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.