Denmark u21's with Thomas Sørensen

We were fortunate enough to have an interview with Denmark U21 Analyst, Thomas Sørensen, finding out about his career so far and working on the international stage.

PA UK: What is your current role?

TS: I currently work for the Danish Football Association where I work across the U21 side and the first team. Although my main responsibilities are with the U21s where I’m the only Performance Analyst attached, I perform tasks for the first team, which is probably something that will take up more of my time as we approach the European Championship next summer.

For the U21s I take on all of the tasks that a Performance Analyst would usually be expected to take on. So things such as opposition analysis, live analysis, individual analysis, and post-match performance analysis. As an analyst for a national team, I also have to keep up with the player’s performances at their clubs, of course. Both via data and video.

PA UK: Tell us about your background and what has led you to this point....

TS: My entry into football was as a player. Not a very skilled one though. And as so many other boys or girls at 15 years of age, I quit football at that time. After a year or so away from football, I started coaching at my local grassroot club where I used to play. I spent my first 4 years in coaching there, coaching both boys and girls youth teams whilst doing my coaching badges.

After 4 years I decided to leave the club to go and challenge myself elsewhere, so I sent an application for a volunteer analysis role at Lyngby Boldklub, a newly promoted Danish Superliga side at the time. I eventually got the role, which was mainly around data collection and smaller ad-hoc tasks. Lyngby is a smaller Superliga club, and therefore I had the opportunity to get close to the lead analyst and did some extra work which he and the rest of the staff were happy with. My extra work resulted in that I was now trusted to take on more tasks for the team which I constantly learned from. I spent a very valuable year at the club which taught me a lot about not only the analytical side but also the professional side of the game. We also finished 3rd in the league which was a great achievement for a promoted club at the size of Lyngby, and something that I’m very happy that I had the opportunity to be a part of.

Following my year at Lyngby, I moved to England to do a Football Studies degree at Southampton Solent University. During my time there I learned a lot about not only football but also various ways of thinking about football and knowledge in general. I hear a lot of people complaining that their degree does not prepare you for your job, or that they are not learning anything. Whilst not 100 per cent of what your learn might not applicable to you, or you might already think you know the stuff, I’m sure that studying my degree has helped me. You learn to think differently, as you will constantly have your ways of thinking challenged as you get presented to new knowledge, discuss with your course mates, and always have to back your opinions up. During my time there, I also did some tasks for some different Superliga clubs, just as I did some coaching and finished my UEFA B.

It was also during my time at uni that an opportunity to work as an intern with the Danish U21 national team which came about through some of my contacts back in Denmark during my time at Lyngby. At this point I was finishing my 2nd year. The internship was basically to come in and work with the U21s as the only analyst to prepare the team for the 2019 U21 Euros, which the team already qualified for, and then go to the tournament with them too. So that did not take long to think about when I was offered that. After the U21 Euros last summer, I stayed with the U21s during my 3rd year too, where I would travel back and forth between Southampton and wherever we were playing. This eventually led to the full-time role I have now, after I graduated earlier this year.

PA UK: How did working in your current role come about?

TS: As I mentioned earlier, I had some contacts back in Denmark which helped me to get an internship in the Danish Football Association. I continued my work for the U21s after the summer too, where a new qualifying campaign started up with a new coaching staff. For the first part of the qualifying campaign I worked whilst being a student and then after my graduation I got a full-time role, which now also means that I’m going take on more tasks for our Men’s team and other tasks in the Football Association.

PA UK: Best moment in analysis?

TS: I can’t really point out one specific best moment. However, I’m happy to give an concrete example of a time where our preparation has affected our on-pitch decisions for the better, which is always a great feeling when that happens. The specific example is from November last year in our qualifying match away against Ukraine. Leading up to the game we had assumed one pair of center backs would start, where one would be left footed and the other right footed, as you usually see. However, when the staring 11 were announced we realized that this was not the case and they had gone for another left center back. Due to us having prepared complete profiles of all players we were quickly able to identify that the left center back was now a right footed player. We could thereby easily communicate that to the relevant players and ask them to adjust certain positions when we were pressing the center back. After two minutes, the new center back dribbles in with the ball, our striker adjusts his position, the center back is now out of options, and passes it straight to our strikers feet. We then score on the following counter attack.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not probably not my best moment, and the process put into it is very, very far from rocket science. It’s the oldest trick in the book really. Force the opposition on his bad foot. But it’s a direct result of preparation, and that’s always just nice to see such clear examples of when your work pays off.

PA UK: What’s the ultimate goal for you and why?

TS: My ultimate goal is to always produce the best and most applicable analysis I can do within the team that I’m working, and to help the coach and players to be the best they can be, which will hopefully also result in winning games. That will always be the aim. If you follow that, and do it well, I believe the experiences that you are looking after are going to come.

That said, of course there are experiences that I hope to have during my career. Being in international football at the moment, of course you can’t help dreaming of going with your country to a World Cup. Only very few people get to have the experience of representing your country on such a big stage, so that’s something I definitely aspire to do one day and would take great pride in if it ever were to happen.

PA UK: Are you more data or video heavy in your work and why are you more heavy on that area?

TS: With the Danish U21 side I would say that we’re currently very video heavy. And the explanation is something as easy as that the data availability of the U21 European Qualifiers doesn’t benefit from the same coverage by data providers as other tournaments. This is not to say that we do not use data of course, as some providers do have some data available. We also collect our own data through match tagging software, which we use to measure our own style of play through metrics defined by ourselves.

PA UK: How do you use data to affect performance?

TS: As I said earlier, we have some data delivered by some external partners available which we use to gather information both on how our own performances and to get information on how our players are doing for their clubs.

For match preparation, we use data that we collect ourselves. I believe that the big strength in collecting your own data is, that it does become very applicable to your own team, as you have the opportunity to define and validate the customized data yourself. However, it is time consuming, and you have to be very clear within your staff on the definitions. Usually we would try to learn more about the oppositions defensive strategy. Both to try and measure how we expect the opposition to press us, so if it’s high, low, or something in between, and to see if they have any weaknesses in certain types of defensive phases. We also look at the game context and game state when trying to make these predictions. However, at national team level the matches are few which means a smaller sample size, so you always have to be careful not to be too lost in the data if you look at it across a tournament.

We do also produce pre-match and post-match reports, where we try to summarize some of the key statistics that we have. For this we use both our own customized data, which is very valuable when measuring our own style of play, and also combine that with more basic data from external partners.

PA UK: Do you think clubs in Denmark utilise analytics to its potential?

TS: Whether all clubs use it to their potential or not is difficult to say from my position. All clubs have varying economic realities and priorities withing their club. But I’m sure that the clubs definitely see more potential in analytics than just a few year ago. When I left for university in 2017 not even half of the clubs had full-time performance analysts at their club, whereas now most club will have someone who is capable of working with modern analysis software. Some clubs have also started hiring analysts for their academies. Of course when we talk about analytics and Denmark, most people will think of FC Midtjylland who is a well-known club within the analytics community. FC Midtjylland has won the Danish championship twice in 5 years with their strategy which I think and hope have inspired more clubs in the country to see the potential and invest in their analytics department.

PA UK: What do you think is next for the analysis industry?

TS: People within the community will probably have noticed that tracking data which can track players movements throughout the match is making its way into analytics. This will be something that I believe will make a big impact on the analysis industry in the coming years, as we can now start to measure what coaches will look for in aspects such as deep runs and compactness. And I think that’s a key thing to always remind yourself as a performance analyst. The key thing being trying to see if you can measure what the coach finds important. If we can start to have coaches more involved in modelling and definitions of data, I think we will start to see even more applicable and actionable analysis. So to summarize, I think the next steps are integration of tracking data and the coaches’ eye into analytical models.

PA UK: What tool has the biggest impact on your job?

TS: When people ask about tools for analysis, I think most people will start thinking about industry tools, like various tagging software, or what programming language they use. As important as good skills are within different software and efficient databasing, which is very important, I think that the most impactful tool an analyst can have is his or her ability to communicate. And this is a huge buzzword these days, so I’ll give my thoughts on what I mean with it.

To me, communication is not only how politely you talk to people, or how you deliver your opinion via video, numbers, or visualizations. To me, good communication is also an ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. It’s to know what information is important to them and try to see the world from their perspective. Whenever I try to communicate something to someone else, I always try to ask myself of actions I could make in his or her position if I got this information. If I wouldn’t know what to do with the information, it is probably not important, or has to be delivered in another way. That’s why I believe that the relationship between the coach and the analyst is very, very important if you want to make actionable analysis. Whenever I start to work with someone, I always prioritize to have time to go to matches or watch football in another way with the person so that we can discuss how we see things on the pitch, and I can get a feeling for what expressions the person is using, what types of player he or she likes, for example. You don’t just have to communicate well, but you also have to communicate well within the same language, is maybe a way to say it.

PA UK: What advice would you give someone that wants a job in the industry?

TS: A thing that I always thought I have benefitted from is that I, especially during my time at Lyngby, was quite proactive. When I got into the role as a volunteer analyst, I was proactive and did the extra work which made the staff respect me and eventually trust me. When you have that trust, that’s when people start to go to you if they need your help with something. So my advice is to be proactive. To be proactive could also just be to go to your local club who almost always can use help, if you don’t have an entry to a professional environment yet. If you go out and get work done, you not only get very valuable experience but also to build a portfolio, you all of a sudden have some actual applied work that you can go and show people. So my advice is to be proactive, to always look for ways to expand on your skills and improve yourself.

Check out more interviews with Analysts and Coaches here.

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