Analysing collective tactical behaviours in football using an experimental approach

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In football, the scientific study of tactical movements is never an easy task. The
many degrees of freedom afforded to players and ball poses a complex problem
for researchers. Sports scientists have consequently turned to the science of
complex systems to better understand footballers’ tactical behaviours. In
particular, many theories are drawn from the field of collective animal
behaviours, where patterned behaviours at the collective level emerge from local
interactions between members in a process of self-organisation. Accordingly,
some principles of complex cooperative behaviours in animalia consequently
became the paradigm for understanding collective tactical movements in
footballers. This has been greatly facilitated by the introduction of player
tracking systems, where players’ dynamic movements are continuously recorded,
allowing for the study of different configurations of play. The present
dissertation first performed a systematic review of empirical studies (Study
One), before focusing on two research gaps. First, much is still unknown about
the underlying processes explaining tactical behaviours in 11 vs. 11; second,
research is not sufficiently contextualised for practice. In view of these gaps, the
present dissertation used an experimental approach, to analyse footballers’
tactical behaviours in 11 vs. 11, based on their position data, and with the aim of
seeking explanatory mechanisms underlying the observed tactical behaviours in
different contexts. Two empirical studies were conducted, in which six youth
football teams (under-17) participated in 11 vs. 11 field experiments, and
performed 72 trials of attack vs. defence. Each study implemented a
counterbalanced crossover design and examined the effects of an independent
variable. Study Two examined the differences in players’ collective tactical
behaviours between two pressing strategies — deep-defending and high-press
defending. Study Three compared the differences in collective tactical behaviours
between two defending formations — 4-4-2 and 5-3-2. Measures of tactical
behaviour were analysed at various levels of organisation: match level, team
level, group level, dyadic level, and individual level. These were supplemented
with the notational analysis of players’ passes. The findings from both studies
offered some explanatory mechanisms about footballers’ collective tactical
behaviours as an effect of different strategies. In study two, the increased
dispersion when performing the high-press can be explained longitudinally by
further inter-line distances that consequently afforded more spaces to the
opposing forward and attacking midfielder. In study three, the reduced
dispersion when defending in a 5-3-2 formation compared to a 4-4-2, can be
explained by forwards retreating closer to midfielders. Combining results from
both empirical studies shows that deep-defending and midfield-pressing result in
similar collective structures whereas high-press defending is characterised by
greater longitudinal dispersion. Comparisons of various tactical variables with
those of real matches reflect good representativeness of the experimental design.
In addition, performing analyses at different systemic levels of organisation
provide insights into tactical behaviours from micro to macro level perspectives.
As practical implications, the high-press defending strategy could perhaps be
used sparingly; choosing the 5-3-2 defending formation over the 4-4-2 may have
the greatest impact on full-backs of the attacking team; and performing dyadic
level analysis can provide more information on players’ marking behaviour. In
conclusion, the present dissertation proposed some explanatory models of
collective tactical behaviours in response to different defending strategies, and
methodologically proposed contextualised analyses that provide deeper insights
to practitioners.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationKöln
PublisherDeutsche Sporthochschule Köln
Number of pages75
Publication statusPublished - 2022


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