This extraordinary video has been making the rounds in the last week or so. This is the opening half minute of a match between RB Leipzig (the home of Johan Sebastian Bach) and Stuttgart II. Both sides currently play in the German third division:
As you might expect, this video made the LOOK-AT-THIS-CRAY-CRAY-THING-THAT-HAPPENED-LARISSA-RIQUELME-WORLD CUP-START-TIMES-2014 rounds on the Interweb. A lot of people watched it, had a good laugh, and went about their merry way.
But the thing is, here in front of us is a simple and effective football tactic. It’s a workaround, yes, it goes against the conventions of the game, it will almost certainly not be imitated by any top flight teams, but it worked. Leipzig practically started the game with a goal advantage, and went on to defeat Stuttgart II 3-1. It was a calculated risk; an errant pass could have exposed the home side to attack. But at the start of the game, with fresh legs, one could make the case that Leipzig would have had a better time tracking back to defend. In any case, it won that most valuable of prizes for most football clubs: the opening goal.
The importance of the first goal seems to be borne out by the data. The Betting Expert website (a great resource btw) looked at results from the 200-7-08 through to the 2011-12 domestic seasons for all the major leagues (including the SPL and Championship) and calculated that home teams which scored first won roughly between 72-76% of the time, while away teams that scored first won 57 to 61% (in the SPL, which I’ve left out, it’s a relatively high 69%). If that sample isn’t big enough for you, Chris Anderson wrote on the subject back in 2010 (although used half-time scorelines instead).
We can also speculate a little based on what we know about Game States for example—how teams behave depending on the scoreline—as to why exactly opening goals are so important.
We know for example that teams that are a goal down will take more shots with only a very marginally increased shot conversion rate, while teams that are leading will generally take fewer shots but with a much higher conversion rate. This makes intuitive sense—teams that are losing must score to get even a minimum result, and so push up the pitch and take more shots. In short, they have fewer tactical options and so have to attack.
Meanwhile, the team a goal ahead can focus on a more defensive posture (shelling, parking the bus) and play a quick, effective counter-attack to exploit the space opened up behind the opposition defense for that decisive second goal. The principle behind Leipzig’s variation on the “full court press” all out attack is the same one that drives team with players of lesser technical ability to focus on set-pieces: first goals are very, very important.
Except—and what I’m about to write is speculative so please bear with me a little—I’m willing to bet that there are certain teams for whom the idea of scoring the first goal or shifting tactics depending on the score line are less important than it is for others.
Think about Barcelona, a team whom I’m certain scores first almost as a matter of course. As we witnessed against Ajax last night, Barcelona rarely have to move into a defensive posture after scoring first. Barcelona has so many technically gifted players, so confident in possession, and are coached in a style that maximizes their collective ability under Tata Martino, that they don’t need (or at least haven’t needed until now) to adjust their level of play to suit either the opposition or the scoreline. They don’t need to push for an early first goal, or even to take advantage of set plays (yes, even with Messi’s wonderful free kick last night).
To give you an idea of what I’m getting at, here is Gerard Pique discussing a recent change to the team’s approach under the new manager Tata Martino:
“The idea of football hasn’t changed, we simply are trying to have more options now,” said Piqué. “If we’re being pressed, hitting a few long balls isn’t being negative. It gives us oxygen, it gives us an out ball and forces the opponents to adjust.”
And here’s Martino himself from the same article:
“We try to get the players to make different decisions, to weigh up whether to attack more or less. We practise that in training sessions. The other day against Sevilla, in the last 15 minutes we shouldn’t have put the match at risk. Everything needs a period of adaptation. We need to adapt now that this competition has started.”
For Barcelona, even this small, circumstance-driven deviation from tiki-taka is clearly a new thing.
One can imagine several bemused managers of smaller teams reading these quotes, many of whom base their entire approach on a shift on relying on a plethora of tactical options depending on the score-line, the quality of the opposition, the amount of time left on the clock etc. For them, the little things are arguably of far greater importance, because the final result is in question far more often.
I’m reminded for example here of a recent interview I conducted with the former manager of the Canadian national team, Tony Waiters, who discussed the team’s preparation for a crucial away match in World Cup qualifying in 1985:
“But we’d face teams that were very skillful individually, more than Canada could produce. They play soccer all day and every day. What they didn’t have then however was a sense of cohesiveness. Because were willing to work hard, we were able to play a high pressing game irrespective of the conditions.”
That hard work consisted of a focus on fitness in part, but also a game strategy which emphasized work on set-pieces and scoring the crucial first goal, particularly away from home. Canada simply worked harder to achieve that “cohesiveness” their technically superior opponents lacked. While the football it produced may not be the most attractive to watch, is it any less sophisticated? Or difficult to prepare for?
If this is the case and I’m not full of crap on this, it would imply several things.
First, it might mean if managers want to get the best performance from a squad of limited ability, they might paradoxically require more tactical versatility and adaptability from their players than managers of an elite side who can simply focus on a tactical “ideal.” Keep in mind that “lesser side” is always a relative matter—see Real Madrid vs Barca, or Chelsea vs Bayern Munich. Players for smaller clubs would have to learn to quickly adjust roles, formations and strategies (long ball vs short passing, playing to the wing vs playing up the middle) depending on the score line or the opposition. For those reasons it might be more difficult to successfully manage a smaller club for reasons that go beyond simply having “worse” players at their disposal. This might also explain the failure of tactical idealists and purists at smaller clubs like Luis Enrique at Roma.
Second, it might explain why managers like Sam Allardyce, Steve McClaren and David Moyes were first movers and evangelists in the regular use and application of data and performance analysis systems like Prozone. Teams of lesser ability might arguably benefit more from target match analysis data to make critical improvements to set-plays or defensive strategies than Big Four sides. Even a marginal increase in set-piece goals for example could have a huge effect in a team facing a possible relegation battle for the season. Remember the importance of those opening goals!
Finally, it could help switch the debate over possession vs direct or “long-ball” football from a question of aesthetics to one of necessity. It should be said that even teams that are regularly accused of playing “long ball” football rarely employ the tactic against any and all sides, in any and all game states. A team might play a more possession-based approach against an equally-talented opponent until they take the lead, at which point they’d resort to a few over-the-top balls to try and score on the counter.
In the end, all teams and managers make tactical adjustments in response to the score line. It just might be the case that some teams with limited resources might have to do it more often.