There are two kinds of feedback. Process feedback where the current process returns to a previous step and behavioral change feedback. Both kinds of feedback are important to football, although feedback as a way of changing behavior is the most well known within football.

Feedback has first been introduced in cybernetics in forties. Any system that can be described by the cybernetic cycle, can be considered a cybernetic system. This goes for both man and machine. The cybernetic cycle has six steps to it:

  1. Select a goal.
  2. Select an action to achieve this goal.
  3. Execute the selected action.
  4. Interpret the results of the executed action.
  5. Compare the interpreted result with the selected goal.
  6. If the selected goal is achieved or achieving this goal takes too much time, go back to step 1. Otherwise, go back to step 2.

First note that both an individual football player and a whole football team are cybernetic systems. For instance, player A wants to pass the ball to player B. This is his selected goal. He selects an action in the form of a combination of him running and dribbling with the ball at a certain speed in a certain direction towards a certain space because the passing line to player B is closed off by an opposing player. If player A succeeds to open a passing line he then passes the ball to player B. If the ball is received by player B the goal of player A has been reached and player A selects a new goal, for instance to run forward to give player B an opportunity to pass back to player B. If player A then sees that player B loses the ball, his goal becomes unachievable so he selects a new goal of defending against an attack.

To be clear, step 6 is alway process feedback.

Any cybernetic system can be combined with any other cybernetic system to create a new single cybernetic system. So two players of the same team can be considered two separate cybernetic systems or a single system. The same goes for all eleven players of the team. As a team you select as your goals to play in a certain formation so you can attack and defend as planned and hopefully score more goals than the opponent.

Every time you go back to either selecting a new goal or a new action that is called process feedback. As long as you keep selecting a (slightly) different action if you haven’t achieved your goal then you will become good at anything you do. Your brain is a cybernetic system as well and this is how your brain learns and becomes good at doing stuff, including football.

Feedback as a way to change behavior

The second kind of feedback is behavioral change feedback. Here someone tells you something in the hope that you will change your behavior. In principle behavioral change feedback is a special form of process feedback. The person giving you feedback, probably does so because he thinks that you did not achieve your goal. In fact, almost all processes are improved if process feedback is always combined with behavioral change feedback because it is one thing to know that you did not achieve your goal and you need to select a new action, it is much better if someone or something (a data analysis for instance) tells you how you can improve.

Behavioral change feedback is only feedback if the message actually includes information about how to change your behavior and the message is about how your behavior did not result in achieving your goal. Any information about who you are and why who you are prevents you from achieving your goals is not feedback because you can not change who you are, you can only change how you behave. At best such messages are irrelevant, at worst they are insulting.

In almost all cases there is no point in yelling, calling people names or come across as very aggressive. Applied behavioral analysis has shown that if people do undesired behaviors, the best thing to do is to ignore it. Most of the time the undesired behavior will decrease and even disappear. The only exception is that there is a rare personality type that prefers to be ignored. Instrumental learning tells us that if being ignored is a reward, ignoring undesired behaviors actually increase. But again, this is only the case in one in ten football players you work with.

Ignoring undesired behaviors is different from correcting mistakes. If people make mistakes, then behavioral change feedback is in order. It is best to tell the person as soon as possible after having made the mistake, how he could improve his behavior. Preferably in private. Make sure that you do not prioritize to correct small mistakes over celebrating what your player did right. If he did eight things right, first celebrate his accomplishments, praise him for the effort that enable him to achieve these accomplishments and compliment him in general. In general, you want to celebrate in public with the whole team. To prevent picking winners and losers in the team, it is often best to praise the success of the team and compliment the effort they have put into whatever it is that they did right. Then critique individual mistakes hours or even a day later in private.

Also, make sure that you don’t mix compliments and praise with behavioral change feedback. Instrumental learning teaches us that whatever your player has done just before you give behavioral change feed is going to decrease. That is exactly what you want if your player has made a mistake. That is how he is able to change his behavior. But if the player has just done something right, then you run the risk that your behavioral change feedback rather than decrease the mistakes, actually decreases desired behaviors. Just be sure at all times about what you’re doing: if you are giving a negative message because someone has made a mistake, make sure you don’t mix in compliments and praise. And if you are giving a positive message, make sure that you don’t do that just after a player has behaved in an undesired way.


To be blunt: formations do not exist. Why would formations not exist? Everyone is using the concept of formations in football. So at least formations seems to exist. And in a simple way formations do exist. Formations exist as a word, a term used in football and as a concept. But concepts are abstractions. Concepts do not have a physical existence in the way the pitch, goal poles and the ball exist.

Given that formation is a concept, you cannot see formations. Again, this goes against what most people think, because we football analysis many a time we see a picture of a formation. Here is an example


The picture above seems to clearly show a 4-5-1 formation. But in fact that is not what we see. In fact the analyst has drawn extra lines to help us “see” the formation. What we really see are eleven Liverpool players at a certain position at a certain time. The source, The Coaches’ Voice, explains that Liverpool switches to this 4-5-1 formation when defending, because the manager wants to strengthen the midfield.

All of that sounds reasonable. Nevertheless, we only see eleven players at a certain position on the pitch and then we apply our concept of formation to this picture and use that concept to explain what we are seeing. The concern is that while people consciously understand that concepts are abstraction, in most cases their unconscious mind treats them as real existing things.

One might argue that this is sophistry. That it really doesn’t matter whether a formation is only a concept if it correlates so well what we are seeing. But things get murkier once you realize that we don’t see a football match as a still picture. Yes, we see the above still picture, but in reality we constantly see players moving around the pitch. So, unless one measures what percentage of the time players were at these positions on the field, a still picture can be quite misleading. In theory this could have been the only time when these players were all at the same time at these locations. In fact, it is highly likely that this was the only time, because it is much more likely that at any other moment during the match at least one of these eleven players was somewhere else. So while the picture seems to show a clear formation, in reality the correlation between players positions and formations is way lower than the picture suggests. Some people suggest that a formation shows where players are most of the time. Heatmaps clearly dispell this idea. Centerbacks might be the most static players in the game besides the keeper, but even centerbacks move around a lot. Wingbacks are probably the least amount of time at their position according to the formation. It is already much better to say that a formation helps players to know where they have to be relatively to other players, but even that idea does not correlate well with the static picture a formation suggests.

Football is a very dynamic game and formations are quite a static way of describing football. That is the reason why analysts start to talk more and more about switching formations. Again, although it seems that being able to spot when a team switches a formation, enables one to better understand football, in reality one might be fooled by confusing abstract concepts with real existence. The more formation switches that you see, the less likely it is that these formations are real. If an analyst thinks he has spotted the team using twenty different formations during a match, he is probably counting too many positions of players as a formation, where in reality the players ended up in these positions by happenstance.

Looking at average player position, you can see that it becomes a lot less clear:


Formations as a training heuristic

My point about formations not having a real existence, should not be taken that we should stop using the concept of formations. If a concept is practical to use, by all means use it as long as you understand that there is difference between an abstract concept and the matter what this concept is about.

Formations is a concept that is well used as a training heuristic. Getting players to understand what the manager wants. To get a player to be at the right position at the right time is a difficult job. Formations are very helpful to train players so they know where to be and where to go at what speed and direction during the match. The concept of formations is also very handy to explain to players what they can expect and what to watch out for when it comes to behavior of the opponent.

It is perfectly okay when analyzing a match to state which formation(s) the manager planned to use. This would be a less precise way of saying that the analyst finds it likely that the manager used the concept of a certain formation as a training heuristic to prepare the team for the match. If correct that would help us understand the match better.

A next step would be to actually find some kind of measurement to calculate what percentage of play time players were in positions that would correlate with a specific formation. This can be done for both attacking and defending formations. You could then compare these results with other measurements of attack and defense and see whether they support each other.

Formations as associative learning

Associative learning is one of the three ways the brain learns. Associative learning is better known as Pavlovian learning as Pavlov was the first scientist to establish it. With associative learning the brain creates a probabilistic relation between two or more sense impressions. Associative learning is the reason that formations as a learning heuristic work. By using formations as a mnemonic players start to associate certain positions and movements with the goals set by the trainer. The name of the formation then becomes shorthand for a whole set of actions on the pitch.