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Q&A: Jonathan Hill, Football Analyst

Q&A: Jonathan Hill, Football Analyst

In the last decade, the role of analysis in football has grown exponentially. Clubs are placing more focus on detailed video and live assessment of performances than ever before, and as a result a variety of opportunities have opened up for sports professionals with a passion for this side of the game. Clubs are switched on to the benefits of scouring far and wide for excellent tacticians and thinkers, and a number of analysts are finding work at clubs in Europe's top leagues off the back of fantastic online output.

At the same time, these developments have led to the field becoming more saturated; while there are tons of analysts sharing their own scouting reports, infographics and match analysis online via blogs, Twitter, or Substack, it is often difficult for people to get their work seen. As a result, Jobs In Football is creating an exciting new platform that will offer analysts a chance to publish their work and build a portfolio on our site, where they will have access to feedback from Jonathan Hill, an experienced football analyst who has worked with a range of elite-level clubs.

After studying Coaching and Sports Development at the University of Cumbria, Jonathan first got his foot in the door as an intern at Blackburn Rovers. Over the following years, he began building experience as an analyst, going on to work with clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Fulham, Bournemouth, and Club Brugge, and working closely with a range of high-level coaches and executives. 

To mark the launch of our new initiative, we spoke to Jonathan about his career path so far, the key skills required in this role, and why he's committed to offering feedback to budding analysts via this new project.

When did analysis first appeal to you as a potential career path?

“At my university sports course, there was a tiny bit of analysis, but next to nothing. I studied coaching but I didn’t love coaching — it just felt like if you can’t play, the only way you can be involved in sport is to coach. Fortunately, after graduating my lecturer called me out of the blue and said “Blackburn Rovers want someone to go and be an intern there, and I think you’d be perfect for it.”

I just thought ‘Wow, I’m gonna work for a Premier League football club for a year, whatever happens off the back of it, it’s something to be really proud of.’ As soon as I started, it felt like a perfect fit.

I didn’t love the coaching and didn’t really feel like I had the personality for it, but I loved watching games, the detail that goes into it, the tactical and technical element of it, and coaching in a less direct way. 12 years ago, analysis was a popular element within football clubs but it wasn’t externally known about. Since then it’s kicked on and the levels of analysis at football clubs now is incredible.”

Were there any key figures at Blackburn Rovers who influenced you in those early days?

"A huge benefit for me was that Sam Allardyce had previously been there, and it's well-known how big he is on analysis. They’d built a really strong, successful analysis department, and while Sam had left at that stage, there was the carry-over of everything he’d built.

Two key people were Paul Brand — he’s now Head of Analysis at Manchester United, and he was great for teaching me key principles and themes of the role, as well as behaviors and how to act —  and Gary Bowyer. He was the U21s manager at the time, he became caretaker and then the full-time manager, and he was really big on analysis, and a really great people person.

As a young person who isn’t overly confident, you go into a Premier League football club, you’ve suddenly got Premier League players all around you and there’s an element of imposter syndrome. To have someone there who was genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts and giving you opportunities to do your job and contribute was really helpful.

Sadly in my first year the club got relegated… it was a really difficult period for the club, and I’d say the only really constant elite process at the club was the analysis side of things. It’s no surprise that everyone from that department has gone on to greater things."

How have attitudes towards analysis changed during the 12 years you've been working in the game?

"The industry has changed a lot, and I'm someone that's benefited from those developments. In 90% of football clubs, the people that spend the most time with the manager now are the analysts. That's where the majority of modern head coaches invest their time, because it's how they coach and influence the players.

Back in the day, you were very much a department; you'd have the coaching department, the medical department, and the analysis department, but nowadays the analysis department is just an extension of the coaching team."

"The volume of games that teams play, you just can't do the level of coaching and get your messaging across the way you'd want to on the training pitch because of the physical restraints that players have. So analysis meetings and team meetings are where you get all your detail across, and the level of tactics, detail, and preparation that goes into trying to win a game is huge. I'd say it's pretty close to being the most influential department at a football club.

You only have to look across football and see the development path for analysts now; they quickly move into being Head of Recruitment or Sporting Director, because they've had such great exposure to working with people, understanding the game, understanding players' performance.

Eight years ago, it was very much detached… the manager would come to you, or you'd be sending stuff to them in the hope they might look at it, but now it's such a synchronised, joined-up process. Any preparation or analysis post-match is done as a collective."

You've worked very closely with Scott Parker at Fulham, Bournemouth and Club Brugge. Could you tell me about your working relationship with Scott?

"He arrived at Tottenham (where Jonathan was Lead Post Match and Data Analyst) having retired from football, and he was coaching the Under 18s. We quickly recognised that we have a mutual understanding of how we want the game to be, how we see football, and the values we have in life.

At the time I perhaps didn't recognise it, but he was trying to build his staff, knowing where his ambitions lay as a manager. As soon as Fulham came, it was like "Let's go"."

"My job is to be proactive to make sure he's got everything he needs. It can be anything from preparing stuff to deliver to owners to try and sell something… to delivering a team meeting or a post-match meeting. He gives me great empowerment to prepare stuff because I know exactly what he's gonna want.

During a game, I'll have stuff prepared that we can show the players at half-time, what's going well, what's not going well, potential changes we might want to make."

"You've got to be a salesman, you've got to convince the players that what you're trying to get them to do is the right way. Modern footballers are very experienced, they've played under many coaches and they've got their opinions. You've got to try to convince them that pressing high against this team is the way to go, or these sorts of movements against this team will win the game.

It's a collective process, how we deliver those messages. Ultimately it's his decision, but I've got to give him the tools he needs."

How did you find the process of giving him those tools and delivering those messages to players at Club Brugge, where there was a different culture and more of a language barrier?

"It was a really great challenge for us in Belgium, one we were very excited for and motivated to deliver success in. It was great to experience a new culture and environment and while it wasn't a successful time for us, it has provided us with great learning opportunities and it's all part of the journey to improve and get better.

I've worked abroad before in Qatar and enjoyed living in a new country and being at a huge club with passionate fans. It was challenging arriving halfway through a season, that was a new scenario for us, we were authentic and tried to do things the best way we believed but ultimately you have to win games and we didn't achieve that.

At Bournemouth we had a 6 week preseason to coach and create a culture which resulted in starting the season 15 games unbeaten and promotion, going in mid season you have to hit the ground running, coach and prepare a team with league games every 3/4 days and we drew too many games as we tried to sell our method, improve performances and build relationships.

But you learn and improve and our time in Brugge has given us a chance to reflect as we seek to achieve more success in the future and we are internally better for it. Through reflection you grow and improve and every experience provides an opportunity for you to progress your skills and knowledge."

You've partnered with Jobs in Football to offer feedback to budding analysts on work they have published on our site. What appealed to you about this initiative?

"The thing that I find incredibly hard when you're leading a department and trying to identify and employ staff is that so many CVs these days read exactly the same. People have all done undergraduate degrees, they've all had a year or two of experience as an intern, maybe one role at a professional club.

You have to create a shortlist from a number of CVs that are roughly the same, without having the time to speak to everyone. The most important thing I value is seeing people's work, I want to see what they can deliver, and then I want to meet the person to understand if they have the people skills to build a relationship with the coach, because that's ultimately the job — you have to be able to communicate with a coach."

"This initiative is really powerful because there often isn't a way to showcase people's talent with analysis outside of the generic pathway that exists. If you don't have an undergraduate degree, if you don't have three years' experience at a club, then you're not going to make it through an HR screening process to get near a department leader.

This opens the door to so many people from so many different backgrounds… it helps people to showcase their talent and innovation. I think most people within analysis would say that if you've got talent, you understand the game and you've got the people skills required, the rest you can teach."

How can people help themselves stand out in the early stages of their career as an analyst?

"You can't really underplay the people skills if you want to go down the coaching side of analysis and be integrated with the coaches. With the data side of things, the people skills are less essential, because it's less integrated in the coaching side of things, and is becoming more of a separate department.

Developing people skills, if it's something you find hard or you're not great at, push yourself to improve it. Equally, in terms of trying to make your CV stand out, attach these projects, attach these bits of work, and sell things that you've done. Put some detail in, not just "I worked for club X".

To be really effective in a football environment, the human aspect, the people skills, and the work ethic are all going to be the keys to success. If I knew some of the people skills required I would've put more focus on them earlier in my career, and really worked through developing those rather than the hardcore analysis skills and software. Try and be proactive with doing your own analysis, and try and showcase your own bits of work that you do, to really enable employers to see what you're capable of."