Training Ground Tactics: How Zenit Saint Petersburg Prepare for Their Opposition

Training Ground Tactics: How Zenit Saint Petersburg Prepare for Their Opposition

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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