Arsenal Training

Arsenal travel to Munich today to face Bayern Munich in the Champions League needing to overcome a two goal deficit in order to progress in the competition against one of the best teams in Europe. They are the clear underdogs in what could be a captivating European tie (or a Bayern steamroll job).

Now, I could give you a dispassionate, tactical account of what Arsenal need to do in order to win, but it would be an incomplete hack job from someone who has barely scratched the surface of fully understanding football tactics at the elite level. I could talk about how underdogs traditionally win in life by changing the parameters of the game, rather than facing their opponent on equal terms. So in soccer speak, Arsenal should press high for an early goal, then play a little deeper to hit on the counter. Over to you, Arsene.

Wenger’s own strategy however has been to focus on the little things. Like priming the refs. From the Guardian:

“We played now a few times with 10 men in Europe and under always very special circumstances,” Wenger said, appearing to begin to say “suspicious” before checking himself to say “special”. “In the Champions League final … now against Bayern and at Barcelona when we were in a position to qualify.

“It’s the only time that I’ve seen that since I watched European football when Van Persie was sent off. So I hope we will get a fair chance to play with 11 against 11 until the end.”

This may seem spurious, but it is in fact Wenger “making his luck,” sowing the immoveable seed of self-doubt in the referees’ minds like someone kindly asking you NOT to think of a white whale, which invariably forces you to do just that.

That’s because even Wenger the Idealist Economist knows that in single games, these little elements matter. “Luck,” by which I mean random (or unaccounted for) variation, has a tremendous influence in a knockout competitions, which is why we accept that while Chelsea won the European Cup against Bayern in 2012 they were not, in fact, the superior team. Variables that are inconsequential in the long term can overcome imbalances in talent in a single ninety minute span. It’s in the individual match that the abstract ideas talked up by most European football pundits—heart, passion, togetherness—might exert a big influence. That’s part of what makes football great.

Yet while these things are important, they don’t replace the importance of footballing talent in building a successful football club in the long term. This should be stupidly obvious, but in practice, there is a lot of disagreement over what, exactly, it means to be a good footballer, or even what makes a good team. Or to put it another way, there is a lot of disagreement over how exactly we should measure footballing talent.

This past week, Tim Lewis examined these questions as part of a column for the Observer on the influence of Prozone, Opta, and analytics in general on football. In it, we hear from a lot of analysts stressing the endless possibilities provided by improved data collection, and we hear from Everton manager Roberto Martinez on why he evaluates players based on “the way he speaks to other team-mates after missing a chance, the way he celebrates a goal, the way his team-mates react when he scores.”

And here again another writer portrays stats analysis in football as a dichotomy between tangibles and intangibles. But what if intuition and stats analysis are just two ways of answering the same questions. Questions like: what does it mean to be a great footballer? What does it mean to be a great team? How do we bridge the two things?

If I’m looking to answer the question from a statistical point of view, I would only concern myself with player traits that are repeatable and strongly correlate to improved team performance. I would also want to get a good idea as to whether those traits carry over from team to team. In practice, at least in the public arena of amateur stats analysis, those kinds of metrics are very elusive. What I wouldn’t want to do is pick through whichever data points I think are important without testing them.

If I’m looking at the question from a more intuitive point of view, I would want to know how well the player is settling into the team, whether they understand managerial direction, whether they feel comfortable with the manager’s overall tactical approach. I also think you can be intuitive in a way that’s also smart, as in my idea for a scouting ‘Apgar score’ which effectively systematizes what are essentially completely subjective views, and almost by magic improves their reliability. While I’m a tad skeptical of Martinez’s preference for a positive attitude—Arjen Robben’s team-mates at Bayern often look morose when he scores, and yet Robben is still Robben—you can see what he’s after. A team with a bunch of ego-maniacal sad sacks is going to be more difficult to motivate after some unlucky results than a team of sober professionals. While these things may not matter in the long-term, they might make the difference in crucial moments of a crucial match.

The thing to remember is neither the statistical or intuitive approach alone will give you a definitive answer. They simply tell you what they tell you, and it might work out and it might not. And maybe there isn’t a definitive answer to the question anyway. One man’s Messi is another man’s Bramble, depending on what you’re looking for. A manager might turn down a player with fantastic numbers for a slightly less capable one simply because the former has a massive ego and they don’t feel like babysitting a borderline alcoholic for a couple of years. Maybe qualities that don’t help a team in the long-term (like the league, for example) turn out to be very important in single matches (like cup competitions).

Furthermore, neither approach is going to eliminate the element of risk (I’m not even certain you’d want to eliminate risk—far better to establish a team strong enough to survive and even thrive on uncertainty). Risk need not always be negative, after all, as when underrated players become unexpected stars in defiance of both stats and intuition.

But to rely exclusively on one without any reference to the other? I’m not sure anyone does that, anyway. So why are the two always framed in endless opposition when it comes to player scouting and team building?