Interview with Jerome Polenz

Hi Jerome. Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Could you briefly introduce yourself and tell us about your career?

With 15 I left TeBe Berlin to join the youth academy of Werder Bremen where I went through the different youth teams and also went pro. My further destinations in Germany were Alemannia Aachen and Union Berlin in the second Bundesliga.

It did not work out for me at Union so I decided to take a step in the wide world of football (Australia, Norway), which in hindsight was the perfect decision for myself and my development- from a footballing perspective as well as a personal perspective.

After my career, I worked in the marketing department of a Start-up in Berlin for 1,5 years where after half a year I was given the opportunity of building up a new branch in Barcelona.

Although I was able to gain valuable experience outside of football I quickly realized that I wanted to return to football as soon as possible.

When Thomas Broich ended his career we quickly started working on a prototype for “Talking Tactics”. We had already developed the idea during our time in Australia and his return marked the beginning.

Tell us a little bit more about your experience in Australia and the impact it had on you.

In Australia, as surprising at it might sound, I for the first time realized how football actually worked because I was fortunate to play under an incredible manager (Tony Popovic). He was very good in the field of video analysis and paid attention to every little detail.

Through these incredible video sessions, us players suddenly started realizing the dynamics of the game, the different phases and improved a lot at the collective recognition of space. The training sessions had been planned weeks in advance and built upon each other.

Once you experience this approach, you realize as a player, the advantages it brings and how quickly you can develop over a short period of time. You are also asking yourself how you have played your entire life without knowing this. Before that, I had mainly played intuitively.

Surprisingly Thomas (Broich) felt exactly the same. We were both fortunate to play under exactly these 2 managers. For Thomas, it was Ange Postecoglu, who had huge success with a, for Australian standards, revolutionary way of playing.

Although they both followed different philosophies they were similar when it came to their eye for detail and were able to convey it to the players. They were proper “teachers” of football.

Both coaches cared more about making the players understand football. Especially the structure of the game because understanding this facilitates everything for the players as they know what is behind everything.

Building onto this, how important was the individual preparation for the next opponent? Were you looking at video sequences of the player you were coming up against? Expanding on this how much tactical understanding do you think players possess. The German media frequently argues that the players would not understand Guardiola’s tactical instructions anyways.

I have a different view on this. I think that players realize if their manager has a clear plan, knows what he is doing and conveys his ideas with passion. This will automatically lead to attention from the players. Players will be eager to learn more about it.

In Germany, I never got in touch with it and mostly tried to execute what the manager expected from me- without really understanding what the underlying reason was.

If you understand as a player why you are performing a certain action then it has a big positive impact on you. Tony Popovic for example used cameras to film every training session. In the beginning, most exercises were quite tough as they were very complex for most players. With time it got better. After approximately half a year he started showing us sped-up versions of the video footage to make us realize how the exercises had developed over time and how we were able to transfer the principles from training to the game.

We saw how space and time in training reduced while the execution improved. As a player you recognize the positive impact of training. Especially the visual representation helped to open our eyes and sparked a flame in our group.

How was the manager preparing you for the next opponent?

The manager started breaking down the Big-Picture. Primarily it was about team tactics. When we specifically prepared for an opponent we split up into small groups and it got more detailed. It was less about the next opponent and more about ourselves. The goal should be to seek the initiative and cause problems for the opponent. If you have a clear plan, good solutions and good execution your opponent needs to react. When your system is dominant your opponent ultimately needs to react to you and you have a big advantage.

Maybe this is the problem of German football. To a big extent, the focus is on the opposition and therefore the football is mostly reactive. Often the focal point is the defence and teams are trying to play on the counter. A lot of the teams have solutions for defending and counters. As soon as they need to create chances through possession they struggle and do not have solutions.

For me, this could also partly be because of your culture. In Germany, it is often about avoiding mistakes. If your sole focus is on avoiding mistakes you cannot make progress- this not only applies to football but also other parts of life. Progress is only possible through trial & error. Sometimes things will not work out but by learning from your mistakes you can find new better solutions. As long as your goal is to avoid mistakes you will not advance.

I often have the feeling that when trying something new it is not implemented at 100%. For example, playing with a high back-line is often only partly done although it can negative consequences.

Exactly, often it is not done with full conviction. As soon as a promising attempt fails for the first a lot of people become afraid and stop too quickly. Considering the domestic media landscape and the lack of patience from a lot of clubs this might only be human. Obviously managers want to take little risk and chose an alternative they are already familiar with. Ultimately it is only a way of avoiding mistakes.

Which role does the way we evaluate games and results play? Is it not wrong to argue that in the end, only the result matters when football is a low-scoring sport and luck as well as randomness play a big role.

100 %. We wrongly reduce football to the result. It is important to understand that football is a low-scoring game. There are a lot fewer goals than for example basketball where there are a lot more points. Ultimately, through the high amount of points respectively the number of throws the better team wins. In football, this is not true.

If we consider a game as an isolated event then luck plays a much bigger role than people imagine. Therefore it is important to consider how many quality chances a team is creating and compare this to the chances their opponent has. This ratio is decisive for me and brings us to the topic of Expected Goals.

For me the Expected Goals difference between the chances created and the chances conceded is the golden standard for the assessment of a team’s performances. If you are constantly creating better chances than your opponents, the probability is high that you will finish high up the table at the end of the season.

From my point of view, the attention in Germany is too much on the result instead of footballing development. After two, three bad games everything is questioned – the manager only has little time to develop something. This is also partly because of the structure in clubs and the selection of decision-makers. The result is too often the main focus and often data like successful tackles or distance covered are used which possess only little explanatory power.

Especially successful tackles come with the question of what actually makes a tackle “successful”. Expanding on this people should ask themselves: An isolated 1 vs. 1 occurs very rarely. More frequently it happens that opponents are being pressured by a team-mate and are forced into making a mistake which allows you to pick up the ball without any problems. Who has won the ball? You or your team-mate who did 80% of the work?

We should start by defining the events in a game before we jump to conclusions.

Another example is the question behind a successful pass. Maybe you are playing a long ball which reaches its target but leaves your teammate in an isolated position against three opponents with no chance of keeping the ball. The pass was successful but was it a good one? Ultimately it depends on the context of the situation.

Although I love statistics they are only as useful as their interpretation. Often it is about the play style of a team. I can name the following example: Eintracht Frankfurt had 2nd worst passing statistic of all teams in the Bundesliga, but they do not mind as their idea is to play long balls to Haller, the best heading player in the division. Frankfurt is concentrating on second balls and lay-offs from Haller. With simple and effective means they can play through a lot of space and past their opponents.

For other teams, such a passing statistic would be a disaster because it does not fit their philosophy. In football, it is not about playing a certain way. There are multiple approaches that can be successful. It always depends on the idea that the manager sees as the right one for his team. If this idea is implemented it can be successful. This is exactly what makes football the most interesting sport in the world. There are no limits to your fantasy and creativity.

You already mentioned that a lot of statistics offer only little insight. This is especially true for the evaluation of players. Why do stats only play a little role in football compared to basketball? Are a lot of teams not really believing in it?

From my point of view the reason is that football is a lot more complex than for example basketball. In football there are so many variables that have an effect while in American Football or Basketball there are strictly defined phases of play and in-game situations. American football is very static, there are offense and defense. Also in basketball you have less freedom than football which is partly due to the size of the pitch. In football you can play in every direction, the physical condition of the players plays a smaller role and then there are rules such as offside. There are so many variables that make the evaluation more difficult. You cannot use one statistic and argue that one player is better or worse. The context plays a decisive role.

I often have the feeling that black and white thinking prevails in football. It is either a tactical analysis or the analysis of data. Ultimately data can help me complete my video analysis and discover what went wrong or where I was biased in the evaluation of game footage.

That is a valid point because a lot of biases exist in football and nobody is safe from them. Not even analysts or coaches. Ultimately there are too many details and you cannot see everything through either video analysis or data analysis. For this reason, the combination of both works best.

Data is good because you can immediately see the trends as well as the positive and negative extremes. For example, Thomas and I at “Talking Tactics” are first looking at the footage and then look at the data. Ultimately we are comparing what the footage tells us and what the data tells us. Frequently we will see statistical outliers and ask ourselves why this happened. After that, we will rewatch the game and see if under the consideration of the data we can find new details that we had missed before.

This is the big opportunity that data offers you. You can find details that you had previously missed out on. Especially for scouting and opposition analysis this is very important. You no longer need an abundance of scouts but can immediately create a pre-selection of interesting players that you want to take a closer look at.

Liverpool is using a lot of data for the analysis of set-pieces. This can be a huge advantage. Ajax Amsterdam is playing brave football and is consistently trying to find new ways for their youth academy. Is Germany too scared again?

Exactly. This leads us back to the avoidance of errors. Nobody wants to try out new things because there is always the chance of failure. This leads to the adaption of successful ideas instead of the development of new ideas. Therefore, innovative clubs and associations will always be one step ahead. A positive example would be Belgium and the Netherlands.

In general you are more likely to find new developments and trends at smaller associations as they are more agile, are able to change their structure quicker and have less pressure and fear to try out new things. Looking at other countries can therefore be beneficial.

Let’s discuss the topic of youth football. On one hand, results already play a big role. On the other hand, we want to see young players play in the Bundesliga as quickly as possible. This often leads to the selection of physically dominant players.

This is a big problem and is rooted in the pressure academy coaches are under. Success does not mean to develop fantastic players who can establish themselves in professional football. Unfortunately, success is defined by winning titles.

Coaches are therefore chosing the quickest and most promising way to success which is picking the physically dominant players and are trying to win the German championship.

This way we are missing out on the main objective which is to develop the best footballers possible. One should focus on supporting the most promising talents by giving them game-time even if they might have a disadvantage compared to players that are 1,85 m at 15.

I see it as an advantage that small, technical players always need to come up with new solutions for them to compete against the stronger players. How am I positioning myself, when do I make myself available, when do I dribble and when do I pass to my team-mate to avoid a duel with a more physical player? This is an immense quality because you do not even have to win a duel for you to be successful.

Prime examples for players that are not famous for being physically dominant are Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta. They are rarely involved in direct duels purely because they already have a solution in their head before they can get tackled.

Jerome Polenz
„Andres Iniesta“ by Marc Puig i Pérez is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I am under the impression that in the German youth setup it is always about extremes. At first, we wanted to develop small, technically gifted midfielders such as Iniesta. We have then realized that we are missing players that can dribble. Should the focus in youth development not be on decision-making and then second to that on training specific positions?

I reckon that players should develop a structural understanding of the game as early as possible. When you understand the game, the importance of time and space, thinking in probabilities then I am convinced that even at young age players will be able to find solutions in every situation.

This always requires the manager to understand the game. Especially in the Bundesliga, it seems like a lot of managers have understood how to defend but do not have any solutions for when their team is in possession. A few years ago we had World-class managers such as Guardiola, Tuchel or Klopp. Why is that not the case anymore? Where has Germany been left behind?

That is difficult to say and there is probably more than one reason for this. I can name an example that is not only relevant in football. When you have been successful for a long time there is always the danger of becoming satisfied and sluggish. You are resting on your laurels and not even realize how quickly you are being left behind. It is human nature that you have to fight against.

Jogi Löw for example even said during the analysis of the world cup that before and during the tournament he was convinced that his strategy was the right one but in hindsight realized that a lot of things did not work out and could have been approached differently. In the situation itself, he could not realize it though.

The only chance of preventing this from happening is to constantly reflect on yourself, be in constant discussions with external observers and an objective data monitoring that exposes any potential biases. Functioning working culture is the key from my point of view.

In the upcoming Bundesliga season, there will be a lot of new exciting managers and projects. Nagelsmann in Leipzig, Rose in Gladbach or Glasner in Wolfsburg. Could the new managers maybe push each as they are constantly facing new ideas and need to come up with solutions? Similar to Klopp and Guardiola in England.

I am convinced that the new season will be very exciting. The new managers have realized that solely playing reactive football will not get them very far. I especially enjoyed watching Salzburg last season.

Julian Nagelsmann knows attacking and Leipzig know defending which will be a good combination. I also think that Dortmund has improved massively.

Coming to a different topic now. How do you think the new goal kick rule is going to affect the game?

The new rule might not change the game fundamentally but will have a big impact on how teams build-up from the back and how teams press. Teams that want to have the ball will have an advantage as the size of the pitch is increased by the length of the box. As the pressing team, you will need to cover more space. New passing angles are created because players can now position themselves freely around the box.

If now the first defensive line starts pressing it will leave a lot of space behind. Therefore, the second line needs to step up which will leave space and ultimately the last line will be reluctant to go past the halfway line. Keeping a compact shape will be a challenge.

It will certainly be exciting to see how teams are dealing with this situation. We will definitely see a few more errors during the build-up but there will also be pressing teams that will suffer against teams with a good positional play.

As long as possession-based football keeps on developing we could also see a lot of long balls and fights for second balls.

Definitely. I could also imagine that teams are abandoning the high press and using a “Safety First” approach: positioning deep in the midfield third to work against the ball in a compact shape.

Which other trends can you see in world football at the moment?

Thomas and I have rewatched every goal of the last Champions League campaign. We realized that the majority of goals the top teams have scored are being assisted from either zone 1 or the “number 10 space”. The aim must be to create chances almost exclusively from the “Golden Zone” as the probability of scoring is much higher.

Jerome Polenz

Teams are using different approaches to enter these zones. Liverpool for example is playing extremely wide and are trying to enter the box through the wings. Tottenham, on the contrary, are almost exclusively playing through the middle. Barcelona can do both and are using a combination of Messi in Zone 2 and high fullbacks to cause dilemmas for the opposition.

It has widely been noticed how the game has gotten more complex. With your format on DAZN, you have added a new dimension to football coverage. How does coverage need to change for the fan at home to understand what is happening on the pitch?

We simply tried out something new and tested the format in cooperation with DAZN. The feedback we received was very positive and it seems like the fan at home would like to see more of it. I think that many are making the mistake of underestimating the viewer by saying: “They would not understand it anyway”. I disagree with this. The public has an incredible interest in football and also detailed analysis. If you are able to explain things in a simple way and build topics upon each other then it will also be understandable for the novice.

If we, for example, were not sure if our explanations were simple enough we carried out a test. We presented the newest version of our episode to Thomas’s mother and his wife. If they immediately understood the topic we knew that we were on the right track. If not we went back to improve it.

My approach is always to explain things as simple as possible. If I am not able to do this I have not understood it myself.

Yes, exactly. You cannot imagine how hard this can sometimes be. We see things that seem obvious to us but we also played professionally for years and studied the game on a daily basis. The casual fan should understand and at the same time enjoy the format. It is about finding the right balance. Sometimes finding this balance can be very difficult.

What advice would you give somebody who wants to get into tactics but has no prior knowledge?

Through the internet, we have the opportunity to learn anything we want. Everything it takes is curiosity and discipline to keep up with it. I like to get inspiration from books and Twitter. It is incredible how many experts there are and you can learn something from every single one of them. Apart from that, you can always read blogs such as Spielverlagerung or one of the many great upcoming blogs such as yours. Additionally, I like reading the Total Football Analysis Magazine. Ultimately if you keep on searching for it you will find it.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

With pleasure.

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