How to effectively scout your opposition - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile for the complete article listing.

Today's featured excerpt, which is the last of the Advent calendar, comes from June 2020 and the recently released 100th Total Football Analysis Magazine. It's called, "Scout Reports: How to effectively scout your opposition.”

Detail is king.

During his time as José Mourinho’s Chief Opposition Scout, André Villas-Boas said the following about his head coach and scouting expectations: “Jose is obsessed with detail – He will leave nothing to chance, even if his team are playing the worst side in the league.  My work enables Jose to know exactly when a player from the opposition is likely to be at his best or his weakest.”

This article offers an extensive approach to constructing opposition scout reports. Data-driven research, tactical analysis, important questions and suggestions for studying the opposition offer a guide for a comprehensive report. With the research on hand, attention turns to red teaming and presentations.

The original article highlights the complete process, some of which I've continued to develop over the years working as a coach in NCAA soccer and as an opposition analyst for Velez CF. Personally, I use a video-based report for my players, which is well-received and gives the visual I want to convey. Regardless, the article offers a comprehensive framework. You'll want to read it on Total Football Analysis for the sections on the attacking and defensive phases. Here, we'll highlight the periphery tasks.

Before you watch matches

Before your opposition analysis team starts pouring over the opposition’s match footage, data analysis can help your side determine a tactical profile, identify key players and discover patterns of play. A proficient data visualization team can greatly expedite your opposition analysis and coaching staff’s learning curve. Quantitative team profiles of your opponents, your own team and league will help you classify the opposition, grouping comparable levels of talent and similarities in playing styles.

With a data-driven team profile in hand, studying the right matches is the next step. Using a combination of recent matches, starting XI, and opponents with similar styles and abilities to your own team will help you narrow down the best matches to study.

Going back to the team profiles, if you know which teams show the greatest degree of similarity to your own, you can then watch match footage of that club versus your next opponent. You’ll want to identify what worked, what didn’t and necessary adjustments from a hindsight perspective. The starting XIs in those games are likely to shed light on the side you’ll encounter.

In addition to squads with similar playing styles, the two or three most recent matches will give you insights into the most recent patterns and trends. Maps of player and team activity, like the Real Madrid’s pass map, offer insight into key connections. Notes regarding recent form and tactics will help your staff construct the best approach, as well as offer insights into the mentality of the squad. Finally, knowing the opposition’s injury status will help you narrow down the possible variations in the starting XI.

Set pieces

Attacking set pieces

With regards to attacking set pieces, offering the players visuals and training against direct kicks, indirect kicks and corners will naturally fit into your opposition scout reports and subsequent training. Set piece preparation doesn’t end there. Throw-in and kickoff patterns should also factor into your report. These latter two areas will need less coverage than the first three mentioned, but, nonetheless, they fit into the report, even for a brief reference. Long throws should receive comparable attention to free kicks from the wings.

Turning to the specifics, diagramming reoccurring routines, highlighting dangerous players and accounting for movements and picks give your players an idea of what’s ahead. While some sides have balanced routines, others tend to focus on deliveries into a certain area or to specific players. If you have the capacity to compile a highly detailed report, knowing which plays or targets a specific kicktaker will target helps massively.

Defensive set pieces

Does the opponent use zonal, semi-zonal or man-oriented marking? How does the opponent assign players for marking, by height, quality or possibly another method? For corners, do they place players on the posts? Do players in the wall jump? Which players feature in the wall, which marking? Does the side cover the goalkeeper when a shot is taken or can we take advantage of rebounds? Is the goalkeeper aggressive in collecting or punching deliveries into the box or is he more likely to stay on his line?

Lots of questions, sure, but answering them is generally a rather quick process. This, again, is a case where knowing the opponent gives you work through advantages and threats, then present those ideas to the squad in a concise manner.

Pattern play

Since you’ve already detailed the phase-specific tactics early in your research, this is where you can create images for some of the more prominent patterns. Each pattern will consist of phase-specific implications, something the staff should note when titling the visual. Some patterns will be more general to a phase, others will go a step further, highlighting specific objectives and patterns that are tailored for zone or player-specific combinations. Some groups of players, such as wing or forward pairings, may even have go-to combinations or movement patterns that they actively seek.

The more general patterns should go to the whole team, whereas zone or player-specific patterns are more valuable to the players who have to deal with those threats. If playing against Real Madrid, showing Karim Benzema’s deep drops in the midfield, opening space for his #7 or #11 to run into won’t appeal to your #9. A targeted approach, feeding players only the amount of information they can handle, is critical. Information overload can only hamper performance.

Situational adjustments

Depending on the point of the season or recent changes to the squad or coaching staff, you might have limited data in this area. However, it’s best to have an understanding of how the opposition will respond in certain situations. If information is limited, knowledge of the coach will likely provide insight into how he adapts as the match progresses. He has tendencies. Uncover them and you can plan against his adjustments.

Since most of the preceding work covers the general playing philosophy and patterns, this section is an opportunity to show how the opponent adjusts within certain parameters. Scaling the score line from +3 to -3 (+2 to -2 at the very least), showing substitution patterns and tactical adjustments and accounting for the opponent’s desired result factor in here. If you’re a top side drawing against a mid-table team in the 70th minute, you’re likely to see them park the bus and play opportunistically. From their perspective, a point is better than nothing.

If your team already knows which tactical and personnel changes the opposition will make, correlating them with specific match situations, you can create conditional plans ahead of time.

Red Teaming

Red teaming came to my attention when Bryce G. Hoffman was interviewed on one of my favorite podcasts. His book, “Red Teaming: How Your Business Can Conquer the Competition by Challenging Everything”, expands on a tactic with military origins. In a sense, red teaming is a laicized version of wargaming. Major corporations, such as Microsoft, and federal governments engage in red teaming to identify threats and adapt their tactics before any damage is done.

As your staff completes the opposition scout reports, uncovering every detail in the opposition’s tactics and personnel, assigning a red team within your staff adds a necessary dynamic to your preparations. Your red team must engage your tactics from the opponent’s point of view. They must use their newfound knowledge of the opponent to determine how he, as the opposition coach, would set up his tactics against your side. Since you should already have a well-developed idea of the opposition’s tactics, the red team’s job is to find the holes in your tactics.

Challenging the staff’s approach carries a number of benefits. First, if there is a hole in your side’s tactics, it’s the red team’s job to find it before the opponent does. Second, red teaming challenges assumptions, forcing the club to fully account for potential threats and breakdowns. Third, the red team can bring up alternative tactics, pointing to unforeseen weaknesses within the side that the opposition are likely to attack. As an example, think back to the UEFA Champions League fixture between Real Madrid and Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s use of a 4-4-2 in defense while shifting Gabriel Jesus to the left-wing caught the Spanish side by surprise. Though this was a drastic move, one that any analyst and coaching staff would find difficult to predict, red teaming’s job is to leave no stone unturned. Knowing how you would set up the opposition to counter your own tactics does just that.

That's all for today and for the 2023 Advent calendar. I hope you've enjoyed the article excerpts and that they sparked thoughts and conversations.

Remember that the full article on scouting the opposition, which offers a comprehensive framework, is available exclusively on Total Football Analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

You can find any post on either or my LinkedIn profile. Below is the full list of posts.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid

Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini

Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession

Day 17 - Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?

Day 18 - Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system

Day 19 - Training runs behind the backline in a two-forward system

Day 20 - How short centre-backs have a big influence

Day 21 - Creighton University: An inside look at NCAA Men’s Soccer’s most data-driven team

Day 22 - The dark arts in the age of VAR

Day 23 - Interactions of attackers that lead to goals

Day 24 - How to effectively scout your opposition

Once again, thank you for following the posts. I wish you a blessed Christmas.