Jonathan Wilson, whose column for the Guardian now regularly appears as “The Question,” has written one of his finer if not finest articles today on the relationship between tactics, players, and results today. Wilson touches on several issues that are tantamount to understanding the purpose of sports analytics, although he’s more concerned with the limits of tactics in explaining a single match outcome. At heart in the post is the sometimes maddening, sometimes wonderful disconnect between the talent of the players, the superiority of a single side, and the final scoreline. It touches on one of the most important distinctions in all sport: the difference between process and result.
Wilson writes his piece in light of Borussia Dortmund’s stunning (and controversial) late comeback against Malaga in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg. He writes:
After 90 minutes I felt sorry for Jürgen Klopp. His side hadn’t played up to their high standards, but over the two legs they had probably just about shaded the tie; moreover, Dortmund seemed likelier winners than Málaga and so their presence in the semi-finals made it more probable those games would sparkle. By the 93rd minute I felt sorry for Manuel Pellegrini. His team had also missed chances. Tactically, they’d probably had the better of the second leg, pressing hard and forcing Dortmund into mistakes. Or had Dortmund been sloppy? Subotic said afterwards he thought the pressure of the occasion had got to Dortmund and that their passing hadn’t been up to speed as a result. So tactical plan or emotion?
Or indeed tactical plan, emotion, luck either good or ill, a fortuitous bauble of the ball, or a temporarily blind linesman? Football, bloody hell.
There is no such thing as a sure thing in sports, and certainly not football. Yet the process—preparation, tactical formation, adjustment for an opponent—can arguably tip the probability of a positive result one way or the other. But it cannot ever overcome the element that makes football so wonderful—random variation, and how indistinguishable that random variation is from intent, talent, tactical superiority and skill. Within a ninety minute game, anything truly can happen, and as with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it’s impossible to determine where luck ends and tactics begins.
Wilson frames the role of tactics along the lines of a kind of Marxian base and superstructure. The base he writes is “the underlying structure, the distribution of players on the pitch and their relation in opposition to each other.” This is the foundation of the ‘superstructure,’ which involves the discrete events within a single game—whether the individual players can perform their roles.
In fact, the superstructure as Wilson understands within a single is more often than not an impenetrable mess of luck, underlying talent, game states (whether it’s 1-0 or 0-0 or 2-0 etc.), player fatigue, tactical formation, etcetera. Things do get a little clearer over a larger sample size, but that hardly matters in the Champions League.
And so yes, Dortmund won out of luck, skill, tactics, a gloopy mix of all three. But that does not mean, as Wilson writes, that football “continues to resist statistical analysis.” Because statistical analysis can make the reality of football clearer. It’s not about determinism or absolutes; it’s about understanding the limits of what a team can do to prepare to win, about acknowledging that sometimes football is just a glorious, infuriating random number generator that forces Juergen Klopp to pay a visit to the doctor, and Al-Thani to claim UEFA is “racist” against Malaga. It’s not about ruining the game; it’s about getting a better understanding of why it’s so damn attractive.
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Thanks to Alima Hotakie for compiling today’s links.