Joao Sacramento – Opposition Scouting at AS Monaco

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Joao Sacramento is the Opposition Analysis Coach for AS Monaco in France’s Ligue 1. Previously he worked with the National Football Federation of Wales and was the opposition analyst consultant for Argentina during the 2014 World Cup. Joao lectured in football coaching and performance analysis at the University of South Wales. He is currently completing his UEFA A license and has a Master’s Degree in Performance Coaching from the University of South Wales.

When you break down the possession phase of an opponent’s game, what would you look for? In the youth game would you be looking for tactical and technical aspects or one more than the other?

During the possession phase I like to divide it in 3 phases:

  • 1st PhaseShort or Long Build Up. Here I try to describe how they play out from the back or what their dynamics are of long play. For example, who is the target man? how they deal with second balls etc. if they play long?
  • 2nd PhaseBuild up via Outside or via Inside. I try to describe the dynamics for when they attack through the middle or through the flanks. I try to identify who are the players that link the play, if the wingers move inside, if the full backs overlap etc….
  • 3rd PhaseFinishing – I try to describe how they arrive to the finishing zones. Are they getting to these zones from crosses or through link play (short combinations)?

In relation to the second part of the question, it is very hard for me to say that the tactical aspect has more importance than the technical aspect or vice-versa. Soccer is a global phenomenon where tactical is completely dependent on technical, physical and psychological variables and vice-versa. We cannot separate or isolate them. For example, a team can understand all the tactical concepts determined by the coach, but if the technical capacity of the players is poor the tactical dimension will never be manifested with quality in the real context. The same can be applied in relation to the psychological aspect. A team can be tactically very strong but if the team is psychologically affected by any factor, the tactical and technical dimensions will not be manifested with the same quality.

How about when they are not in possession. What do you look for in their defensive organization?

In this phase I also divide my work into three phases: –

  1. High Block – basically here I try to identify the behavior of the team when the opponent tries to play out from the back. I will check where they have their first line of press (line on confrontation) positioned and consequently if they allow the opponents to play out from the back or not.
  2. Medium Block – here I try to see if the block is compact or wide. I will check if there is space between lines constantly or just after successive switches of the ball from side to side. I will also check the position of the back line to see if there is depth space to explore etc.
  3. Low Block – this involves the behavior of the team when is position in the last third of the pitch. Are the wingers tracking the opponent full backs all the way back? Is the defensive midfielder joining the defensive line? How they deal with crosses? Basically I try to identify and describe this type of situations.

How important is set piece analysis? What do you look for and report on?

With the increased use of the internet and the high number of matches broadcasted every day, soccer professionals have increased the access they have to be able to study the game to greater depth. The biggest consequence of this was a big increase in tactical development. Nowadays most professional teams understand the basic principles of play – especially defensive concepts. Free spaces are becoming harder to find and consequently is harder to breakdown the opponents. For this reason set pieces are increasing in importance as an opportunity for a team to score.

Set pieces must now have the same level of importance as the other moments of the game. Set piece analysis is very delicate and requires time. For this reason, there are a lot of managers that give this responsibility to the goalkeeper coaches. Normally a goalkeeper coach has a great knowledge about this area and consequently they are the most appropriate persons to take care about it. Here in AS Monaco the goalkeeper coach makes the first set pieces analysis. After that we have a meeting with him during the week where he presents us the analysis and then we process the information to the players.

When should a coach start to prepare for a specific opponent in their training sessions?

Normally in a professional context a coach must spend the first two days of the week correcting the negative points identified from the last match and the next two days to prepare the next match. Basically we tend to prepare the next match on the resistance day of the micro cycle. On this day normally we set up exercises in bigger areas and with longer periods. It is the training session where the characteristics are more similar to the match day, so we try to reproduce the scenarios that we will find at the upcoming game. For me, this is the most intense training session of the week – it is the day where the player is fully recovered from the last match (physiological and psychological fatigue take 72 hours to recover). Players are in a place where they are ready to absorb and assimilate information with quality. It is important to ensure that you have always a day or two after this for the players to recover before the next match. When we have two matches per week, normally the preparation is performed with the use of external tools such as PowerPoint presentations and videos because the players are in a recovery period and we cannot fatigue them.

If any of your players have previously been on the team of the opponent, do you get information from them or are you relying entirely on what you see?

It is normal to have a quick chat with the player in that type of situation in order to get some extra information but it is always our own analysis that will drive the process. Recently Rafa Benitez had an interesting proposal that the transfer window should close before the beginning of the first match of the season because he can only start working properly on tactics after the last day of transfers in order to avoid information leak from players that move to rival teams.

How about if you have played against the same team earlier in the season. Do you analyze how you played the first time?

At the top level we maintain our philosophy of analysis. So, we analyze the last three to five matches (depending on time available). Basically we take the style of play identified during the first leg as an initial reference of the process but during the analysis of the last matches we check if they continue with the same philosophy or if they change, for example due to the arrival of new players or new coaches.

How much should a team try to counter what the opponent does versus try to play how they like to play?

What I believe is that we must adjust our system in relation to the opponent’s characteristics, but without losing our own identity. If the opponent plays with a diamond shape and we play with three midfielders we will not change to a diamond shape just to match them. Instead we might ask our wingers to close the interior space or have the full backs play narrow in order to help the midfielders. Another situation is the exploration of the high defensive lines. If the opponent leaves us a lot of space behind their defenders we will ask our wingers to exploit it, instead of them making their normal interior movements into the middle to create midfielder overloads. These are some examples how you can adjust without losing identity.

In my opinion we must maintain our team philosophy of play because the game model is very complex and takes lot of time for players to learn and implement it – the coach needs to gradually build from simple to the complex. With constant repetition the process of play becomes ingrained during the season.

As a result, I do not believe that a coach should change their approach or change the tactical structure in relation to the opponent. When teams do completely change to accommodate the opponent they tend to start very well but towards the end of the game they tend to concede a goal or make mistakes. Why does this happen? The reason is related to a lack of somatic markers in the brain in relation to their philosophy of play. When you change a strategy, the plan tends to work during the period of the game where the blood circulates at normal levels in the brain, but as soon as the levels of blood in the brain decrease due the fatigue accumulated, the brain will lose the capacity to think and execute with the same intensity and consequently the mistakes will happen naturally.

If you play according to your philosophy of play this does not happen because the processes are already automated in your brain due the systematic repetition. Consequently your body will still be able to make decisions without being affected by the levels of fatigue.

If you were a youth coach and had an hour at a tournament where you could watch an upcoming opponents, what do you look for first and how do you maximize the hour that you have?

These types of situations where you have one hour to watch the opponent just happen at the youth level. Firstly it is crucial to understand the context of your situation. Are you competing to win or are you competing to develop? In my opinion when you are competing to develop (youth academies) the role of opposition analysis has less importance and impact than when you are competing to win. The most important thing at this stage is the development of the athlete and the development of the philosophy of play determined by club. The focus in these situations must be in your play and not in the opponent play. I think that at this stage the use of performance indicators of your own team makes more sense taking into account it will help you to improve collectively and individually in a qualitative way.

In your free time, if you are watching a random game where do you find you naturally end up focusing your attention?

First of all, if I am watching a random match I will never watch with the same attention and detail that I would if I was watching our next opponent. When I watch a games I try to have fun by enjoying the thrill of the sport. Watching an opponent match for work is very psychologically demanding. Your range of vision needs to cover all 22 players and consequently that does not allow you to live the emotional side of the game as a normal fan. It would be impossible to do it in every match that I watch. So, when I am watching a random match I like to see how both teams are organized and how they match up each other. After I try to see how each team breaks down the opposition in a generic way. Finally I try to enjoy the technical side of the match – I like to appreciate the individual quality of the players, the individual battles and the elegance of play.

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