Saturday, 27 December 2014

Attacking in Numbers Is the Best Defense? Against Corners, So It Appears To Be!

Just before turning the page on the year that saw the long-awaited World Cup in Brazil unfold, I finished Ray Power's Soccer Tactics 2014: What The World Cup Taught Us. In spite of its promise, the book captures little of the actual learning from the tournament. However, it did get the ball rolling on me in relation to how best to defend against a particular set-piece, viz. a corner. As the author mentions,

“Football is full of variables, unlike many other sports. This unpredictability is a major reason why we love the game. Regardless of tactics, systems, and playing styles, we never truly know what will happen once the ball starts rolling. Set-piece situations reduce the number of variables applicable at that point in the game. Coaches and players can plan and rehearse these restarts more than they can do for any other elements of [the] game. Furthermore, penalty-kicks reduce these variables even further.”

Including for the above-mentioned reasons, penalties and penalty shootouts are indeed the aspect of football most widely studied, including outside the sports sphere, e.g. in game theory and behavioural economics. Much of the complexity and certainly the dynamism of the game are stripped away here, leaving one kicker and one goalkeeper to face each other in a pre-determined situation, viz. an eleven-meter spot kick.

Corner kicks include considerably more parameters than do penalty kicks. Yet, they are still much less complex and dynamic than any other situation in a football game. Obviously, as compared to regular play. But also relative to free kicks, as one can never be sure where exactly a free kick will arise, if it will. Corner kicks, in contrast, tend to appear at least once – and generally several times – per game both in favour and against any given team. Importantly, they are always taken from the exact same positions, i.e. either one of two corners, and thus are most true to the set-piece synonym of being a “standard situation”.

Where the mentioned book made me think was where it pointed out that decisions relating to how to defend against corner kicks, such as how many players to keep up front, if any, “often depend on the philosophy of the coach”. I have no doubt this is the case. The author seemed to insinuate, however, that there is no one way to do it that is better than another, i.e. that all approaches are equally valid. This kept nagging at me a bit, leading me to elaborate the below proposition that it probably pays to keep (quite) a number of players up front when defending against a corner. Reasons for doing so are the following:
  1. When you keep/call everyone back, even if you clear the ball, you are sure it will be regained by the opposition (unless the goalkeeper clutches it, or it goes out).
  2. Only if you commit players up field, you have a (real) chance of scoring on the counter-attack (note that keeping a player “up field” does not necessarily mean near the middle line, e.g. France’s positioning of Valbuena and Benzema just outside their own box, with an eye on a potential counter-attack, led to a goal from defending against a corner in their World Cup 2014 game against the Swiss.)
  3. You seem to reduce the opposition’s chances of scoring from the corner as the ratio of defenders over attackers tends to increase the more players you keep up front.
This final point is generally probably least well understood and calls for additional explanation. It hinges on the fact that the opposition will be inclined to keep a player back for each forward you keep up front (typically in addition to one, for safety, i.e. not to potentially be caught out in a “man-against-man” situation). If the defending side keeps no-one up front, (at least) one player of the attacking side tends to stay back when his team takes a corner; two players tend to stay back if one opponent is up front; three players if two opponents are up front, etc. The implications hereof are the following:
  • If you, as the defensive side, keep everyone back, you are ten defenders. The opposition is likely to keep one defender back, plus their goalkeeper. They have one guy taking the corner, leaving eight players potentially in or near the box, involved in the attempt to score from the corner (note that including the taker, who may be involved in case of a short corner, as an attacking forward does not substantially change the below reasoning). This means ten defenders facing eight attackers, i.e. a ratio of 5:4, or 1.2 defenders per attacker.
  • Now, say, instead, you keep two men up front. The opposition will probably respond by keeping three defenders back. So you have eight field players defending the corner. The opposition are committing three defenders and their goalkeeper to the defence. One guy takes the corner, leaving six players to get involved in the attack. Agreed, there is now comparatively more space for those to move into, facing eight instead of ten defenders, but the ratio of defenders vs. attackers is now 4:3, or 1.33 defenders per attacker. I argue that it is this relative room an attacker has that is decisive, rather than the absolute space.

If this is all so, why not keep, say, seven men up field? Following the above reasoning, this may induce the opponent to keep eight field players back, leaving just one man in the box, to be guarded by three defenders (leading to a ratio of 3:1, so three defenders for one attacker). It is, however, unlikely that the opposition will see a need to actually keep so many men back. Note that defending with “only” two against two on a possible counter-attack is very risky but, say, five against five, or even six against seven, not that risky. And, as my reasoning of committing players of the defensive team to the attack hinges on keeping the ratio up, it rests on the opposition committing (at least) one defender to each of your players additionally left up field. Also, if they decided to push forward, say all but a couple of their players, facing only three defenders, their chances of scoring from the corner suddenly become very high, meaning that the potential advantage of you having committed men up front will likely not materialise as no counter-attack could be started.

The “optimal” number of players to keep up field thus appears to critically depend on how many defenders the opponent is holding back in response to you keeping more men up front. As long as the opposition are to commit (at least) one defender to each additional player you commit to the counter-attack, it would appear to be the more the better! As football is essentially played against an opposition, the “optimal strategy”, unsurprisingly, appears to depend on the opposition’s behaviour. As I have attempted to show, this should, however, not trick one into believing there is no approach better or worse than another.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Frank Lampard and New York City FC: (No) Way Out of an Arranged Marriage?

When Chelsea FC monument Frank Lampard ended up in the Skyblues kit early this season, under a City Football Group construction, Chelsea fans did not know where they had it. Not that they seemed to really hold it against their former captain – they would later applaud him even after having scored a dramatic late equalizing goal against Chelsea. And they were right not to do so. Irrespective of one’s achievements and loyalty during one’s career, it seems that the hard laws of professional football make that at a certain age top clubs will just gently push their heroes aside, under the form of either a contract extension of very limited duration or a huge wage reduction – and most typically both.

This had been the case of Lampard, who thus decided to embark on the exciting new project of joining Manchester City’s new franchise in the Major League Soccer, New York City FC. At the new City franchise team, he would be playing aside other designated player David Villa. The expected arrival of both at the Big Apple was announced more than half a year before the club would start competing. Notwithstanding the fact the squad did not yet count eleven players, season ticket sales kicked off in earnest, thanks to figureheads Lampard and Villa.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

So as to keep both aging stars in good form ahead of the new MLS season commencing, in March 2015, City Football Group assigned Lampard and Villa to its other portfolio teams, Manchester City and Melbourne City, respectively. While not necessarily always in the starting line-up, Lampard has shown that he is still of great value to a club of the stature of the Premier League Champions. To such an extent even that Manuel Pellegrini is now making it heard he wants to hold on to Lampard, at least until the end of the season. The Citizens are both rather injury plagued and, surprisingly, in the end, made it through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, only for the second time in their history. Moreover, in the Premier league, the champions are only 3 points behind leaders Chelsea. Pellegrini thus sees in the 36-year old, who scored the only goal in last weekend’s league encounter with Leicester, a “very important player” for his team.

The Chilean does realize it is not just about what he – or even the player – wants, though. There is not only another team (New York City FC – although belonging to the same decision-makers as Manchester City) involved, but also, even much more critically, the Major League Soccer. It is clear that the MLS granted the City consortium the New York franchise based on the expectation to bring in players of the stature of Lampard and Villa. Likewise, newly declared fans bought their season tickets based on the same promise. When you come to the market with a new product, the last thing you would want to do is disappoint those who have been found willing to give you a try. To the extent that the City executives are in need of it, the MLS will surely remind them thereof.

Thus, it may seem unlikely we’ll be seeing Lampard playing his football in Europe much longer. However, every dissatisfactory solution has its alternative. It just happens to be that a very similar player to Lampard – in terms of both position and stature – is being led to the exit by his own Premier-League club. Indeed, Steven Gerrard, who nearly by himself was able to make the tactical errors of his manager Brendan Rodgers (see elsewhere on this blog) undone by qualifying the reds in extremis for the next round of the Champions League, is being forced by Liverpool FC to seriously reconsider his future at Anfield.

Liverpool FC proposed its 34-year-old captain a much reduced pay, from next season onward – should he decide to stay with them as a player – and their non-qualification for the Champions-League knock-out stages is unlikely to give them more financial breathing room. Their worst-case scenario would be to see Gerrard leave for free to a Premier-league competitor at the end of the season – which is not all that unlikely, with Stevie G recently having been linked to West Ham U, who are much more likely even than the Reds to feature in next year's Champions League. Thus, in case they are not willing and/or able to meet his needs, selling Gerrard off over Christmas – the last time the Reds could still get a transfer fee for him – to a cash-rich, non-direct competitor (i.e. NYC FC, through City Football Group) may well be their best available alternative. For Gerrard himself, it could well be an exciting new turn in his career and probably the best way for him to remain an icon at the club where he is most likely to return as staff member sooner rather than later.

Most importantly, for the MLS and NYC FC’s newly declared fans, Steven Gerrard may well be the only worthy and therefore acceptable alternative to Frankie Lampard – which, in turn, could only drive up the asking price for the Reds vis-á-vis City Football Group. A textbook example of a win-win solution? Let’s see if those writing the actual script agree.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Number 10

At the occasion of this blog’s tenth post, I propose to take stock of the evolution of some of the main issues touched upon so far. I am very much aware that Strategy of Football is not your average entertainment blog and that it rather requires attentiveness on the part of the reader. So as to ensure neither you nor I are wasting our time with mere opinion, let’s revisit some of the main themes discussed. Although, critically, the blog is about analysis rather than prediction, from the analyses, often times predictions – either implicitly or explicitly – naturally flow.

In the inaugural post, I challenged Belgian national coach Wilmots’s tactical savvy. Concretely, I disintegrated the strategy of Belgium in their World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina and constructed a more promising game-plan from the bottom up. Although, most unfortunately, it would be impossible to have the game replayed with the proposed tactical plan in place instead, at least now, 3.5 months after the post, (Belgian) people are slowly waking up to some of the facts underlying my analysis. The most relevant evolution probably being that recently some of the star players of the national team (Hazard, De Bruyne, Courtois) openly started questioning Wilmots’ tactics and thereby his tactical capability. Whereas the general public seemed ready to erect a statue for the national coach after the World Cup, the euphoria – or, better, ignorance – is gradually making place for the realisation that we missed a unique chance to write and witness history. Whereas, still in early October, most Belgians’ heart skipped a beat when it was made public Wilmots had offers other than continuing his mission with the national team, to most of them it would now seem to come as a relief if Eric Gerets were announced to be taking over.

Source: nieuwsblad.be

The second post was published after the second match-day in the Premier League. I explained how Courtois was bound to win the duel with Cech as Chelsea’s number 1 and how – most critically – he had the backing of Mourinho. I encouraged Cech to use the last days of the transfer window to find himself a suitable team as he has the quality to be the undisputed number 1 at virtually any top team in the world – but Chelsea. Recently, Cech pointed out how unhappy he is with his substitute role at Chelsea and wants to move on. He could have saved himself four months of being benched and a whole lot of frustration.

In the same post, I suggested that Real Madrid was unlikely to win any trophies as long as they were to keep their hands above the head of their once star goalkeeper Iker Casillas. While, obviously, no trophies have been handed out yet since, Real is topping the Liga table at the moment as well as its Champions League group. I leave it up to the reader to judge what Casillas’s contribution to Real Madrid’s current success is, but at least I acknowledge to be surprised Casillas is still being given preference over Navas. And while even the ultraconservative Spanish national coach Vicente del Bosque found it in his heart to bench San Iker against Luxembourg, meanwhile, the 33-year old seems to have regained his place in La Roja from de Gea. Casillas himself recently stated he is convinced he has seven more seasons in him, so who am I to challenge that. Time will tell who’s right – and I doubt we will have to wait seven more years to find out.

In ‘The Falcon Has Landed…But Is He Here to Stay?’ I pointed out that UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules, next to being constraining, also seemed to have a curious enabling effect. For the first time in history, teams are given a credible excuse not to pay full transfer fees but rather borrow star players for a year – in which these players essentially can be tried and tested. When the world seemed convinced that what was going on was a mere payment in instalments spread over time, I pointed out that the option element would likely make that underperformers were never to be finally transferred. 

Interestingly, yesterday – and 2.5 months after writing the post – I read a first voice along those lines – and no less than Louis van Gaal's. Following Falcao’s persistent injury problems, and following a week in which Man. U. allegedly paid nearly €1 million in wages to its injured players alone, van Gaal admitted that it was all but sure they will exercise the purchase option on Falcao: “Last year, he was out for a long time with a knee injury. Then it is not necessary to take unnecessary risks”, the Dutchman reportedly said. Whether or not Man. U. will eventually exercise the purchase option on the Colombian or not, the fact that they are considering not to proves exactly the point I was making in the third post. Should Falcao not be a Mancunian anymore next year it won’t take long for van Gaal to receive a "biscuit of own dough" (koekje van eigen deeg) as Chicharito is not all that unlikely to be returning to Manchester himself.

In ‘Munir vs. Neymar: 0-2’, I damped the premature optimism regarding Barça’s new sensational youngster Munir and pointed out that Neymar is – and always will be – a much higher quality player. Let’s have a quick glance at the descriptive statistics of both players. In the league and the Champions League combined, since the publication of the blog post to date, Neymar scored 11 goals and gave 3 assists in 13 appearances. Munir totalled 0 goals and 0 assists in 8 appearances. On average, during this period, Neymar has scored 1 goal per 90 minutes he was on the field; Munir no goal per 334 minutes he was on the field.

Source: theguardian.com

The sixth post, I dedicated to troubled Belgian (former) supertalent El Ghanassy having become a free agent. I’m surprised to see that, two months down the road, he is still without a team. Interestingly, the club that showed most concrete interest in signing him so far was reported – about a week after the post – to have been my own KV Mechelen. They were, however, snubbed by El Ghanassy’s agent. Although I doubt both that my club needs another winger and that they are fit to provide the different types of professional support El Ghanassy would need to succeed, in case they are still interested, it would be well worth informing about him again. Meanwhile, his expectations will likely have been adjusted downwards now that he’s been without an employer – and thus income – for over two months already. Indeed, relegation-threatened Cercle Brugge now seem to be his best available tangible alternative – probably not what he or his manager had in mind at the time of telling KV Mechelen off.

Source: zimbio.com

Of the remaining published posts, only some conveyed ready predictions. Ronaldinho is still in Mexico rather than the MLS, but give the man some time. As for Brendan Rodgers, he, predictably, got burnt playing with fire, his side losing at home against Chelsea, in spite of their relative physical fitness. Still most interesting to see will be whether at least Rodgers can salvage a Champions League qualification for his Reds in the remaining two matches, having forfeited 3 potential points against Real Madrid, in the advent of the Chelsea game.

To conclude and look ahead, do note that at the bottom of every post there is a possibility to comment: for any substantive matters, feel free to do so, as we all stand to learn!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Nothing More Important Than the Game After Next?

One of the most promising fixtures of this week's Champions League was at the Santiago Bernabéu, where Real Madrid would be hosting Liverpool. What may have slightly tempered expectations of a great game to come was that Liverpool had lost 0-3 at Anfield. At the same time, the Reds could thus be deemed to be out for revenge. Not so Liverpool’s manager Brendan Rodgers though: he baffled friend and foe by fielding a “B-team” in the most high-profile club competition, against the reigning champion. The rationale: Liverpool would be facing Chelsea in the league on Saturday, a game with a higher expected value for Rodgers. The Champions League qualification, Liverpool would compete for in its final two group games, against lesser opponents. Was this “strategic weakening” of his squad a clever move by Rodgers? I am quite convinced of the contrary and mainly for two reasons.

Source: independent.co.uk

First, the move is demonstrative of no less than two reasoning errors. The first error is to conceive of football as purely – or at least almost exclusively – a physical game, with a team’s performance being determined by the physical fitness of its players. A second and related error is “either/or” thinking, which has little or no solid ground in this case.

Let it be well-understood that physical fitness naturally determines for a great part how a team will perform. Thus, resting one or two players – even star players – in case they are showing clear signs of fatigue, e.g. as was Steven Gerrard ahead of Tuesday’s game – is quite granted. Deliberately weakening one’s team, as by replacing half the squad, is quite a different thing. As a result of the latter, those players who were put to rest – meaning they were not to play in the Bernabéu against Real Madrid, which they may or may not have enjoyed – may indeed be fresher, physically, when comes Saturday’s Chelsea game.

What is more, these players now also know that their coach is so convinced of their skill he is willing to accept defeat against a team such as Real Madrid already beforehand. A team’s manager should also be its leader and thus always the last man standing. Nothing more demoralising for players and fans than a leader who no longer believes in Sepp Herberger’s truism that the ball is round, i.e. that anything can happen on a football field. Furthermore, Liverpool is not just any club. It is the club whose fans are famous for it never having to walk alone. And the club that won the very Champions League in 2005 following the Miracle of Istanbul, recovering from trailing 3-0 at half-time against AC Milan. No miracle in the Bernabéu though. For miracles can only happen if you believe in them.

I like to link this experience to three separate episodes I witnessed in the past, in Belgium. In 2010, SV Roeselare was playing the semi-final of the Belgian Cup, against Cercle Brugge – not the strongest of opponents. Roeselare is a very small team, also for Belgian standards, and they were struggling not to relegate that season. For coach van Wijk it was very clear that remaining in the first league was much more important than playing the cup final – which, otherwise, for fans and players of a team as Roeselare tends to be a once – or never – in-a-life-time experience. And that he would not hesitate to keep his players fresh for the former challenge. Apparently, for van Wijk, it was “either/or”. Roeselare lost the cup’s semi-final first leg with 0-3. And it got relegated to the second division, where they remain up till today. Go to Roeselare and I challenge you to find a fan convinced s/he will ever make it to the King Boudewijn stadium to see his/her club compete in the cup final.

Another eye-opener for me was KV Mechelen’s home game against Club Brugge in the 2013-2014 season. Despite disappointing league positions in recent years, KV Mechelen is a team with a strong home reputation, in part thanks to the proximity of its fanatic supporters. In August ‘13, all signs were pointing to it again being “one of those nights”: with twenty minutes remaining, KVM had recovered from being one goal down and, five minutes after, when a Brugge defender was sent off, was left with ample time to bring the game home.

KV Mechelen's coach at the time, van Veldhoven, had initially approached the game very conservatively, playing with a sole striker. Even with Brugge being one man down and with the momentum of the late equaliser, he did not make any attacking change. As a result, Mechelen’s ample defenders were left so idle and with such a drive forward that they constantly ran out of position, leaving the team most vulnerable on the counterattack. Even playing at home against ten men, the coach did not believe we could beat Brugge that day. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy: we lost after Brugge got a penalty on the counterattack. Even more contagious than a manager’s relentless belief in his/her squad's ability is his/her lack thereof – and more so when it shines through in the tactics.

A more joyful example of contagion: shortly after my team, KV Mechelen, won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1988, by beating Ajax in Straatsburg, they were to receive archrival Anderlecht in the domestic league. After three days of non-stop celebrations, it is generally believed that the state of KV Mechelen’s squad at the time of kick off against Anderlecht is best described as “half-drunk”. KV Mechelen went on to beat Anderlecht 3-0 and the festivities could recommence.

From left to right: Erwin Koeman, Michel Preud'homme,
captain Lei Clijsters, Marc Emmers
Source: stamnummer25.be

Before getting carried away, on to the second reason why Rodgers’ move was in error. A football game is always played against an opponent. Thus, strength, weakness and fitness make most sense when considered relative to the opposition. The game Rodgers was saving his men for was against Chelsea. Chelsea would be playing in the Champions League one day later than Liverpool, away in Slovenia. Following their respective CL matches, Chelsea would have only two days before the league game; Liverpool 3, or 50% more than Chelsea. But then, if Rodgers believes his players could never get a result against Real Madrid, they probably need to be much more rested than Chelsea’s to stand any chance against them.

Let’s see what the physically fresh Liverpool players will do against Chelsea this weekend. And how and if Rodgers will be able to convince his team that the coming games in the Champions League are important – and that they surely have what it takes to win them.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

So the Ball Doesn’t Go In by Chance. But Do We also Know Why?

Football leaders who come from a business background generally are met with great scepticism by the wider public and everyday evidence shows this is often deservedly so. The take of Ferran Soriano, CEO of Manchester City FC and former Vice President of FC Barcelona, is an interesting one, though: he warns against readily translating business ideas into a football context and instead extracts from his business background rather the conviction that a thorough understanding of the logic behind a phenomenon – let it be business or football – will allow for improving upon its management. Moreover, to better understand the logic of football, he embraces authoritative research findings in this arena.

As a notable example, in the first chapter of Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go In by Chance, the now CEO of the Citizens points to findings by researchers Szymanski and Kuypers of a club’s success being strongly positively correlated with how much the club spends on players' wages, but not transfer budgets – a key take-away featured also in Soccernomics, the bestseller co-authored by Szymanski. Two things are striking about Soriano’s account. First, that he seems to get the interpretation of the findings more right than the researchers in question. Secondly, that it appears to be the “common sense” Soriano refers to that helped him get the interpretation more right, but that a true logic for doing so remains hidden. In this post, I will explicate the logic behind a plausible interpretation of these findings. This will also provide a handy checklist for when interpreting research findings more generally.

In Soccernomics, the authors mention that, based on analysis of historical data from the English Premier League, they are able to conclude that, “the correlation [of a team’s league position] with players’ pay [over a long period is] about 90 percent. In short, the more you pay your players in wages, the higher you will finish”. Even more than the content of this claim, what is interesting here, from a scientific perspective, is the leap from one step to the next: the strong positive correlation is suggested to imply a causal relationship of the type “A leads to B” (with "A" being players’ pay and "B" league position). The A->B causal interpretation, however, is only one of at least six possible explanations for the strong positive correlation. I will argue that it is most probably not the applicable one here and that Soriano intuitively rather seems to have gotten the most plausible one. 

Possible explanations for the strong positive correlation include the following:

1.     There is correlation, but no causation. In fact, correlation does not automatically imply causation: some things just happen at the same time, but without one causing the other. For instance, following the Dutch Armada’s recent surprisingly disappointing performances in the Euro 2016 “qualifiers” – let’s more accurately call them “friendlies”, as everyone is to qualify anyway – journalists started speculating, rather jokingly, that the Dutch may be encountering the “curse of the third”. Apparently, since 1980, no country other than Germany that ended third in the preceding World Cup has been able to qualify for the subsequent Euro Championships. People of common sense readily understand that this is just a “funny coincidence”, e.g. similar to England on average being more successful when playing in red than white jerseys. Moreover, the number of data points would be too small to make any rigorous claim to the contrary. Szymanski et al.'s analysis appears to be based on ample data so that this explanation of mere coincidence can comfortably be ruled out.

2.     The strong positive correlation is not due to coincidence and thus indeed points to a causal relationship. In this case, the causal relationship can still be one of at least four types:
  • A leads to B. In our example, higher wages directly lead to a better league position, i.e. the explanation proposed by Szymanski et al.
  • B leads to A. In our example, a better league position leads to higher wages. Winning a league naturally implies winning prize money, of which the players are to get a significant share. Not all that implausible as an alternative explanation then, perhaps. But note that the proportion of prize money in a typical footballer’s wage tends to be rather small.
  • A and B are positively correlated, not because one causes the other, but because they have a common cause (“C”). A typical example would be the one of the use of sunglasses and temperature being strongly positively correlated. Neither one causes the other. Rather, they both have a common cause, viz. intensity of sunlight. In our case, A and B would seem more closely connected than merely through a possible common cause, though.
  • What is also possible is that A does lead to B, but only indirectly, i.e. through another variable, viz. a mediator ("D"). In our case, it seems most plausible that paying higher wages (A) leads to a better league position (B), but primarily if not only to the extent that these wages are used to employ better players (D).

So, which one will it be?

Not only do Szymanski et al. seem to incorrectly suggest that correlation automatically implies causation, but also that if there is causation, it must then be of an “A leads to B” nature. To appreciate how unlikely this explanation for the on-hand correlation would be, consider what it actually implies: that if you are to pay more (to whomever), you will obtain a better league position. So if you merely start paying your team’s current players as if they were Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, your team would soon get the results of Barça or Real Madrid. Szymanski et al. seem at least to acknowledge this inescapable implication of their attribution of their findings and – more puzzlingly – seem to go with it: “The question, then, is...[with] this knowledge of the relative importance of wages and unimportance of transfers, how can you win more matches? ...In general, it may be better to raise the pay of your leading players”. Agreed, paying peanuts is likely to hire you monkeys. But is rewarding your monkeys as if they were stars going to turn them into a dream team, really?

What about Soriano? He, as readily, neglects coincidence, thus equating correlation and causation – though he seems to be ruling out coincidence already in the very title of his book. His interpretation of the findings: “So, if you want…a team with a chance of regularly winning championships, then you need to work consistently to have a big club that generates enough revenues to be able to sign the best football talent available.” So the finding that transfer expenditure does not seem to be strongly positively correlated with sportive success does not fool Soriano into believing that it is your current squad that you should simply start paying more. Interestingly, while he gives the impression he is merely reiterating Szymanski et al.’s conclusion, in fact Soriano is rather endorsing the alternative explanation of a favourable position in the league pre-requiring that high wages are used for attracting top talent.

Where Soriano does err, is in stating that per the analysis and findings by Szymanski et al., common sense has been “corroborated by mathematics”. A subtle, yet meaningful, distinction is to be made here. Szymanski and Kuypers were not using mathematics, but rather statistics and, more specifically, regression analysis. Why is this distinction important? Because mathematics is the only way by which general truths can actually be proven. For instance, that (a + b)2 = a2 + b2 + 2a.b can easily by proven by simple application of algebraic rules. Unless someone is able to spot an error in the mathematical proof, a general rule has thus been proven. Additionally, in the natural sciences, there are several general laws that are derived from observation. An apple falling from a tree, for instance, points to the existence of gravity, which will always apply on the earth’s surface.

It is very different in the social sciences, however, where human will and behavioural traits make that not all priors will necessarily lead to the same outcomes. Regression analysis is here typically used to discern meaningful patterns. Very importantly, though, such analysis cannot prove something to hold generally; it can only show for something to occur, with a certain level of probability (cf. confidence intervals) under certain conditions and controlling for certain factors. (One can prove for something not to hold generally, by means of an empirical counterexample, e.g. if a team of 8 beats a team of 11, it has been proved that this is not impossible. However, the general rule can never be proven (empirically): the fact that so far every time a team of 11 came to beat a team of 7 does not show – let alone prove – that that is what will always happen under such conditions.)

Consequently, in the case of regression analysis, and unlike with mathematics, it is not uncommon for different researchers to be able to show quite contradictory findings, based on similar data, e.g. by accurately vs. not controlling for mediation or a common cause.

In short, when there is strong positive correlation, several things can be going on, including nothing at all (i.e. coincidence); A leading to B; B leading to A; C leading to both A and B; mediation; or strong correlation may disappear when accounting for adequate controls. The "noisy neighbours'" CEO appears intuitively right in his interpretation of the potentially important football findings proposed by Szymanski et al. I would expect him to be first to acknowledge that it is helpful to have made visible the hidden logic of why that is so.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Major League Beckham: Mindless Football Star or Hollywood Robber Baron?

“Football is an industry” and “football is entertainment” are two oft heard statements that true (European) football fans tend to have an allergic reaction to. Previously, because both were missing the point. Nowadays, perhaps more because of saudades to a long lost past. Authoritative sports news site sporza.be could not go past the presence of Beyoncé during Tuesday’s Qatari derby, PSG vs. FC Barcelona. So even those who did not see the CL game could rest assured they were abreast of its essentials.

A more noteworthy appearance in the Parc des Princes’ stands was David Beckham, who had concluded a most successful playing career in that very stadium with a heart-warming standing ovation only last year. What struck me most about Beckham’s close-up on Tuesday was how genuinely happy he seemed. According to the 'football as an industry' philosophy, it may have been an unpleasant day for him, though, as it was announced Kaká would soon be taking over from the former England captain as highest paid foreign player in the history of the MLS: Kaká will be netting US$ 7.1m p.a. at Orlando City, whereas Beckham reportedly earned US$ 6.5m p.a. when at LA Galaxy.

Source: futbolpulse.com

Even if he cared much about the money – and in case he doesn’t, surely his wife will – I would expect this comparison merely made Beckham smile. Abstracting from any sponsorship-related revenue, when signing his contract at LA Galaxy, Beckham's entourage ensured the inclusion of a clause that had been negotiated with the MLS. It concerned an option to enter a franchise team in the MLS (i.e. the US Premier League) in the future at an exercise price of US$ 25m – a fraction of what recent expansion teams were ordered to pay to the league (US$ 100m in the case of NYCFC and US$ 70m for both Atlanta and Orlando City). Furthermore, it is not just about coughing up the money; ask even the legendary NY Cosmos of Pelé and Beckenbauer how hard it is to even be considered for an MLS franchise these days. It should not be all that surprising, then, that already in early 2014, less than a year after his retirement, Beckham informed the MLS he intended to exercise his option.

Beckham’s expansion-team idea is a worthy textbook example of how to create and negotiate an outside-the-box option, one that is very easy for the other party to grant – it effectively cost the MLS zero at the time of negotiating Beckham’s LA Galaxy contract – and extremely valuable to oneself – a future monetary value of roughly US $70m to Beckham. Additionally, it was not the first time Becks and his entourage pulled off a trick like that. Beckham's signing for Real Madrid, in 2003, was facilitated by what became known as the 'Beckham law', a tax regime taxing qualified foreign workers in Spain at the lowest tax rate, regardless of their earnings. And when he then moved to the MLS, they there enacted...the 'Beckham rule', allowing for teams to designate a high earner to be exempt from the team's salary cap. Curiously also, in each of these cases, the major concession was beyond the prerogative of the club and was granted by a higher authority they somehow had been able to interest, viz. the league or the state.

And almost all of the credit goes to David Beckham. Did he come up with the expansion-option idea all by himself? More likely, he did not even have a clue about the stipulation as he signed his LA Galaxy agreement. Beckham is very much aware of the fact that he was not born the world’s smartest guy. It takes a humble person to acknowledge this and act upon it: Beckham thus surrounds himself with some of the canniest to take care of his business for him, rather than agents looking to sell him. So many averagely smart people refuse to acknowledge any need to do so and they tend to see their fortunes mysteriously vanish before their eyes as soon as they hang up their boots. The Greek philosophers can be proud of Beckham. Few if any in contemporary showbiz embody the adage that self-knowledge is the basis of all wisdom as well as this simple, working-class-born billionaire.

Source: foxsports.com

Regardless of the mostly irrelevant discussion about whether Kaká will actually become the highest-earning foreign player in MLS history, observers of the premier US soccer league may actually have something to get excited about. Next to Kaká, also Frank Lampard and David Villa are moving to the Land of the Free. And who would be surprised if Ronaldinho were to jump the Mexican border and pass through the MLS before playing his final trick?

Other than European leagues – at least traditionally – the MLS, by origin, is indeed an uncovered industry and so is David Beckham himself. In addition to having gotten the most out of his career and his image, Beckham is also getting the best of both worlds – idolatry in Europe and big business in the USA. One year after his retirement, he has all reasons to look happy. There is not a cloud in the sky for David. Whereas many of the stars of his generation must fear the uncertainty of whether they are found fit for a coaching career, Becks can soon preside over his own Miami-based club – and with a huge discount. It remains to be seen whether we will again witness someone who can bend it like Beckham.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Yassine El Ghanassy: Prodigal Son or Lost Cause?

It almost passed as a footnote in this week’s Belgian football news: “The Roads of AA Gent and Yassine El Ghanassy part”. The nº 2 in the Belgian league is releasing the 24-year-old winger from his contract. These things happen every day in football. Then why is this case of special interest? Because El Ghanassy is – or was – a player with a talent rarely seen on Belgian football fields, the "white blackbird" most teams hope to discover once every decade or so. AA Gent found one. And now they seem happier without him.

For those unfamiliar with El Ghanassy, in the 2010-2011 season, when he was 20 years of age, the Moroccan Belgian was probably thé hottest sensation in Belgian football, gifted with dribbling skills and assists unseen to any team in the league. A creative genius, the kind of player who can unlock any game all by himself. It did not take long for him to be called up to the national team and to be linked to clubs of the likes of Manchester City. Forget about Anderlecht, this kid was not going to be around in Belgium for long.

El Ghanassy’s creative genius comes with a dark side though. He’s not much of a team player – to put it euphemistically – and he systematically seems to drive his chairman and managers crazy with his caprices and apparent lack of sérieux. The last manager at AA Gent to give the youngster a real chance, Rednic, at the end of last year, watched the winger return home once before a league game after he had learned he would not be in the starting eleven. During another episode, El Ghanassy insisted on taking a penalty although Rednic had expressly assigned another player. Loan spells at West Brom and Heerenveen had been in vain in terms of helping the fickle youngster mature, it seemed.

When Didier Drogba first arrived at Chelsea, he was disappointed to find that, in spite of having signed a lucrative deal at a highly professional club, he was left on his own when it came to arranging tedious practical details, such as finding a flat or a school for his kids and things as mundane as contracting a mobile phone operator. Naturally, Chelsea probably reasoned, he had more than plenty of money to hire people to take care of such things for him. But for someone who did not speak the language, it turned out to be demoralising and quite a distraction: "After all these worries, I didn't feel like integrating [at Chelsea] or multiplying my efforts", Drogba is reported in Soccernomics to have said. Needless to add such a state of mind in turn affects performance, which the club is likely to care very much about and is otherwise willing to pay a lot of money for in wages.

In football, as elsewhere, employers often still reason that they are paying their employees enough to take care of their own problems. It is very difficult, though, to buy someone’s loyalty, or satisfaction with you as an employer and there’s always a club able and willing to pay more to the best players. Since Drogba's early experience, Chelsea has taken strides. When signing Eden Hazard, for instance, it also signed his younger brother, Thorgan – last year’s winner of the Belgian golden boot and currently on loan at Mönchengladbach. This is about recognising that behind a millionaire football player, there is also a person with normal needs and concerns. In a similar move, Chelsea signed the three Belgian Musonda brothers. So (some) clubs are learning. Still, my guess is that, instead of the final €10,000 Hazard is to receive according to his new €250,000 p/w deal at Chelsea, the club may have offered him something that would have cost them less and he may have valued more.

Although I am not familiar enough with the specifics of the case of El Ghanassy, it would seem it is not just about understanding his wants, but that he rather has serious issues and that AA Gent did make some efforts to help him with those. What is for sure is that releasing him from his contract after three loan spells is not what they must have had in mind when, in 2011, it became evident they had stumbled upon a nugget of gold. Moreover, in the almost parallel case of Ilombe Mboyo, AA Gent had been able to offload the even much more troubled youngster for a Belgian-league record fee of around €4.5m.

Whatever came before, El Ghanassy is now a free agent. I’ll be curious to see which club will sign him and how long he’ll be without one. At age 24, he will still have quite some potential; when at Heerenveen, for 4 months in 2013, in 14 appearances, he scored 5 goals and had 3 assists. The predictably unpredictable winger may be of interest to a wide range of clubs. The critical success factor will be whether any interested club has the knowhow – rather than the financial muscle – to turn this lost cause into a prodigal son story. 

This task will not be for the faint of heart: although the risk of non-performance can be mitigated, e.g. by performance-based contracts, it could upset the dressing room to have an enfant terrible who gets special treatment. But then some players may require more love than others and as long as the guidance is potentially equally available to others who may be in need of it, it may well be preferable over assuming players have the money to get all the help they need outside. So, who’s up for the challenge?

Source: gva.be

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Munir vs. Neymar: 0-2

On Saturday afternoon, FC Barcelona was playing Athletic de Bilbao – always an interesting confrontation. As I wanted to see Barça with Neymar and Vermaelen before October 24 – when Luis Suárez will return from suspension and Barça can safely stop pretending still being més que un club – I checked the ticket prices. Cheapest ticket 70 euros, so I watched it on my terrace instead. Neymar was on the bench and Vermaelen not even in the squad, so, initially, it seemed for the better.

Neymar’s position in the starting line-up was taken by Spanish-Moroccan youngster Munir El Haddadi. The two Spanish commentators were lyrical about Munir, FCB’s new 19-year-old sensation. They both were unanimous at the start of the game that as the season progressed, Neymar would probably retake his position in the starting line-up – as Barça had paid a lot of money for him – but, implicitly, that in fact this Munir is a better quality player. When, in the 63rd minute, he was brought off for Neymar, they concluded Munir had been involved in every Barça attack and you could sense that they felt Neymar was only brought on to satisfy those people who had paid 70 euros or more to see a star team.

Source: fcbarcelona.com

After having been on the field for 15 minutes and when most people had already come to terms with a goalless draw, Neymar signed for the first moment of real excitement in the game by opening the score. The most striking element of the goal for the commentators was the apparent moment of hesitation in his finish, in spite of which he managed to score the goal. Five minutes later, Neymar would score the 2-0 – after another hesitation – and game over.

Indeed, it is not without meaning that Neymar had hesitated slightly when finishing on both occasions. Other than 99% of forwards, not only can Neymar keep his nerve when presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, but also does he know how to make the most of this trait. The split second he holds out, as compared to any other forward, enables him to read where the goalkeeper is moving to, to spot the empty space and to deposit the ball exactly there. The commentators had been most accurate in their observation: hesitation. If you watch his penalty goals at the World Cup, against Croatia and against Chile – arguably, the most potentially stressful penalty taken during the entire tournament – you can also spot the hesitation. Other forwards typically don’t hesitate, they generally just miss.

Munir had had a great opportunity to open the score when Jordi Alba and he showed up in front of Athletic’s goalkeeper. Munir got the ball and finished, but was – just – offside. The number-one rule for the free man when you are two advancing towards the goalkeeper is to stay behind the ball – if Munir had, it as surely would have been a goal. Is Munir a talent? A huge one. Is he better than Neymar? Not now, not ever.

Source: nacion.com

The episode resonates with a recent experience I had related to the last game I attended so far this season in the Belgian league, KV Mechelen vs. KV Kortrijk. After the game, I read a journalist's commentary, dedicated to KV Mechelen’s substitute Van Tricht, who was brought on just before half-time. The journalist described him as the future of the club and the only sign of light on my team’s side that day. At the start of his article, he mentioned that when Van Tricht was brought on, he had instantaneously decided to focus on him for the remainder of the game.

Had I not been in the stadium myself, I may well have taken this journalist’s assessment for true. As I had been, however, I knew that we had been 1-0 ahead when Van Tricht came on and ended up losing the game 1-2 – the only of four home games thus far we did not win – and that the coach had tactically erred by bringing on Van Tricht. What we needed was a powerful defensive midfielder to consolidate the lead, a type of player Van Tricht is not. Van Tricht is a physical lightweight with a light touch and good bouncing skills – most useful skills under most circumstances, but not the ones needed when defending a 1-0 advantage against a heavy-duty physical side such as Kortrijk. The much more sturdy, over-my-dead-body-mentality De Witte would have been the more obvious choice. Coach Jankovic tried to rectify his tactical mistake at half-time, but the system was already out of balance.

The take-away is not at all that either Munir or Van Tricht would be overrated youngsters who lack talent. It is rather very close to St. Thomas’s credo: “First I see, then I believe”. In order to judge those or any player, see for yourself – only then believe. If you rely on the so-called expert observers, you may well be taken in by their pre-conceptions and even their mood of the day. They will want to appear consistent – with their earlier statements or even their random choice of what player to focus on. Relying on their judgement may well get you on top of the day’s fads, but possibly farther away from the truth. If you’re selling newspapers, a fad may well sell better than the truth. But if you’re building a team, ask yourself what’s more important to you: selling jerseys or winning games.