Liverpool v Fulham - Barclays Premier League

So I’m going to further out myself as a massive nerd here (as if over a year of analytics columns hasn’t already done the trick) and use a famous, fictional test to illustrate the point of today’s column. That test is the Kobayashi Maru. Wikipedia:

The Kobayashi Maru is a test in the fictional Star Trek universe. It is a Starfleet training exercise designed to test the character of cadets in the command track at Starfleet Academy. The Kobayashi Maru test was first depicted in the opening scene of the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and also appears in the 2009 film Star Trek. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Dr. McCoy referenced the test as an example of the no-win scenario that he and Captain Kirk were facing. The test’s name is occasionally used among Star Trek fans or those familiar with the series to describe a no-win scenario, or a solution that involves redefining the problem.

Here’s the test as featured in Wrath of Kahn. Essentially the cadet must decide whether to rescue a ship adrift in hostile territory or attempt to rescue it and be destroyed along with it (Captain Kirk is famous for being the only cadet to have successfully passed it, but he later admits he cheated).

It’s the no-win scenario, meant to illustrate that not every real world situation has a single, optimal outcome (although a utilitarian moralist might point out that the “right” thing would be to let the Maru be destroyed).

So what the hell does this have to do with football tactics?

Well let’s go back for a second to last weekend’s Premier League fixtures, and in particular Fulham’s 4-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield. I wrote on the game for the Monday round up, and I still stand by my initial thoughts: “[Fulham] Putting out a 4-4-1-1 away from home against a team (Liverpool) notorious for overloading the midfield (they didn’t this time) seems to have been, on paper at least, the right call.”

I’ll go into a little more detail on that. Liverpool have, in the past, put out a five man midfield (though they opted for a kind of 4-4-2 instead on Saturday). Moreover, they were playing at home on Saturday, and Fulham are clearly a technically inferior side (sorry!).

Martin Jol had any number of tactical options. He could have hedged his bets and gone for an all-out attack which, for a team of Fulham’s goal record so far (tied for 12th in the league on 10 goals, though four came against Crystal Palace in a single game) would not have been outrageous, but could have easily resulted in a rout as Liverpool poured forward and Fulham struggled to maintain possession.

Or Jol could play a compact formation to clog the midfield and frustrate Liverpool’s attack, a risky proposition but one that could at the very least keep the goal-differential down, and maybe even earn a draw or a lucky win from a goal on the counter via the supposed strike talent up front in Kasami and Berbatov.

It’s clear Jol chose the latter–Fulham put out a 4-4-1-1 and were hemmed in their own half. The problem however is that Liverpool easily challenged Fulham’s midfield and defence in possession in Fulham’s half, won the ball in dangerous, central areas of the pitch, and ran past any remaining players to score. The result was incredibly ugly. Liverpool took 32 shots to Fulham’s 4, an appallingly lopsided result for any Premier League side, let alone one with the top flight tenure of Fulham.

So who failed here? Jol in his tactics? Most other teams would have been far more disciplined and careful playing a defensive formation away from home, but Fulham’s players seemed incapable of competently doing the basics, including clearing the ball under pressure in dangerous areas.

Was it Jol’s team selection? It’s hard looking at the roster whether there were many effective replacements for Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker, or Philippe Senderos and Kieran Richardson.

Or could it be these players have forgotten how to do the very basic things in football, which, based on their extremely, historically low shot ratio, seems to be the case? Maybe Jol simply did the best he could, and still lost. Maybe Liverpool was his Kobayashi Maru.

Certainly a series of poor performances from a team is the shared responsibility of both players and the manager together. But it also could be a failure in coaching and training, too. That’s why Fulham’s recent decision to hire René Meulensteen as “head coach” to join Jol as manager is so interesting. Here’s the Guardian:

The 49-year-old will take his duties on the training pitch with immediate effect, adding to Jol’s coaching staff of Michael Lindeman and Billy McKinlay. The hope is Meulensteen provides a spark to revive a team that has been floundering since they thrashed bottom-placed Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park last month, though further scrutiny will be placed on Jol’s position if the next sequence of results – starting with the visit of Swansea City before games against West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa – do not prompt an improvement.

This hope resides in part from Meulensteen’s success at Manchester United. Henry Winter detailed his work with Cristiano Ronaldo in an article from a few months ago, and it’s fascinating reading in part because of Meulensteen’s intense focus on improving the basics, something many managers might reasonably assume are a given by the time a player is in mid-career and playing for a top flight football club.

Should Meulensteen succeed in helping Fulham turnaround, it will be a reminder that football is not merely talented players + intelligent tactics. There is the added element of working closely with players on details in their game, technical, psychological, whatever. In other words, there is a difference between managing and coaching. Meulensteen himself clearly has an ambition for the former (the Guardian notes “Meulensteen has made no secret of his desire to manage in his own right”), which is in some ways a shame. Coaching is key in a way that gets little attention in most tactical analysis.