How to Watch Soccer Like a Pro

A conversation with Molde's Eric Laurie

You don’t need to tell me who played, when it happened, or how it turned out. Without any of that info, I still know one very important thing about the last soccer game you watched: You don’t know what happened.

Sure, you might know who scored, who completed a lot of passes, what defenders made mistakes, and how many saves a keeper made, but you’re looking at the game through a fogged-up lens. For every Premier League match, the company Stats Perform records around five million data points. You happen to catch Liverpool–Burnley the other day? Yeah? You remember five million different things that happened? Didn’t think so.

Beyond the sheer impossibility of remembering all the micro-events that happen across a single match, there’s the issue of interpreting those events through some kind of value generator. Given that high-powered algorithms and detailed tracking data and brilliant minds from all different fields are still struggling to figure out what truly matters on a soccer field, I certainly can’t expect myself to have an accurate picture of who played well and who played poorly. After all, I can’t remember everything every single player did -- and even if I could, I don’t even know how much any of that is worth.

In other words, watching soccer is really hard. But someone, like Eric Laurie, has to do it. Laurie is analyst with the Norwegian club Molde, the side that was employing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before he left for his interim-turned-permanent stint at Manchester United. Molde have finished top two in Norway in each of the past four seasons, including a league title back in 2019. Laurie has been with the club since 2014, and he currently serves a number of roles: head of academy performance analysis, assistant analyst with the senior team, and an assistant coach for the under-17 side. 

Laurie gets paid to watch soccer better than you can -- and he often shares some of his clear-eyed, jargon-free analysis on Twitter:

I reached out to him to talk about how he watches soccer and to see if he had any advice for overcoming the limitations of our faulty circuitry.

I remember listening to an interview with Chris Long, a defensive lineman who won Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. He said that he needed to watch a game two or three times to really understand what happened -- and these are games he played in. How much do you think you miss when you watch a game for the first time? And if you're analyzing a game for work, how many times do you typically go through it? 

The very simple, and honest reply to the first question would be: “A lot”. The question does lack a bit of context though, considering there is actually quite a variety in the way I may watch a match right now. For example, I could be coaching from the sideline, analyzing from the camera platform or sitting on my couch. Depending on how I am watching a match will probably heavily influence the way I am analyzing the match. 

The number of situations or actions in a match which you could analyze are infinite, so there is definitely a lot which goes unnoticed. You could literally take a photo of any second of a match, and there would be multiple things you could point out, whether it was something positive, or something that could have been done better. To try and recognize all of these things over 90 minutes with 22 players across the entire pitch is just not possible.

For work, it will vary a bit for the number of times I watch a match. That will depend on time in between matches in the given week, what we want to get out of the match, what was our focus for the match or a variety of factors. But typically, I would say three times. Live, a rewatch, and then probably the final watch where the final decisions will be made on what should and shouldn’t be shared in a post match video.

Where is your eye, typically, when you watch a match? Are you following the ball? Focusing on the defensive shape? The off-ball runs?

Similar to the first question, the context of the match will definitely influence my answer to this. If it is during a live match and I’m on the bench, I will generally be working with a coaching staff. That makes it a bit easier to catch different things and narrow the focus. This means I may focus solely on the opposition’s shape and tendencies out of possession and see if they are doing anything which is giving us difficulties, or if they are doing something I feel we could potentially exploit. This same thought process and approach to analyzing can be used for any phase of the game, depending on the quality of the opposition and the game state, or who is on the sideline with me. Again, if I am watching a game from my own couch, I may tend to do a lot of ball watching, depending on my level of interest in the match. 

I also spend quite a bit of time watching professional matches back from the weekend, in these cases I am often looking for something specific, depending on the teams which are playing. Recently I have been watching back a lot of Manchester City matches with a focus on their shape in possession and how they are utilizing positional rotations and how they are taking advantage of the space they create through these. Or maybe watching some RB Salzubrg matches with specific focus on their defensive shape and pressing organization.

If you really want to try and analyze what is happening in the match, notice trends or patterns, and potentially why it may be happening, then you should definitely train yourself to watch more of the action away from the ball.

How hard is it to differentiate between a purposeful tactical plan and just the random flow of the game based on the decisions each individual player makes? 

This in a way ties into the last question. If you are just paying attention to the ball and who is in possession of it, then it will be very difficult to differentiate between a potential tactical plan and the player’s individual actions in a given moment. Patterns usually occur in the team organization and what is happening around the ball. If a player is in possession, they will often have a few different decisions on what they can do with the ball. So, if you are only watching those specific decisions, it could appear a bit random from time to time. But if you are watching more away from the ball you may be able to pick up on the various options available and then see those same options appear again later on in a similar situation.

Are there any specific positions you can look at over the course of a match to get a better sense of what a team's trying to accomplish? I like to think that the positioning of a team's fullbacks can give you a sense of how aggressive they want to be in possession. Are there any specific indicators you look for?

I think you could in theory watch any position and get a sense of what the opposition might be trying to do. I do think central midfielders can often offer a good picture of the opposition’s plan both in and out of possession. If we take in possession as an example, we often see central mids now who drop into the backline during buildup and progression. This can be between the central defenders or even between a central defender and a fullback. This will often indicate a team that wishes to build up play from the back as opposed to quickly getting up to the other end of the pitch via long balls. Out of possession, central mids may be man-marking the opposition central mid in build-up or perhaps they are in more of a zonal-marking scheme. This is also a good way to see how your own team could approach the in possession phase. Should we try to find the central mid in space between the lines if the opposition is more focused on holding shape? Or if they are marking our central options in our build up, then maybe try and use some positional rotations to create and occupy some new spaces.

Do you have any advice for the average fan who wants to get "better" at watching soccer beyond appreciating goals, assists, and fancy dribbles? Maybe there are some specific actions -- line-breaking passes, moving the ball into the penalty area -- they should keep an eye out for. 

If someone wants to get “better” at watching soccer, meaning “understanding what is happening and why it is happening”, the first thing I would say is to try and learn and understand the phases of the game and how they are broken down. This will allow for you to visualize the game in a different way. When I say phases of the game, that would mean the standard four phases: in possession, out of possession, transition from attack to defense, and transition from defense to attack. All of these four phases can be broken down even further, and then it is up to you to analyze each team’s approach to those phases. 

If we take the in-possession phase as an example: Imagine the field is separated into horizontal thirds, which is typically called the build up, progression and final third, or something of that nature. Now we can look at how the team tries to navigate each of these areas of the pitch. When they are building up, do they look to play short from the keeper? Do they bypass the backline and play directly to the attackers? Once they get to the midfield, do they tend to play vertically and find space between the lines or attack down the wings and recycle possession? In the final third, are they overloading the central areas and playing combinations? Or maybe getting the ball wide and attempting lots of crosses? Once you are able to look at the game in different, smaller pictures as opposed to just watching the game as whole, it will be a lot easier to “analyze” what each team is really attempting to do. The same goes for the other phases mentioned previously, too. 

Just like anything really, you will only get out what you put into it, so if someone really wants to understand what is happening, I would suggest trying to find some examples of game models online and go through those. There you can see the various principles and sub principles a team may use to guide the players actions in each phase.