Hugo Sarmento, Antonio Pereira, Maria T. Anguera, Jorge Canpanico, and Jose Leitao

The Big Idea

What separates this research paper on coaching football from so many coming before it is the decision of method.  If you are looking for yet another theoretical and quantitatively-driven model of how coaches should coach football, keep looking.  In this paper, the reader will certainly find a suggested model; but it is one that doesn’t depend on theory-building or statistics.  Instead it is derived from the practices and reflective voices of real, experienced professional football coaches.  Hence, this is a qualitative study of a quality-based process that experienced coaches see in a game.

Based on semi-structured interviews with eight experienced First Portuguese League coaches, these researchers systematised in a detailed manner the different tasks necessary to being a professional football coach.  By way of these reports, four central coaching tasks surfaced in this integrated approach to elite football match analysis:  preparation, observation, evaluation/diagnosis, and intervention.


  • The sport of football was designed by humans, is played by humans, is coached by humans, and ought to remain human.
  • Eschewing the modern preoccupation with giving up the sport of football to an entirely scientific approach, these researchers are something of a throwback: they conducted a structured interview study of humans who coach the sport.
  • Eight First Portuguese League coaches with professional football coaching experience from two to 30 years, were invited to participate in a semi-structured interview on the process they follow in observing the game.
  • To effectively observe and analyse a game, the coaches say it is essential to have a deep knowledge and understanding of the game.
  • The most important aspects of the game are: 1) the four moments of the game; 2) the set pieces; 3) the individual characteristics of the players; and 4) the randomness of the game-situations.
  • These coaches believe their approach to the game has evolved over the years, they see more of the game, and they have come to value different aspects in the game.
  • The factors leading to their continuously evolving approach to the process of coaching are: 1) the accumulated experience; 2) a better knowledge of the game; and 3) the academic formation.
  • These coaches have a logic in their priorities, a model of the game itself, and interventions designed from careful preparation, detailed observation, thorough evaluation and diagnosis.
  • Overall, the coach is situated between the triad of: game model, training model, and the model of analysis.

The Research

This study was conducted as a qualitative piece of research.  One among the various ways to go about such research is to conduct in-depth interviews, transcribe the conversations, and then organise the results around identifiable coding categories.  This is the approach these researchers followed.

Their overall aim was to more clearly understand how professional soccer/football coaches prepare, observe, and analyse the game, including how they carry out their intervention before the data is collected.  The subject of their study was match analysis.  They ask:  What are the tasks in the coaching process?

What better way to understand the process of coaching than to ask coaches what they process?  The participants in this study were eight expert high-performance Portuguese first league coaches with professional experience (from two to 30 years’ experience).  All eight were involved in coaching at the time of the interviews.  These interviews took place between December 2011 and February 2012.  The interviews lasted between one and two-and-a-half hours.  The data were analysed by using content analysis.  The transcript texts were coded (via the software QSR NVivo 9), and comparable meanings were organised into specific categories.  Three researchers coded independently to verify the classification system was suitable.

After the interviews were concluded, it was possible to establish what they call the four main tasks of football coaching:  preparationobservationdiagnostic/evaluation; and intervention.


The interviews produced consistent results on preparation for a game.  This included the procedures performed to enable them to perform the observation and analysis of the game.  But the prerequisite for preparation was knowledge of the game; “first you have to understand the game,” said one coach.  You must be able to extract what is important from those things that only appear to be important.  All the coaches referred to having a system of implementing the observational strategy.  This included knowing the available technology (video technology and sophisticated software such as Amisco and ProZone), observer characteristics, previous knowledge of the items to observe, and the number of necessary observations.

For example, one coach referred to his system this way:  it would include an iPad on the bench with the game matrix (the way they see the game) connected to the stadium video, with a TV or touchpad in the dressing room; these would be integrated to review either a positive or negative moment in the game at halftime, with five seconds of video both before and after the event reviewed.  (Coach 2) In the main though, these coaches are not heavy users of this technology. Tactics and strategy—the primary game data preoccupation—do not transfer as much as other game components.  Video is their fundamental tool in the technical bailiwick, that and the frozen time of photography.

When these coaches recruit help with the observations, the analyst must know something of the way the observer sees the game.  The experienced observer/analyst “is one who sees the game not with his eyes, but with the eyes of the coach.” (Coach 3) The coaches also opt for defining the items to watch in the game in advance of the contest.  This way they create a standardised reporting frameworkfor various observers (coaches and analysts) to use.  Concerning the number of times they watch an opponent play, the range was between two to six times—never only one.  They also prefer to see at least one home game and one away.  But, they all said, this depends as much on budget issues as it does on preference.  Often, it is an assistant coach who carries out these observations.

Finally, they report that they most always prefer to watch opponents during live competition.  “Watching the game live is more important, because video only allows you to see the action on the ball.  When I see a game on television, I cannot adopt the attitude of a professional or an analyst (…) it is too limited.”  (Coach 4) The consensus was that live viewing gives a more realistic perception of the intensity and rhythm of play.


The second aspect of the process tasks of coaching is observation.  What do coaches watch in a football game?  Which aspects should they focus on?

In general, before and during the game these coaches most often refer to the following:  the overall dynamics of the teams, the individual players’ characteristics, the set pieces, the random/unpredictable aspects, and the four moments of the game: offensive organisation, defensive organisation, offensive transition, and defensive transition.  They also try to observe the possible impact of such day-to-day realities as weather, condition of the grass, type and size of audience, the goal the opposing team prefers to attack, and other relevant details.  Interestingly, none of the interviewed coaches gave much thought to statistical tendencies (e.g., number of passes failed, number of times the team achieves the offensive third).  It is mostly about the dynamics, the scenarios.

Here are two different coach responses to how they approach observation:

Essentially, I observe dynamics and ways.  Basically, what I try to do is find solutions to any problems that the adversary creates for us, to find solutions to find ourselves, give clues for our players to have better performances. (Coach 5)

The set pieces, as we all know, are very important (…) Then we have to find what is the randomness and unpredictability, i.e., how the team reacts in completely different, random, and transient situations. (Coach 6)

During the play, these coaches are checking to see that their team has not lost sight of the game plan. They are mainly focusing on their own team.  And their eyes are not directed to where the ball is; what they watch mostly are the spaces away from the ball to see the dynamics going on there.

They also reported that the central aspects that affect the quality of their observation are the psycho-emotional aspects, such as the overall expectations, the position on the bench, and the referees’ errors. But the coaches also reported that their observational practices evolved over the years.  They see more of the game now and value different aspects of the game now than in their earlier coaching days.  They attribute this to more experience, better knowledge of the game, and accumulating academic and technical training.  There is also a certain level of emotion that makes us often change the meaning of what we observe. (Coach 6)


The third process coaching task is to evaluate what was observed in order to create a diagnosis for an appropriate intervention.  These activities focus on studying the strength and weaknesses of their opponents.  It is then possible to explore these weaknesses and try to nullify the strengths.

I try to understand where are the similarities, differences, which we can exploit in our game, the more/less positive, stronger/weaker factors (…) what can create more imbalance in our team, and what we can do to imbalance the opposing team, according to what we see. (Coach 6)

These coaches base their assessments and diagnosis on a certain logic of evaluation.  This logic is applied to both their own team and the opponents.  They envision a logic centred around the antagonistic nature of the play.  They report that their evaluation includes both the organisational level and the individual player level.  Included in their evaluation and diagnosis are both teams, the opponents and their own team.

When I’m evaluating an opposing team, I have to know who my team is, to get a sense of what is important and more crucial in this vision of two antagonistic processes. (Coach 8)


The last component of the coaching task process is to devise interventions.  These interventions include not only the organisation of the training process, but also the techniques a coach uses to communicate information to the players.  What the researchers call micro cycle training is the process of putting in planned interventions during the preparation week.  This is accomplished through the necessary training modifications resulting from the evaluation and diagnosis stage.  It also comes by way of meetings with one’s team, or with sub-groups of the team, or with individual players.  Attention is also given to using players to create the style and logic of the opposing team’s play for one’s team to practice against.

But there are also interventions in the midst of the game itself.  Adjustments are made, modifications are added or withdrawn, strategies are changed—all based on in-the-moment needs.  After all, the opposing team’s coach has scouted their opponents too.  The opposition will have created interventions to frustrate the attack and defend strategies the coach created during training week.

Normally, I produce my interventions at half time (…) because the player is mentally a bit more available, calmer, more serene, and hears better. (Coach 1)

There are aspects that occur during the game that if not corrected immediately, will be repeated.  In these situations, the best is to give immediate feedback. (Coach 2)

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