When strangers meet the scouts and analysts become more vital still
The Weekend Dossier: Blackburn even have someone with the title 'first-team opposition analyst'
Friday 15 February 2013
Be Prepared is the scouts' motto, and what was good for Lord Baden-Powell is particularly relevant in football, at this time of year. This is when the game's cups runneth over and clubs from all divisions and countries are left trying to work out just what sort of threat that opponent from the Ukraine or the depths of League Two are going to pose.
With the FA Cup fifth round this weekend, Champions League and Europa League this week and next, and the Capital One Cup final in eight days' time, the one department feeling the strain at those clubs still involved are the soothsayers of the backroom staff: the scouts.
As an example, Blackburn Rovers game against Arsenal at the Emirates today will see the culmination of weeks of work from the Ewood Park scouting team.
As Rovers no longer play Arsenal in the League, all the information for today's tie has been collated especially for this one match, even though the mechanics of the Blackburn scouting process is the same as they would go through for a normal Championship game.
Like many clubs, Blackburn have a deal with ProZone, who offer a comprehensive analysis of games and teams. With Arsenal playing in the Premier League, that is a help, because there is a lot of data on them, but Rovers have also recorded and re-watched all their recent games.
They have received help from other clubs too. Arsenal beat Brighton in the fourth round and Albion have shared their wide-angle footage of that match with Blackburn, so allowing them to see all 22 players on the pitch together.
With Arsenal, Blackburn also followed their usual routine of sending scouts to the team's previous three matches. They will have looked at what Arsenal do in possession, how they transition from attack to defence, how they set up defensively, how they transition from defence to attack and how they treat set-plays in terms of delivery and movements. The scouts will also have analysed the characteristics of individual Arsenal players.
There is a slight issue for those at Ewood Park in analysing Arsenal precisely, as two of their better players, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott, could well be rested ahead of Tuesday's Champions League game with Bayern Munich. But even then Arsenal's way of playing is so characteristic that much of the analysis will survive regardless of team changes.
The importance a club like Blackburn place on understanding their opposition is highlighted by the fact that once all these reports have been written, the scouts sit down to collate them with a man with the grand title of first-team opposition analyst. He is called Rob Page.
Together, Page and the scouts searched for the consistent traits in Arsenal's play and, after head of performance analysis, Paul Brand, and assistant manager, Ashley Westwood, have taken a look, a 10-minute video on Arsène Wenger's team was prepared. This comprised roughly four minutes on what Arsenal do in possession, four on what they do without possession, and two minutes on their set-pieces. This video was shown to the Blackburn players in their hotel last night.
Videos are preferred to dossiers as Blackburn staff do not want to overload their players with too many words they might not take in, though players can still go to the scouts for written information if they want.
Once the Arsenal team has been announced this afternoon, Rovers will hold a 10-minute team meeting before the game to go through the information once more in final preparation for kick-off.
Not that all teams are that well-resourced. Bradford City play the biggest match in their modern history next Sunday in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley. While manager, Phil Parkinson, and assistant, Steve Parkin, are keen to teach their players as much as possible about their opponents, Swansea City, they do not have the same army of researchers and analysts available to other clubs.
Parkinson and Parkin will watch Swansea play tomorrow afternoon but, as Parkin told The Independent, it was also helpful that there is so much accessible footage of Swansea given their current high profile. "It is easier to get hold of videos [because Swansea are in the Premier League]," Parkin said, before adding that getting a first-hand look was still especially important in assessing such potentially potent opposition. "Me and the manager [Parkinson] will go watch them against Liverpool on Sunday," he said. "They are an outstanding team with an outstanding defensive record in the Premier League."
With so much at stake, Bradford are understandably keen for their players to know as much as possible. "In the build-up it is really important that you give the players as much information as you can about the opposition in terms of individuals and the way they play," Parkin said.
Bradford, though, have a League Two campaign to worry about as well, playing AFC Wimbledon today. Parkin hopes his players do not forget that and trusts them to do some of their own research on Swansea too. "It has been important that we concentrate on what we're doing, the way we want to play," he said. "They will have enough information on Swansea City, they're conscientious lads. They will have seen them play, lots of clips and highlights on Match of the Day. I don't think we have to tell them how Swansea City play."
Traditionally the match-ups in European football have been even more exotic. Teams would have almost no idea about one another and there the thrill of discovery would accompany the various European cup draws. But, at the very top of the continental club game, this is not so much the case.
The global televising of modern football means that Real Madrid are better known to most than Bradford City. Jose Mourinho insisted after Wednesday's game at the Bernebeu that he knew precisely what United would do. "Nothing new," Mourinho said, "not a surprise. Not a surprise the match, not a surprise the result. I think it was basically what I was waiting for."
Of course, Mourinho is a showman but this is more and more the nature of modern cup football. Though Newcastle United's scouts might not have agreed when the Europa Cup draw matched them with Metalist Kharkiv.
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Gareth Bale is Tottenham's best player, but the absence of their second best, Sandro, might define their season. Spurs have not looked the same since they lost their Brazilian enforcer to long-term injury. Scott Parker is not as good and Mousa Dembélé is tiring. Spurs were out-muscled by Newcastle and Lyons and needed Bale to rescue them.
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With Kieran Gibbs suspended and Nacho Monreal ineligible, Arsenal will likely have to field Thomas Vermaelen at left-back against Bayern Munich on Tuesday. This allows them the rare treat of pairing their two best centre-backs – Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny – while marginalising Vermaelen's dangerous over-enthusiasm.
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Pointing out the vibrancy of German fan culture has started to feel as original as saying that Barcelona knock it about nicely. But how about this: there were 74,244 fans at the Olympiastadion for the Berlin derby between Union and Hertha on Monday night – in the Bundesliga second division.
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