t compact vertically there would be more space in between the lines and it’d be easier to play through the midfield. Always note the horizontal width of teams that you are watching. they like to drift inside and combine with the central midfielders which makes the Spanish team very narrow up . or very wide. If they are vertically compact the space between all the lines would be very small and hard to play through. Here is an example of Silva and Iniesta as wingers. see if the team is playing very narrow.

top. they occasionally had a tough time breaking through defenses in the Euro 2012 tournament. The width in that team was more so offered from the fullbacks Arbeloa and Jordi Alba. This would leave more gaps to be exploited in between defenders. . In contrast. Having them on the field instead would have more than likely stretched the opponent’s defense wider. but the wingers would be farther away from the central attacker. Pedro and Navas are wingers that prefer to get wide. This forces them through very congested areas in order to break through a defense.


. he had a rule where the maximum length allowed between his attacking line and his defending line would be 25 meters. They were very hard to play through.Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan (The great Milan side of the late 80s) was vertically compact at all times.

this moment is in their defensive organization after extended periods of Arsenal possession.Bayern in 2013 are also vertically compact and great at moving as a as a unit on the pitch. They are very compact and narrow. Arsenal in the 2013 CL away. they are looking to push Arsenal toward the sidelines with their defense. Here we see them vs. and defended as a unit when they got organized. They defended very well in this game. they got back quickly in transition. .

He moves very intelligently in the #10 role. If the holder didn’t follow Kroos wide. .Another good example is Kroos vs. then Kroos knew he could overload the flanks with his wingers vs. In this game he would move wide to drag the single holder with him and leave space to be exploited by Muller. just one fullback. Schalke this season. It is important to watch out for these little positional movements during a game because they can be game changers.

PATTERNS AND PARTNERSHIPS/MINI-SOCIETIES It is also important to notice when certain players have a partnership with each other. . They are more likely to try and create in their striker-partnership than with other players. In a 4-4-2 the front two strikers could have a tendency to try and combine with each other and play 1-2s in behind the defense instead of playing it wide or back to the center. An example of this would be the striker partnership of Manchester United’s Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole in the 1999 season. these two would always look to combine with each other through wall passes or lay offs to attempt to create goal scoring chances for each other.

It is important to notice when a group of players have a tendency to try and link up on the field so it can be analyzed and prepared for properly. . and Jordi Alba played left back in 2013 for Barcelona. Fabregas played left center midfielder. they have certain tendencies/patterns.A group of players close to each other on the field who look to make plays within their group are called a mini-society. Alba would push up the flank and Iniesta would drift inside and these 3 would constantly combine with each other and look to create dangerous offense. An example of a mini-society is when Iniesta played left winger.

or play the ball back to their defenders and keep possession. Notice if teams are good or at defending or attacking goal kicks. who do they like to play it too and what’s their routine? . If they play them long. During kick off look for what a team likes to do most of the time. do they play it down the flanks or in the center? Notice if they have a ball winning player during long kicks. but there are things to look for in each team. If a team likes to play short goal kicks. Maybe they like to play a long ball immediately down the flank and begin pressing immediately. or whether they like to play long or short goal kicks.SET PIECES Set pieces are different for almost every team.

.Here we have an example of how Barcelona like to take short goal kicks if everyone is marked. Barcelona like to take short goal kicks because they are a shorter team and they are more likely to keep this way. while the fullbacks push up very high. Once the center backs are split Sergio Busquets (Barcelona’s holding midfielder) likes to drop in-between them and collect the ball usually not being pressed. We see the two Barcelona center backs split very far apart being marked.

.If Busquets is being pressed he comes deep and drags the defender with him. this leaves the 2 fullbacks. This means that the two center backs and Busquets are all covered. This is usually in numerical favor for Barcelona so Valdes will look for the best option and pass it to them safely. and usually Messi (who likes to play deeper) around the center of the field. the two central midfielders.

When attacking a free kick look at how many players the team usually puts into the box. A 2nd ball is when the initial cross isn’t successful but the ball is still in the area. Notice if the team has any dangerous player who can do a long throw into the box. . Notice if they leave any free men outside of the box to stop set piece plays. and how many they leave behind to defend against the break.Note if the team has accurate and dangerous set piece takers. Note if the team prefers attacking the near or far post. It’s also worth noting if a team is very good or bad at defending counter attacks after a loss of possession during a set piece. They would just have to be watched to understand what they like to do. and if those players like to jump during a free kick. On corner kicks a lot of different teams have different routines. When looking at how a team defends free kicks. and how many players they leave up top ready to counterattack. It is important to note if a team is very aggressive at attacking 2nd balls into the box. and how many players are attacking the corner. around the box. it is important to notice how many players they put in the wall. if they like short corners. Watch for any tricky set piece plays.

Notice if their keeper is solid during set pieces or if he makes any mistakes. When defending corners look if the team is using man marking or zonal marking. .In the 2012 CL Madrid scored their only goal in a 2-1 loss at Bayern Munich in the first leg of the semifinal after leaving 4 players up top and counter attacking after a set piece.

Another important thing to note is that Barcelona never have any players on either of the posts. and not allowing them to get a running jump. Barcelona also usually have 2 or 3 players around the penalty spot about 10 yards out from goal defending any runners into the box. they like to immediately push up and play an offside trap. his job is to cut out and low and short corners that a team might try as a surprise. . because these are the most dangerous areas. and they block any shots from outside of the box. They also have a man sitting just at the edge of the box anticipating a cross cut back into that area.Here we have an example of how Barcelona like to defend corners using zonal marking. They usually put Pique near the front post and Puyol near the penalty spot zone. this is because as soon as the set piece is cleared. and if players were on the posts. They also put a man just in front of the front post man. and the zone around the penalty spot about 6 yards out from the goal. This man is usually Xavi. this would be very difficult to do. Regardless of what the opponent is doing Barcelona like to put their two best headers of the ball defending the front post zone. The other players defending in line with the 6 yard box make sure the back post is covered.

but if the team starts to set up offensive organization in their own half (ball won deep in own half). attempting to dis-organize and unbalance a team that is set up in defensive organization. or they can begin to set up their offensive organization in the opponents half. and Defensive Transition Offensive organization .4 MOMENTS OF THE GAME Pay attention to how both teams react to the 4 moments of a match. Defensive Organization.This is when the team with the ball has settled into possession and begins to build their attack. If the team wins the ball high up the field they can either try a quick counter attack against the unorganized defense. how does the team attempt to progress the ball up the field? . Offensive Transition. Those moments are: Offensive Organization.

drops in between the two center backs and collects the ball and looks to play it immediately forward to one of the fullbacks to progress the play up the field. When the two center backs split.A good example here is when Barcelona are trying to build the play from the back. Sergio Busquets. their goal keeper has the ball and the two center backs spread out wide. which pushes the fullbacks very high up the field. . their holding midfielder.

and if he is a good long and short passer. Do they have appropriate width? are they are too narrow? These are questions you must ask yourself. . Bayern used Neuer very well in their 4-0 victory over Barcelona. Pay attention to how the team in possession attempts to disorganize the defense.Also note that when building from the back if teams like to use their goalkeeper. See if they circulate the ball with good speed or if they circulate it too slowly.

Even if Messi dropped deeper there would be a 4 vs. Barcelona are usually very good at moving the ball with speed and unbalancing the defensive team with the movement of the ball. but that’s where Barcelona like to play. The center of the pitch was very congested. Barcelona. As a result. . Milan played a very narrow 4-4-2 diamond formation vs. the defensive team doesn’t have time to read the passes and set up comfortably. 4 situation in the center.A good example here is how Barcelona attempted to break down the narrow AC Milan side in the 2012 CL.

So what Guardiola did to counter this was he set out in a 3-3-4 formation. Barcelona ended up winning this game 3-1 because they set up their offensive organization very well in order to unbalance this AC Milan side. Barcelona still had the 3 vs. 2 man advantage in defense vs. The central two of the front 4 were Messi and Fabregas. The two wide players allowed for more space in the center for Barcelona to play in and more gaps in the defense to possibly penetrate. giving maximum width and stretching the Milan defense as much as possible. The two wide players in the front 4 (Alves and Cuenca) were always on the sideline. 4 situation in the center when needed. Fabregas would drop deeper to create a 4 vs. . while still supporting the attack. Milan’s two forwards.

. They also have good dribblers who can beat players and drag other defenders out of position. At the same time they have target men strikers like Mario Gomez and Mandzukic who can pose as an aerial threat from crosses and occupy the center backs. Robben and Ribery also provide quick runs that can break through a defensive line with a well timed ball. do they use long balls or short passing? Do they mainly look to cross the ball into the box.Notice how the team looks to penetrate the defense. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery are great examples. or direct dribbling? A good example of a team who can do all of this is Bayern Munich. They have the 2nd best possession % in Europe so they are very good at penetrating defenses with quick passes. Lahm and Alaba also provide runs in behind the defense along with width on the pitch. and their actions can cause an imbalance in the defense. to penetrate with runs in behind the defense.

.Keep an eye out for any tendencies a team may have when crossing into the box. Here is an example of Lewandowski attacking the far post whenever a ball is being crossed in from the left.

or inside into traffic? There are different types of presses. Does the team press or do they aim to sit off and cover passing lanes? Are the defenders trying to pressure the opponents to the sidelines.Defensive organization . Do the pressing team press aggressively in large numbers? Or do one or two players aim to press the ball with the rest covering the nearest passing options? . look at how high their defensive line is. Pay attention to how the opponent sets up on defense. How narrow is the team vertically? Are they allowing space in between the lines? These are some basic questions to ask yourself when looking at a team who is set up in defensive organization. Pay attention to how narrow the team plays horizontally.This is when the team without the ball has settled into their defensive shape and begin to try and stop the opponents attack. attempting to stay organized and balanced while pressuring the opponent into mistakes and regaining the ball.

Once Arsenal are out wide. with their defensive line on the edge of their own box. Pep Guardiola is quoted saying “The sideline is the world’s best defender. They don’t allow any passes in between their lines. Here Bayern have all 10 of their players back defending in a compact unit.” When Bayern were in defensive organization they aimed to push teams against the sidelines and regain the ball. they play very narrow and allow Arsenal space out wide.A good example of a team set up in defensive organization is the example I used earlier. Bayern Munich defending against Arsenal after extended periods of Arsenal possession in the 2013 CL. Bayern shift over as a defense and don’t let them pass back across the field and pressure them into mistake against the sideline. .

Take note of whether the team would rather build their offensive organization or try to quickly counter attack. and which areas of the defensive team are unorganized and open to attack? . or beginning to build their offensive organization. How does the counter attacking aim to attack? Are they immediately and quickly trying to exploit the unorganized areas.When the defensive team regains possession of the ball.Offensive transition . they have the option of either quickly counter attacking if the other team is defensively unorganized.

Barcelona’s fullbacks (Alves and Alba) like to move up very high. Pay attention to what style the team likes to counter attack in. This means that the only defensive players Barcelona have back are Pique. this leaves space in behind them down the flanks for Madrid’s wingers (Di Maria and Ronaldo) to exploit. Puyol. Do they like to counter with a lot of players going forward or do they like to counter with only a few quick players? .Here we have an example of Real Madrid exposing the unorganized areas in Barcelona’s defense immediately after winning the ball in the 2013 Copa Del Rey semifinal. and Busquets. Madrid ended up winning this game 3-1. Madrid’s wingers are extremely quick and were too fast in transition for Barcelona’s center backs and holding midfielder alone.

or plays a good pass for the team to continue the break.Madrid like to play an out ball to Ronaldo usually through the defense. The down side to that is that Ronaldo neglects his defensive duties in order to be in a good position to break and that can be taken advantage of. Ronaldo positions himself to be very dangerous on the break and then he either scores. . assists.

Barcelona like to close down the ball high up the pitch and once they win the ball they are usually around 30 yards away from goal instead of 80. . then they try to quickly break through the defense of the team who just lost possession because they are unorganized.

they usually have a large amount of players around the ball. Some teams might not have the ability to short pass their way out of an immediate aggressive press so they might launch long balls as soon as they win the ball. they have the option of immediately pressing after losing the ball to try and regain it quickly. Those players then immediately try and pressure the team who just won the ball into making a mistake. or the team can get back quickly in transition and set up their defensive organization to try and regain the ball. This can be very risky and lose them the ball very quickly after regaining it.How do they get the ball outside of the pressing zone once the ball is won back? Does the team usually try to play a long ball forward immediately after winning it or use short passing to try and get out of the immediate pressing zone? Once a team has lost the ball. .When the offensive team loses possession of the ball. This is what’s known as a pressing zone. Is the team very organized and hardworking in getting back in defensive transition? If so then team who just won possession might look to build offensive organization more often than trying to counter attack. Defensive transition .

Bayern Munich get back in defensive transition very well so it is hard to counter attack them. They have had an amazing defensive record in the 2013 season and its due to their great defensive transitioning and their great defensive organization. how do they drop back and set up their defensive organization? There are different things certain teams might do when their back line is exposed in transition. Is the team weak in defensive transition and leaves spaces open to be exploited? If ball is lost in dangerous area with defense exposed. others may look to hold their line and catch the opposition offside. . They are also very organized in defensive organization which makes them a very good defensive team. Some may keep dropping back very deep with their back line looking to hold off the attack until the rest of the team transitions back.

this way they still have depth in their defense and can stop most attacks until the rest of the team gets back in transition. The closest defender steps out and presses the ball. and the other 3 form a solid back 3 behind the defender who stepped out. .When Barcelona’s back 4 are exposed in transition. they change formation.

How aggressive is their pressing zone is once the ball is lost? Do 3 or 4 players immediately press to try and win the ball back as quick as possible. Do they all immediately look to drop back and set up defensive organization. . or pressing the ball? If they are too slow they can be exposed. Do they react slowly when switching their mindset to defense and getting back. If you play the same way every game you will eventually be figured out and will begin losing. This makes him difficult to figure out and read. Pep Guardiola is one of the great coaches who can change formations in game and make substitutions in positions where he thinks a player with different characteristics could help the team win if they played that certain position. Pep is just a great example I used. or does the team cover up and make one man press? Notice how the team reacts to losing the ball. He is a coach that is constantly evolving and changing how his team plays while keeping the teams core beliefs. An important thing to look for is how quickly the other team reacts to losing the ball. There are also other great coaches capable of this in the game today. GREAT COACHES The best coaches can analyze all of this in a game and make the right adjustments to their team to give them the best chance of victory. or do they all look to push up and press to win the ball back quickly.