SOMETIMES the surroundings just do not do the moment justice but for Gary Connell it was the other way round: the view was great, it was what happened on the pitch that lacked beauty.
The Senior Performance Analyst at Aspire Academy was working for the New Zealand FA at the moment in question, specifically a friendly international against Denmark that was played in Turkey on a pitch right next to the beach.
With breaks between international matches running into weeks and sometimes months, Gary would watch as many as 100 opposition corners as part of his pre-match analysis but none of the hours of video tape prepared him for the one he witnessed that day.
He said: “It was probably 2015. A lot of football in Europe tended to move to places like Turkey or Spain or Portugal because the rest of Europe is frozen in the deep winter and I remember we were playing by one of those all-inclusive resort-type hotels, literally on the beach.
“One of the Danish players took a corner and it went over this high netting wall, onto the beach. It rolled down the beach and into the ocean in an international match, which just showed how bad it was.
“There was this silence. It was ridiculous that an international footballer could miskick it so badly.
“It was way too high, way too much curl on it. The wind was blowing that way but there was no way the wind should have taken it onto the beach.
“The fact that we were playing an international match next to a beach in the first place was crazy but the fact someone managed to kick it into the ocean was pretty impressive.”
Gary was in part shielded from just how horrific the kick was because he was following the game on video via his laptop as part of the live analysis team.
The only words that were uttered before jaws hit the floor were ‘yup, set up is good’ from the assistant coach.
After the amount of work that had gone in on preparing the team for the corners that was the main focus as Gary looked up from his screen to see the ball clear the netting and disappear into the Mediterranean.
Gary explained: “We had done a lot of analysis on what they were supposed to do and we made sure all of our players were in the areas they were supposed to be and the ones that were tracking runners were tracking runners, the ones in their zone, were in their zone.
“Our set-up was perfect and because the ball never got anywhere near the goal that is all we could analyse on that.
“So it was just a case of ‘that was funny, let’s move on’.
“We knew exactly what they were trying to do because we looked at more set plays than games.
“If we watch five games, we will watch set plays from about 20 previous games because we will get a big library of what their corners are and what they are trying to do and even if there is one like this that is a miskick, we can look at the set-up and say ‘actually they were trying to do this one’.
“The biggest benefit of working in international football compared to club football is the amount of time you get to prepare for every game.
“So I just thought I am going to do as much as I can, so we generally take the previous two years of games, depending on when the coach had changed, and if the coach had changed then we would just do games from when they came in.
“We would go through as many set pieces as we could, so we may watch 100 corners and with that 100 corners I split them up into left side, right side, inswinging, outswinging, short corners all different variations and eventually come up with the case to say OK, if it is on the right they’ve got three corners and these are the ones are going to do if it is this player taking it. If they are right-footed it is going to go to this area or it is going to one of these two options.
“This signal means this. If this player’s going to take the corner it is going to be one of these options. Then when they do the signal we know their signals, we know exactly what they are going to be doing from this signal and our players know that and we can adjust based on that.
“Our mentality was that we need to give every single bit of detail we possibly can to the players so they don’t have to react too much on the fly, they know what is going to be coming based on who is taking the corner and what the signals are and they can adjust their set-up or whatever else they need to do.”
When it came to analysing the corner, Gary followed a method based on the acronym DOVES.
He explained: “The D was for the Delivery and that relates to everything around the player taking the corner, the signal they make and then everything they do before the ball gets into the area. How they strike the ball. Is it a lofted delivery, driven or curled?
What is the area they are aiming for? Do they mix it up?
“Very rarely do we see players kick with different feet but sometimes the same player will take corners from both sides with different feet, then we would have to go into more detail about that because they have the chance to inswinging or outswinging corners so the players would have to be more on their toes about what could happen.
“But these were the type of things we would look into just based on the players and what was going on.
“It is funny with the signals, that even in international football, they don’t get that complicated.
“It may just be one arm for near post, two for far post or they bounce the ball when a player is going to run short. It was very rare that the signals got that complicated.
“Some teams may be a bit clever and change them every game so one arm up would be near for one game but then far post in another, to just keep other teams guessing.
“There were no top secret signals that we could not work out.”
“O was Organisation. That is basically what was going on in the box. so the number of players, their positioning, the areas that were being attacked, the areas that were being blocked, the players that were holding for second phase, players who were dummy runners, or runners going short.
“Basically who was going on in the box and what were their roles in a perfect scenario.
“The V was Variety. So if a corner could be set up exactly the same and everyone is running to the same places but they just change the delivery or the big centre-back is actually a decoy and they go near post to the striker to flick on, so we always to make sure we are looking for variations so we don’t get caught out.
“The E is Execution. So things like the timing of the runs, the dummy runs, the feints, running far post and coming near post, who is looking to get first contact and who is blocking. Or are they looking to score from first ball or are they trying to flick on for a second phase or are they deliberately playing to lose the first contact so they can score off the second phase.
“The S is the second phase, which I just touched upon.”
This is the process Gary used to analyse all the corners he watched as part of the New Zealand national team set-up.
BUILDING A NETWORK TO ACCESS WIDE-ANGLE FOOTAGE
As we have already heard, depending on the opposition that could be as many as 100 corners as part of his prep for a match.
Access to the InStat database of match video and data analysis made it easy for Gary to gain video footage of games around the world.
On top of this, he also built up his own network of analysts who would share the video footage they shot of games, because he wanted to see the wide angle view of the games that broadcast footage does not always provide.
Gary added: “One of the best things I did was build a big network of analysts around the world because TV footage is not what you want to watch as an analyst. You want that wide angle with an overview so you can see everything that was going on.
“With wide angle footage, you can see all the players. This is so important for transition moments, positioning of forwards when defenders have the ball, and so much more.
“Any time we didn’t have any wide angle footage, which was rare, we certainly noticed the change.
“So after a game, I’d go over and introduce myself to the other team’s analysts and say ‘if you ever want any footage, just let me know’ and that would work really well so that over time there was 15 or 20 different countries I could call on and say can I have this game.
“I know in some leagues around the world, some teams have just gone ‘hey, we are all doing this why don’t we just put all the footage in a centralised place’ but for international football that hasn’t happened yet.
“There will always be someone who has the game of teams you want to watch and by strengthening relationships with people I could just send an email and say ‘can I have this game’ and see if they wanted anything we had and they’d say ‘yeah, can we have this game’ and we’d just swap footage.
“That for me was the best way of getting it, even with you know World Cup games or Confederation Cup games.
“We wouldn’t go directly to the team we were playing against, we’d ask teams who would have played against them. There were times when teams that were playing us, asked for footage of our games and I would just think, ‘what are you doing, of course we are not going to give you the footage. It was quite funny when that happened.”
STATS SUPPORT SHORT CORNERS WITH AT LEAST TWO PASSES
Despite all the corners Gary watched in his seven years with New Zealand before moving to Qatar in 2018, none of them could top the planned routine which led to Claudio Marchisio scoring for Italy against England in the 2014 World Cup.
Gary said: “It was just the simplicity of it. In terms of playing to your strengths and playing against that opposition, I just thought it was so good.
“I went back and watched it recently and it is still one of my favourites because of how they created that space for that player on the edge to shoot through so many bodies to score. It was such a good corner.
“It makes me assume Italy deliberately devised this corner to disrupt the England set-up having watched it previously.
“There is a stat on set-pieces that the most successful corners are the ones that touch more than two people then go into the box and this illustrates it brilliantly.
“I try to share that stat with as many analysts as I can because you have got so much more chance of scoring if you play it short. But everyone still delivers it straight away anyway.
“It is an interesting approach to the game that the stats show you should play it short but most teams still play it directly into the box.
“The key part is that it has to pass two people. So just one pass and delivery will not disrupt the defence enough, but if you pass it twice then it really starts to mess with the opposition.
“By the time Marchisio shoots the ball, all the England defenders are all over the place. It is just a great example of shifting the opposition before the delivery.
“England had eight players in the box, three zonal and five man markers.
“They had two men marking players on the edge of the area. One is marking the player going short and the other is man marking the second player, Pirlo, on the edge of the box, who then makes a run towards the ball.
“Both of the markers run with their man and Marchisio starts to get closer to the edge of the box so when Pirlo dummys the second pass, the ball falls to Marchisio who snaked in late and is in lots of free space.
“By the time he gets the ball on the edge of the box he is in 10m of space with just scattered players in front of him and the goalkeeper cannot see a thing. He has time to take a touch and then just drives it through the crowd into the bottom corner.”
Gary can sympathize with the England analysts who would have prepped for the Italy match as it is unlikely there was any footage that would have revealed a worked-on routine like this.
He said: “You know what teams have done before and can prepare for that but anything new, it is tricky and at World Cups is when teams do their new set-pieces.
“Nobody does them in friendlies. They will pull them out at a World Cup or major tournament and all of a sudden you have this brand new move players have to deal with. As an analyst you can’t do anything. It will be the first time you’ve seen it so there is no way you can prepare players for that.
“With the New Zealand team, when we defended, we defended with everyone because we wanted to minimise the chance of any weakness being found or any area but there are always points where you think ‘where are we weak’.
“We had one coach who was really good and detailed on this. He would go ‘right, if we were the other team playing us where would they look to target’.
“So there might be slight adjustments or you just do your best to cover off what you can and if the opposition throw in something different you just have to trust the players to be able to deal with it because in set-plays you can’t possibly think of absolutely everything the opposition are going to do.
“There were times when we were looking at club games if we played a team with a new national team manager.
“We would look through those and see what came out of that but it is rare it would give us anything new.
“We checked as much as we could.”