A 5 point checklist for analysing the opposition

By Sam Wilkinson |

Video analysis has become a key component of first team preparation for coaches of all levels. But no matter how much you study your next opponent, there is no way of predicting their shape, tactics or team selections with 100% accuracy until the game has actually kicked off. There is a skill to quickly and accurately assessing your opponent and their strategy in the early stages of a game. It involves an eye for detail and the ability to analyse and process information very quickly.

After observing, playing for and working with some top senior coaches, here is a five point checklist that I have found really useful for assessing an opposition team during a game.

1. What's their shape?

This is an obvious starting point but a key one none the less. While I will often go into a game with an idea what shape the opposition tend to play, I will focus on clarifying this right from the kick off. Many teams often give their shape away while they line up for the start of the game, but the more crafty opponents will obviously try to hide their shape before kick off.


  • Focus on the back line first. Whether a team plays a back four or back three will often give an indication to their overall formation.

  • Use a member of your support staff or even the playing subs to also look at the opposition's shape in the first 10 minutes. They may pick up something you miss in the heat of the game.

  • Once you have worked out the oppositions shape, think about where natural overloads may occur for and against you.

2. How do they attack?

I look at the attacking side of the game in three components - through (central), around (wide) and in-behind. Top teams will use a combination of these three components, but many teams will tend to favour one or two of these. The attacking trends of the opponent may also change during the game so this is an area I like to revisit throughout the match. Just because a team is looking to play directly in-behind you early on doesn't necessarily mean they will do it all game.


  • Break the pitch up into five vertical lanes (image below).

  • Watch for the lanes that the opposition are using the most. This can provide a good visual reference for how they are attacking you.

  • Refer back to their shape - that will often give a clue as to how they will look to attack. 3 or 4 man central midfield = through. Out and out wingers = around etc.

  • Once you have noticed trends in how the opposition like to attack, ask yourself "is it hurting us?". I have learnt to not make changes unless there is an actual problem to solve.

3. How do they defend?

I break the defending side of the game into a high press, mid block and low block. As with the attacking side of the game - the best teams will go in and out of these three forms of defence but many will lean on one form more than the others. Team shape and personal will often dictate how a team will try and defend against you. Within the three defensive strategies, well organised teams will also generally try and force your play to the outside of the pitch or funnel it into the middle of the pitch.


  • Break the pitch up into three horizontal thirds.

  • Look for the third that the opposition cram their players into when defending. This will give an indication of whether they are a high press, mid block or low block team.

  • Once you have noticed how they like to defend, ask yourself "where can we hurt them?". Look for the space and overloads the oppositions defensive approach is leaving.

4. Who's their main player(s)?

The opposition's formation and playing style have huge importance in competitive games but it is often players that will win or lose you matches. Being aware of your opponents key players and what their strengths are is vital. While I believe the focus going into matches should always be on your team imposing itself on the opposition, it is careless to not be aware of the opposing players that may cause you problems.


  • Speak to your own player's during breaks in the game about who they may have identified as a threat. Your players will often see things from inside the game that you miss from the sideline.

  • Once again, ask yourself "are they hurting us?". Awareness of threatening players is one thing but be careful of focusing on the opposition's key players too much, especially if they aren't causing you a problem.

  • If the opposition's key player is hurting you, can you create a better man for man match up against them? or can you stop the supply of possession into this player with a change of shape or defensive strategy?

5. Spot the dope!

I've stolen this phrase from the great Liverpool team of the 70's and 80's. "Spot the dope" is about finding the weak link in the oppositions line up. The dope might present them self in the oppositions attacking or defensive play. Once you have found the dope look to exploit them as often as possible with and with out the ball e.g encourage and force play into the dope defensively, target and overload the dope when attacking.


  • During breaks in the game, communicate with your players - who the dope is. Also encourage your players to look for the dope themselves. It is vital that they know who the dope is and how to exploit them.

  • Look to create the most favourable personal match up against the dope. You might have to alter your own shape to exploit the dope.

  • Be vocal about who the dope is (senior football only.....please don't start calling out the weak link in the local U11 team). There's nothing worse than the dope being called out.......It's a cruel game sometimes!

These are the five points I focus on when trying to analyse the opposition during a first team game. I try and practice this process when watching any game of football as I believe there is a skill to doing this quickly and accurately. As I have mentioned, this is an approach for senior football where the result takes on more of an importance. In a youth and junior football setting there is obviously more appropriate development points that should be your focus.

Try this approach for yourself, you may find you have your own checklist that works better for you.....I'd love to hear your ideas.

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