By Tim Nash
Do you ever watch a game and leave feeling you missed something, usually the exact things you came to look for? Have you ever gone to scout a team and come away thinking you haven’t gotten what you need?
You should be able to learn something about every game you see. That’s the nature of soccer. Every match is unique, every player is different and no two situations are ever duplicated exactly.
You also should be able to scout a team and be able to enter a match with that team at least knowing what to expect. There should be few surprises.
There is a science to watching a game, and it involves careful observation, a keen eye and the ability to concentrate on specific areas as well as the big picture. Keep in mind that good scouting can minimize the opponent’s damage. But what are you trying to find out? What do you want to bring back to your team?
You want to be able to expose weaknesses and take away the other team’s comfortable tendencies, says Jim Lennox, coach of Hartwick College. Whatever the other team’s rhythm or pace, you want to get them out of it. To that, you have to assess a team collectively and individually.
Check out the defense
When you look at a game, the first thing you want to do is identify the team shape, starting from the back, says Lennox.
Knowing the formation of a team’s defense will enable you to understand how the opponent can be exposed by your attack. To fully grasp what the team is trying to do defensively, first check out the numbers.
When I look at the defense, I look to see if they play flat across, adds Bob Gansler, coach of the USISL’s Milwaukee Rampage and former U.S. National Team coach. Do they play with a sweeper? Do they play with three or four in the back?
While you are studying the team’s defensive shape, you will get a superficial view of how your own team’s attacking tendencies relate. But there is much more to be determined before you move on. For example, what do the players in the back do with the ball once they win it?
I like to look at team tendencies ” do they like to build it out of the back or go over top? says Gansler. If they have a combination of both, what percentage of each do they use?
In this area, you should also pay attention to what the goalkeeper likes to do with the ball. Does he/she usually throw or punt, and what percentage of the time does he/she do each?
Willy Roy, coach of Northern Illinois and former coach of the NASL’s Chicago Sting, offers another potentially helpful bit of information you can acquire from observing the keeper ” where does he/she set up on corner kicks or free kicks and in what instances is he/she more likely to come off the line? Knowing the keeper’s tendencies can help you decide if you can adjust your set plays to capitalize on his/her positioning.
You can also leave a game with some useful information if you can identify the team’s weak players. For instance, it fits your team’s style to allow them to slowly build it out of the back, but two of the three backs are very capable ball-handlers and distributors. The third back is somewhat of a nightmare with the ball at his feet. By knowing the third back is not very adept with the ball, you can try to force the team to give it to him.
Any time I can get the ball to the opponent’s bad player, I’ll try to do that. There is a reason he is a bad player.
Watch for midfield tendencies
When scouting a team’s midfield, it is perhaps most important to find the impact players. These players are quite possibly the easiest to spot and they will stand out at some point within their team’s first three possessions.
It’s important to find out who the key individuals are, the ones who decide the tempo and pace, says Gansler.
The pacesetters are the ones who are going to require most of your team’s attention, so it is important to study their habits, good and bad.
You need to know if they like to receive the ball at their feet or if they like to run on to it in space, says Gansler. If you know this, you can adjust to take away what they are comfortable doing.
After identifying the key midfield players, move on to see how the players around them are positioned and how they interact with their teammates.
Find out the shape of the midfield, says Lennox. Do they have two center mids, and how do they play together? These are things you can’t get from watching tape.
Watching a game in person also enables you to see more of each player’s nuances. As Roy says, the little things make the biggest differences.
It’s important to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of individual players, says Gansler. A lot of times players don’t know enough about the players they are up against.
There are always one or two players on a team who won’t jump out at you when you sit down to analyze a game. And these are the players who will end up killing you ” the workhorses, the ones who do the dirty work, the ones who start things off in the right direction. What can you do to ensure that you don’t overlook these players?
With a defensive midfielder, you can notice running ability, work rate and someone who is not afraid to go into 50-50 battles, say Roy. You might find someone who can do everything at 80 percent, instead of someone who can do a few things at 100 percent.
Analyze attacking patterns
When viewing a game, you should try to determine the pattern of a team’s attack. Find out where it usually starts and how it proceeds up the field. Maybe it flows up the field in a gradual procession of short passes, maybe the backs ease the ball to the midfielders who thoughtfully seek the goal scorers. Or maybe the ball soars up field with one big bang.
Don’t try to get this information first, however. You should understand the team’s formation before looking at its attacking tendencies.
Once you know the shape, then you look and see how the shape is altered in attacking and defending, says Lennox. Then you are moving into style of play. What are the tendencies? Do they bypass the middle half of the field? Do they use long vertical balls?
You want to see how they achieve penetration, Lennox adds. Are they successful at holding the ball and how? Then look at the block of front-runners ” how many are there and how are they positioned?
When watching the front-runners, it’s a good idea to see what they are comfortable doing, and hopefully, you’ll discover what they are uncomfortable doing. Then you can try to force them into situations in which they are not at ease.
When I look at a team’s attack, I like to see how the front-runners receive the ball and what their tendencies are, says Gansler. Do they like to receive it and go, lay it off to a teammate or play off of other forwards.
As important as what they like to do is where they like to do it.
I look to see if they like to attack down certain sides, or through certain individuals, says Gansler. It’s important to see who the receivers are ” which players they like to play the ball to.
Roy remembers his days with the Chicago Sting and how scouting enabled his team to effectively mark the New York Cosmos star striker Giorgio Chinaglia.
He liked to get the ball on the run on his right foot, says Roy. He would start his run from way out on the left and move into the middle to receive it on his right foot so he was facing the goal.
Knowing that, the Sting was able to force him away from those areas and cause him to try something less effective, Roy’s scouting was effective because he understood not only what Chinaglia liked to do, but he has a good idea of his own team’s strengths and weaknesses.
You know your team’s weaknesses, and maybe you can camouflage them, he says.
You can also provide some helpful information back to your own defenders by paying attention to the front-runners on the team you are scouting.
Players often don’t know the ˜footedness’ of an opponent, says Gansler. If I am marking someone, there are two things I need to know -” which foot he likes to use and how much speed he has.
Studying set pieces
During the course of a game, coaches and scouts should also look for specific trends of the team they are watching. How do they arrange different set pieces, who takes the free kicks, where do their goal kicks usually go, etc.
When Roy was with the Sting, he had an extremely dangerous goal scorer in Karl-Heinz Granitza. Granitza was also deadly on direct kicks from 40 yards in. But Roy held his breath every time Granitza displayed his proclivity at finding the net on a restart.
When Karl-Heinz Granitza took a free kick, he was very effective, says Roy. But when he took a penalty kick he struggled. He could curve the ball around a wall perfectly, and the goalkeeper had very little chance at it. But put him 12 yards in front of the goal with nothing between him and the goalkeeper and that was a different story.
Granitza needed that wall in front of him to be effective. Without it, the shot apparently wasn’t as easy for him.
If someone would have caught on to it, they never would have formed a wall when he was taking a free kick, says Roy.
Editor’s note: Tim Nash is the editor of Soccer News, where this article appeared in May 1996 issue. It was reprinted in the January/February 1998 issue of Soccer Journal. Since then, Gansler became the coach of the Kansas City Wizards and won the 2000 MLS Cup