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-รก-vis City Football Group. A textbook example of a win-win solution? Let’s see if those writing the actual script agree.