There are few coaches around who won’t confess to falling in love with the game of football from an early age. Yet for most this love primarily centred around playing with their friends before eventually transitioning to coaching. Not so Matthew Lewis. Or at least not exactly so.
“I began my journey at 15 years. I was supporting coaches at Merthyr Tydfil FC (now known as Merthyr Town FC), and I would often collect balls and cones,” he explains. “Ultimately I would end up watching highly qualified academy coaches deliver sessions at a very high standard, one being my current Academy Manager Jonathan Henderson, when at Merthyr. I could see how coaches were influencing players and I just wanted to do that!”
This ignited in him the desire to follow a similar path. “I completed the first of my coaching badges and was hungry to learn more and more about the game and coaching ‘as a profession’.”
“I went to University in Worcester where I was given a numerous opportunities to develop as a coach and, more so, to begin my journey as an analyst. I completed internship posts with both Birmingham City Football Club and Warwickshire County Cricket Club. More recently I have accepted a role with Opta Sports, to collect statistical data across the summer cricket season.”
“I have always had admiration for top level performers in any sport, and these internships exposed me a bit more to what was required to be working at the top level.”
Eventually, they led to a job with his old mentor at Bristol Rovers.
“I first joined Bristol Rovers in summer of 2013. At that point I was just required to cover all U18 fixtures, which was great working with one squad and focusing on relaying information through coaches which was fine.”
“As I settled into my role, I wanted to propose that we covered schoolboy games and offer them some guidance in the analysis to their performances.”
“With the help of academy staff, we put plans in place to offer internships to students looking to gain experience in a professional setting – something that benefited me in developing as an analyst. As a group, we met with University West of England in the proposal to offer internships to their students. Having advertised the roles and received great number of responses, we then found we had a department of a number of analysts covering both Bristol Rovers games as well as UWE University fixtures.”
“We have a number of interns that come in, spend time with us, then move on which is great, because the experiences they are gaining with us allow them to progress to other clubs. Some moving onto Bournemouth, Swansea and even working with our first team itself.”
“We have been running the performance analysis programme within the academy since March 2014, so just over a year now, and yes there is room to develop the programme further, it is good to offer something on a regular basis now that 18 months ago was non-existent.”
At this point, it bears talking a bit about the actual job that Lewis carries out, which is that of a performance analyst.
“Performance analysis can be defined as many things and be used in many different contexts but ultimately it is the in depth critical analysis of a set performance, and being able to dissect various elements of the game to the clubs’ and coaches’ needs,” he explains. “This may include movements analysis, statistical, and even analysis of coaching behaviour. This is beneficial for the coach be able to watch themselves back, but for mentoring purposes with other staff and educators.”
Despite having predominantly worked in an academy environment, Lewis has supported the first team analysts on a number of occasions and, as such, can talk about how the two roles differ in their objective.
“I can openly say that from an academy point of view, our main focus would be on the development of the player and focus on the players’ needs, whereas in a first team environment, it is very much a results based business. Having experienced working with first team analyst - mainly last season - it would be how we could improve as a team on certain elements and how the opposition may affect our style and approach to games.”
As with many of the ‘new’ roles that are evolving in football, there is always the suspicion that this is merely a mutation of something that coaches used to do instinctively. Does performance analysis really add any value?
“Absolutely! I think so.”
“A study conducted by Franks & Miller in 1991 showed that soccer coaches are less than 45% correct in their post-game assessment of a 45 minute half. In this case a performance analyst’s role is pivotal to the coaching process in developing the players, relaying information back to the coach to ensure information given is correct. “
“In my opinion joys of Performance analysis is that information and footage can be condensed to what is specifically required.”
“The coaching of a skill depends heavily on analysis in order to effect an improvement in athletic performance” he says quoting a paper by Hughes & Franks (2004).
“Performance analysis is commonly accepted as an integral component of the coaching process” Lewis continues quoting a paper by Lyle published in 2002. “Accordingly Hughes (2008) determined five functions that carry vital importance towards the coaching process. These include the ability to provide immediate feedback, to accumulate material for development, to identify areas for immediate improvement, to evaluate specific aspects of performance and to operate as a selection instrument in assisting both coaches and athletes.”
“To begin with a coach can use the analysis and footage before relaying information back to players, the information is more accurate and reliable. What I find, as analysts, we are fortunate to have a vantage points, where as a coach would spend their time at ground level, when footage is relayed, often the game is watch at a better angle and information provided should then be better. A library of footage information is used within our programme, so footage is easily accessible at any point when required by the coaches and academy staff.”
“I believe the players are also responsible for their learning. We produce clips which is available at a players’ request, so they can go back through footage and identify areas for them to improve, not forgetting highlighting areas they did well.”
“Ultimately, being able to recall information is key and I believe performance analysis aids being able to do so.”
For a lot of people, this analysis involves looking at statistical outputs. After all, that is how they have been primed by all the talk of moneyball and its use in football. Yet Lewis does not feel that way. “I think people get caught up on the use of statistics in my opinion. For example, people think having a greater deal of possession, you should win the game on that basis. But it is how you dissect those possession stats, in terms of what did you actually do in possession. That is just an example that I have come across a couple of times of peoples concepts of statistics.”
“At this moment in time, we do not use a great deal of statistical analysis, but something we are looking at and how we can make it relevant to the players and meet the needs of the individual. For example, we intend to identify key areas in which will aid the players’ development, and will focus on these areas on the individuals’ analysis.”
Equally, an analyst does not have to be a coach (although it does help).
“No, not necessarily, a performance analyst doesn’t have to be a coach, but I believe being a coach improves your knowledge and game understanding by a considerable amount.”
“As a coach myself, I believe it helps as you will be able to provide greater in depth analysis. You tend to find a lot of analysts having coaching qualifications for that reason.”
The role itself is, however, quite regimented where timeliness is essential. “Our work is completed pretty much straight after games, and as soon as findings are produced we present them to the Academy Manager and Lead Phase Coaches, so they can look through clips that they believe will be relevant to use.”
“Once findings are discussed with staff, we hold a classroom sessions to deliver information as a group, then coaches can review with individuals when required.”
“Our findings are produced as a video which is then relayed to the players during a classroom session. The classroom session takes place following the next training session – so it is a pretty quick turn-around really.”
“We tend to speak a bit more time on our analysis with Under 18s and Under 16s squads and as previously mentioned, players can then request their individual clips from the previous game.”
Whilst, naturally, the older age groups are being seen as the prime groups with whom to share this information, there is still some discussion on that part.
“This is something that has been in real discussion amongst us at the club,” Lewis agrees. “With the older age groups it is quite in depth towards the selected topic or theme of analysis. The level of detail fades off as the players get younger, and tend to be broader with topics.”
In all cases, the way the information is relayed is of fundamental importance. “We have to remember people learn in different ways and not forget we are working with children, so they need to experience learning in different ways.”
“Some players may not get much out of the coach explaining something, or discussions within the group, but some may enjoy seeing themselves complete a particularly task.”
“Having held discussions with different age groups, the feedback has been good, in terms of the boys seeing themselves and instantly picking things they could improve on if they were in that situation again. For me, that is perfect, because the players are identifying areas in their development to improve.”
The final question centres round the analyst himself and how he sees his future.
“I don’t think many people are the finished article – and I certainly not that! I think it really important to set goals and targets in any role you are in.”
“I have recently enquired about further academic study, more specifically in performance analysis, so hopefully I will be studying on a Masters course in the very near future. In terms of in the field, I hope to continue to learn 'on the grass’ as a coach, which will then aid me as an analyst.”
“As an analyst, I am really enjoying working in an academy environment and am constantly learning about my practice and improving the performance analysis programme we currently have in place. Long term, I would love to work in a first team environment domestically and within the national scene, being able to influence decisions and work with some of the best coaches in the world.”
Thanks to Matthew Lewis for his time in answering these questions.
This is the final part of a series looking at how an academy works and the various roles within it. To read the other articles, go here.
If you like this piece then you will probably enjoy Blueprint According To.., Volume 1 and Volume 2, the e-books where we talk to football coaches about their ideas and beliefs.