In the final part of this three-part series, Zenit assistant coach Alexander Nizelik talks us through how training ground processes are built using data and analytics. Interview extracted from Championat​.com.

The Analysis Setup at the Zenit Training Ground

Nizelik is part of a large, organized and strong analytical department at Zenit where analysts work with software platforms and advanced statistics. This provides coaches with a finished report to progress with for training the players for upcoming fixtures.

“Training work from the very beginning is built depending on what we will have a plan for the game,” said Nizelik. “In the course of the week, we can modify the work, convey information to the players on the field, in individual conversations. We often make small video cuts, literally a few moments from training exercises, which show as clearly as possible what we want to achieve in certain game situations, and what, on the contrary, we want to avoid. These videos are shown on screens in the dressing room, and players can watch them before and after training. 

Our average video session duration does not exceed 15-20 minutes, as otherwise, concentration of attention is lost and information is not absorbed as well.”

As for our game, if the team knows its principles, then it can adapt on the field to any model of the opponent.

The coaches themselves have access to the same software platforms as the analysts and players, which allows all elements of the team organization to be in sync in match and training preparations. 

“Coaches access the software platforms and use them as needed: to watch a match or study players in the selection process,” said Nizelik. “Wyscout, for example, has a metric called one-on-one defense that is not found on other platforms. We use this especially when we study defenders.”

Zenit manager Sergey Semak and his coaching team use data and analytics during weekly training sessions to prepare for every fixture.

What Do You Analyze in a Tactical Opposition Report before Training Sessions?

The Zenit analysis team produces a report following each fixture that informs the training sessions that prepare for the following fixture. The report includes several key indicators on the last matches of the opposing team, the details of those games, and the tactics they use.

“Our analysts have already worked out a scheme - they watch the most detailed three last matches of the opponent, plus, if we played against the team in question relatively recently, it can become even more informative,” said Nizelik. “Of course, the opponents' recent games against teams that use a game model similar to ours are also interesting. If we clearly understand the opponent's model, then we simply try on certain days of the weekly cycle to simulate specific game situations on which we want to focus, but even if the opposition scheme/formation changes, we must understand how to act.”

The Wyscout one-on-one defense feature shows a breakdown of all defensive duels for a player. Here we see Zenit centre back Dejan Lovren.

Putting the Tactics into Play: Zenit vs. CSKA

Nizelik goes on to explain a key example from last year’s match against major rivals CSKA Moscow where the opponents’ style of play influenced Zenit’s tactics.

“We surprised with a 4-3-1-2 formation with playmaker Malcom positioned underneath Dzyuba and Azmoun,” said Nizelik. “Plus, the team came out of defense only with long passes, previously luring the opponent into pressing. There was nothing supernatural in it, it was dictated by the opponent's style. CSKA, especially when playing at home, likes to put high pressure. The team deliberately tries to gain an advantage in the zone where the opponent's attack starts, to create one-on-one situations at the enemy's goal, even if they risk one-on-one situations in behind. Dziuba and Azmun play ahead of us, they fight well at the top, and Malcom in the position below them due to his speed and mobility can play well on counter attacks. We decided that this situation is beneficial for us.”

In deconstructing Zenit’s tactics in this match, we find they are adaptable depending on how the opposition sets up defensively. Meaning that the defenders of Zenit can either choose to build attacks with long (previous example) or short passes (following example) by reading the play in front of them.

We often make small video cuts, literally a few moments from training exercises, which show as clearly as possible what we want to achieve in certain game situations, and what, on the contrary, we want to avoid.

“If the opponent leaves behind one more player, he presses with fewer players, so in this case, you can start attacks with a short pass, as you have a numerical advantage in the outfield player plus the goalkeeper,” said Nizelik. “If the opponent, when pressing, risks playing one-on-one, does not give you the opportunity to start attacks from the back without pressure, of course, it is more profitable for us to deliver the ball forward as quickly as possible, where our attackers can surpass the opponent in single combats.”

In this season’s victory over CSKA, Zenit showed the ability to improvise tactics on the fly when presented with an opportune moment. “If you remember, then Vlašić was injured, CSKA had one less player on the field, then it became possible to play the ball,” said  Nizelik. “The skill of the players and the ability to quickly assess the situation came to the fore. The 3 vs 2 situation was created, Karavaev ran into the penalty area on time, Douglas Santos gave a timely pass from defence, and Azmoun opened up to score.

You will understand that in football, schemes work up to a point. In the standards, by the way, they can still work, in them you can act as you want, because you have the possibility of the first move, you control your opponent and your actions. Otherwise, high-level players are guided by the situation and react to any changes, to make cool decisions, as against CSKA. Our task is to make sure that, thanks to their work, the players make more correct decisions.”

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