Jerome Polenz Part 2

Australia, learning football, data and punditry

This is a two part interview with ex-German footballer and current TV analyst Jerome Polenz who along with Thomas Broich will be training the U15 team of Eintracht Frankfurt. Part one can be found here.

Life-changing experiences in Australia

In your German interview with the excellent TheFalseFullback.de, you have some strong views on learning and German football culture:

Meiner Meinung nach könnte das ein Stück weit an unserer Kultur liegen. In Deutschland geht es sehr oft darum, bloß keine Fehler zu machen. Fokussierst du dich aber nur auf die Fehlervermeidung, kannst du keine Fortschritte machen – das gilt nicht nur für den Fußball, sondern auch für andere Bereiche des Lebens. Fortschritt geschieht nur durch Trial & Error – Versuch und Irrtum.  Dann funktioniert zwar mal etwas nicht, aber du bekommst ein Learning aus diesen Fehlern und suchst nach neuen, besseren Lösungen. Solange du aber nur auf Fehlervermeidung aus bist, erhältst du keine neuen Erkenntnisse

“In my opinion all of this might be cultural, in Germany there seems to be too much focus on not making mistakes. But when you try to just avoid mistakes, you can’t make progress and not just in football, but in all walks of life. Progress works via trial and error: maybe something doesn’t always work out, but you LEARN from the mistakes and try to find newer/better solutions. But if you just focus on avoiding making mistakes, you don’t learn anything new.

From the above words, which could have been written about Hungarian football I might add, it seems like you got fed up with German football. 

Is that why you moved to Australia, “the place where you finally started to understand football under Tony Popovic”? In other interviews you have touched on this, but what did that entail? What were the revelations under Popovic for your playing career and beyond? What does the fact that you had to “relearn” the game and “unlearn” many things say about German coaching?

Initially, I was thinking about quitting football entirely – my name wasn’t the best one after the Union Berlin episode and there weren’t any Bundesliga 2 clubs seriously interested in signing me so I almost accepted the fact, that my professional career could be over at this point.

Then – out of nowhere - the call from Australia came and I thought to myself: You have nothing to lose. Seize the opportunity, accept the adventure – but do it right. 

So I accepted the offer from Western Sydney Wanderers and having Tony Popovic as a coach was the best thing that could have happened to me at that moment. He was super strict, but fair. He knew what he wanted and how things had to be done. No excuses, but honest and hard work based on a clear long term plan and vision. I have never seen a coach who was as prepared and structured to the smallest detail as him. Every training session was filmed and carefully analyzed, every meeting and video analysis was building up on each other and he put strong emphasis on us players learning the structure of the game. He created a learning environment for everyone and because of the structure he taught us, football became easy as we always had solutions on the pitch at hand. Where are the spaces? Which spaces do we want to attack? What is the structure of the opponent? What do we have to do to destroy their structure? What do we have to do to limit their strengths and increase ours? After we internalized the process of Popovic, most of our opponents became open books to us and we could exploit their weaknesses. Our confidence grew and this created even more momentum, every player coaching each other – knowing what to do on the pitch most of the time. For outsiders, it was a miracle, that we won the premiership in the first season of the club’s existence but winning the Asian Champions League in the following year shows, that it is the result of a perfectly executed plan based on the foundation of knowledge about the game.

This is what I never experienced in Germany. Football was random to me. I had no idea that there was such thing as structure. It was all about not making mistakes and individual brilliance. And I know that it was the same to most of the other players. 

You went to Norway, where per my research you played in two games, one against Bob Bradley’s Stabaek, but it seemed like a short stint. Why did you end up finishing your career in Australia and how did you come to meet Thomas Broich at Brisbane Roar?

I don’t remember much of the players I played against in Norway. Leaving Australia after such a successful 2 years was a mistake in hindsight but I don’t want to miss having made the mistake. Remember, trial and error is the only way to learn new things and grow – so this was another episode of learning for me. When I was in Norway and winter arrived, I was obviously missing Australia a lot. The quality of life over there is second to none so I was keen to go back. I had sporadic contact to Thomas Broich and when they lost their right back due to a transfer, they had a vacancy on that position. Thomas knew that I was willing to come back to Australia, so he spoke to his coach and MD. 3 weeks later I was back in Australia.

Tom und Jiro, Talking Tactics and moving on to TV

When did the idea behind forming a website/outlet about bringing tactics into the TV area form? 

In Brisbane, Thomas and I lived together with our partners in a spacious house. We watched a lot of international football and really liked the football shows “Monday Night Football” with Gary Neville & Jamie Carragher and “The Mind Game” with Stevie Grieve. We compared it to German football broadcasting and saw that there were no real in-depth football tactics shows in Germany on the market. This is where the idea came, that we could do something like that when we finished our careers. In our free time we started collecting ideas of how such a show could look like. We spent many months brainstorming and structuring ideas to create a show that is even more in-depth as MNF and MG but easily digestible. To achieve that, we knew that we needed data and nice visualizations.

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What were some of the difficulties in making it a reality? How much do you think being former players helped in gaining acceptance?

I think the biggest difficulty when trying to sell a new idea, is that in most cases you need to have a product BEFORE trying to sell it.

It is not enough to talk about an idea because lots of people can’t imagine what is in your mind. We realized that we had to make a prototype if we wanted our idea to have a chance of happening. This was quite difficult because both of us had no skills in video editing software, no experience in copywriting, excel, acting in front of a camera etc…

We had to learn everything from scratch. We subscribed to Lynda.com and learned all the software and skills we needed to do what we wanted to do. It took us a couple of months to be at a point to produce the first prototype: an analysis of the test match between Germany and Spain in March 2018 (1:1). With this prototype we went to Sky and DAZN. Both liked it a lot and were willing to work with us. In the end we decided for DAZN because the chemistry was really good, they didn’t want to change anything to our product and their business model and platform were perfect for our videos.

To what extent has working as a TV analyst changed you as a football observer? What are some of the things you have learned? What sort of feedback do you get?

It has changed my perception of the game a lot and I learned that I know only a tiny bit of the game and that there is so much more to discover. We have downloadable scouting feed access to every single Bundesliga and Champions League game, downloadable access to all the data, the time to consume it and the software and skills to work with it. The more you watch, observe, analyze and break the game down the more you learn about it. You identify patterns, relationships, important spaces and realize why things work and don’t work with different coaches, players and approaches. We accumulated hours of material for best practice and created our own library for every single aspect of the game. But still, there is so much more to learn and I think it will never end. There is not THE way to play successful football. There are many ways and this is the beauty of the game. Football is always evolving and with it – our view of the game itself.

The most satisfying thing about our work is, when we get messages from coaches, players or fans telling us, that they have learned a lot from our videos. We see our videos as a form of infotainment and it’s a joy to get the feedback that it is being consumed that way. 

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Big Data and Tactics

One of the best things about your work across platforms is not just the focus on tactics, but your attitude towards data and numbers. For Zonal.ly you have been using Statsbomb data such as xG in order to challenge narratives such as “black and white”, results-oriented thinking. How did that come about and how receptive you think the football-consuming public has been towards this? To what extent do you feel like football TV coverage has to move with the times or follow the trends?

It's simple - it is just logic. I think it is time for everyone – especially club owners – to accept the fact that football is a low scoring game and that a single goal can have a huge impact on the outcome. You can have 5 high XG attempts, missing all of them and your opponent scores from a corner kick being the only chance of the game. The result is you lose - but it doesn’t mean that you played a bad game. The opposite is much more likely. 

The problem in football and in our society is that everything is seen as black and white and also that there is no time allowed to work on things. Football is process first, results second. If owners, clubs, media and fans understand that and operate on a more sustainable level – we will see much better players, better games, healthier clubs and happier people. Football has to go this path, otherwise I fear, it will in the long run destroy itself and the people working in the industry.

To the extent that you can talk about it publicly, how has the Bundesliga embraced data at different levels? It is known that a lot of the smarter teams have been using their own data (if not other company’s like Statsbomb), but to what extent do you think it’s influencing their day to day operations? In your opinion, where are some of the bigger advantages you can gain with data, is it on the recruitment level like Ian Graham\Michael Edwards have said?

I know of some clubs that are working/experimenting in a very clever way with data, but I don’t know to what extent they are already using it in their day-to-day process. I believe, across the Bundesliga there are already huge discrepancies between innovators and laggards, if you want to speak in terms of a classic adoption curve. One thing is clear to me: The ones who refuse to innovate, will quickly be left behind, whether it be on the pitch due to better quality of training, analysis and recruitment or off the pitch on a commercial level. These clubs will sooner or later find themselves in relegation battles.

Finally, how are you spending this time without football and do you have any recommendations for us?

I am currently in Bavaria with Thomas and we are doing what we love the most: watching football games. It is a great time to go through our library and catch up on games that we haven’t seen yet. And for everyone who loves watching classic games I can recommend the website footballia.net – a treasure for football lovers.