Archive for the ‘Tactics’ Category

Football

This will be a shorter one today as I just want to piggy-back a little on Jonathan Wilson’s excellent tactics column this morning to make a small but important point. If you haven’t read it yet, have a gander. In it, Wilson argues that you cannot separate formation and players, and that player formations are merely clunky expressions of the relationship of specific, individual player attributes:

As another example, take Manchester City, who on Wednesday night, in their 2-1 victory over CSKA Moscow, played as they have for much of this season, in what is probably best described as a 4-4-2. The back four was relatively straightforward. Fernandinho and Yaya Touré sat deep in central midfield: both have the capacity to spring forwards, although Touré has more licence. Jesus Navas played wide on the right, his pace allowing him to cover almost the entirety of the flank: his heat map extended from the edge of his own box to the CSKA goalline.

On the left, David Silva was tucked in and had a range of movement that was more lateral and less longitudinal than Navas’s, allowing Aleksandar Kolarov to overlap (Gaël Clichy may be a better defender than the Serbian, but Silva’s tendency to drift infield means he is a more natural tactical fit with him than Clichy).

In other words, it’s the relationship of player attributes gives us a tactical framework, not the formations themselves. It’s an important point.

Even so, the first, top-voted comment pinpoints a major issue with this approach to football tactics. From campbellpaul:

My problem with football analysis is that it tends to work from the result backwards. A lot of scorelines come down to luck – little things like hitting the woodwork rather than scoring, shots being deflected to take them past the keeper and fouls going unnoticed by referees – but the analsyis of teams’ performances usually start at the result and try to explain the game from there.

It’s true. Much of what is normally written about tactics, whether ideal formations or the relationship of player characteristics on the field, is post hoc. In a sport like football, an incredibly fluid, turnover-driven game where players can go wherever they want, this leaves tactical analysts open to confirmation bias. Toure has license to move forward, yes? We know this because he often charges forward quite confidently at various stages of the game. But how did he get this license? From the manager? Or himself? Is this forward movement part of a tactical master plan, an individual habit implicitly encouraged by the manager, or just Toure going rogue?

And that’s the thing. We have an idea, through a glass darkly, but we don’t know. Managers, for obvious reasons, don’t often advertise their tactical intentions to the public. So we only have the fruits of their labour on the pitch to go on. And I don’t mean the scoreline necessarily, but when one team is clearly more effective than the other in any area of a single match. In a game as luck driven and fluid with as many turnovers as football, that poses an interesting problem.

None of this is to say we should not, therefore, discuss all things tactical in the sport of football. That would be both boring and dense. Nor does it mean that tactics writers themselves are unaware of this issue themselves; I’m sure most of us would love a sneak peak at the Pellegrini whiteboard ahead of a crucial Champions League match. Most of us also realize a lot of what tactical analysts do is a kind of artful hermeneutics.

But there is a missing link here—managerial intention. Without it, we are left only with the independent movement of twenty-two people and some past quotes from managers and players themselves from which to draw conclusions. That’s not a crippling blow to tactical analysis, but it should be something we keep in the back of our minds while either writing it or reading it.

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It’s become a truism in some tactical writing circles, but many analysts warn that the manager should set their tactical approach to match the ability of their players, not the other way around. You don’t walk into Yeovil Town with promises of tiki-taka football within the year.

In a broad sense, I think this is a good way of looking at things in football. However we’re coming to the point where our belief about what differentiates footballers of similar skill has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Take the case of Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney. Here’s Rooney quoted in the Guardian:

“I actually felt when I played in midfield I did OK, but I didn’t want to play there. I’ve had no problem in the past playing out of position. But I felt I deserved the right to play in my position and that wasn’t happening.

“I think, naturally, I was a bit disappointed and maybe that affected some of the games I played. I know myself that last year wasn’t my best season but there were times when I was playing in different positions. I didn’t feel I got a consistent run of games up front. Sometimes when you’re not playing in one position all the time it’s difficult to adapt.”

The Guardian story notes that Rooney didn’t in fact play in the midfield as often as he might have thought last season, and far more often he played up front with Van Persie. That may be true on paper, but we don’t know what specific tactical instructions Rooney may have received from Alex Ferguson, even if it was something as innocuous as “drop deep, make runs.”

Rooney’s remarks got me thinking about Arrigo Sacchi, who once spoke with Paolo Bandini about his gripes with Italian player development:

I see kids who are 14 or 15 years old who are already specialists. But football is not a sport of specialists,” he says. “I was watching the under-15s the other day – 14-year-old boys – and the central defenders arrived and all they did was mark their man. They took themselves out of the game. This is suffering, this is not joy, this is not football. If someone does just one thing over and over, they will get better at that thing. But is football just one thing?”

I’ve written on this sort of thing before, and I don’t want to repeat myself too much, but I’m starting to think the problem with player specialization taking root all the way into early development has more to do with demand affecting supply.

Before I talk about that at greater length, it might be worth thinking to the basics of how, as a footballer, you first choose a position. A lot of this will just come down to what you feel most comfortable with as a player. If you’re on an elite development path, this might be tweaked by coaches and support staff along the way.

But if you’ve ever done any reading on this subject, it’s pretty vague stuff. “What are your strengths?” “Do you prefer crossing or playing with the ball at your feet?” As young player, choosing your position seems to be based on a non-empirical soup of vague traits which could theoretically be useful for any position.

There are limits, of course, to versatility. If you’re a brilliant finisher, chances are you’ll want to be playing up front. If you’re an excellent judge of the field as a whole and are equally adept at attack and defence, maybe you’ll want to try out the midfield. Maybe you have a natural gift for reading the opposition play in possession and winning the ball back; try defending. If you can run for hours without ever tiring and can dribble opponents off the block, try playing full-back. Yet within these basic categories, it shouldn’t be too unreasonable to adjust a little as your career progresses.

If Rooney’s case is typical however and Sacchi is correct about the current trend in player development, it would seem even the change in position by a few yards relative to your squad can be a major headache for some players. So how does this rigidity come about?

Well, if you’re the kind of player who believes they have the capability to make it as a professional, you face a basic choice. Do you want spend as much energy working on a wide variety of skills that will make me a complete, versatile player? Or do you want to play as much as you can in a particular position for the sake of furthering your career in that role?

The latter choice is much more appealing. If you’re a young talent worthy of the professional game, your know at some point you’re going to be scouted (your agent and your youth coaches probably know it too). That scout will be armed with some of your history as a player, but he or she will be only be watching you for maybe 5-10 matches at most. Moreover, they’re coming to watch you with a set of instructions from the manager, perhaps along the lines of “I need this kind of player to fill this gap in the squad.”

The scout might want to know a bit about your football intelligence and your adaptability, but the entire scouting process is skewed in its very essence toward a positional bias. “We need a full-back, are you a good full-back? Let’s go see you play.” The fact this full-back might also be adept at learning and could grow to become a world class attacking mid is something for a brilliant coach to figure out, if the player is lucky enough for that to happen.

That said, although I’m not an expert in world class scouting techniques, one would presume a good scout might have an eye for a player who can and should be played in another position. I’m sure this still happens, but it depends on the scout and their mandate.

But I kind of had my eyes (ears?) opened listening to the new Scout7 podcast, which featured Damien Comolli, Ray Clarke and Alex McLeish. Say what you will, but this is a good cross-section of top level football recruitment staff. Each stressed how important it was to develop a level of trust and cooperation with the manager, and each discussed how they were given a specific purview in their search for talent, including player type and personality.

It was when the panel spoke about analytics and scouting that my ears perked up. Many made blithe references to “the data” without going too much into specifics of what they used in player evaluation. But here as well there could a problem, one that speaks to some of the dangers of abusing stats. I would argue that the kind of data scouts use should be repeatable (that is, an underlying marker of innate talent), should be shown to extrapolate well into a mature playing career (like, for example, per year key passes for attacking mids pace Ted Knutson), and should should look at underlying physical traits like fitness or susceptibility to injury. Perhaps some position-centric data could be used to ensure that the player is as at least as good as they look in their chosen role, to fulfil Phil Birnbaum’s argument that analytics should be more about avoiding dumb decisions than making smart ones.

The problem is if you base your scouting analysis on position-specific data without knowing whether that data is context-dependent or repeatable, not only are you not getting an accurate picture of the player, but, like a scouting CompStat, you could also be encouraging players to specialize even more to ensure their positional numbers look good to scouts. This could come at a cost to the player’s ability to adapt, and further make the job of adaptation to different formations and playing styles more difficult.

If that’s true, it could make the manager’s job even more difficult in the years ahead.

Manchester City v Bayern Munich - UEFA Champions League Group Stage Matchday Two Group D

A couple of weeks ago I tried to make the case that teams which some or most of the time face superior opposition are more difficult to manage than elite teams which have world class players with the kind of technical ability and footballing intelligence to adopt to a single, overarching “philosophy.”

I think Rafa Benitez, the current Napoli coach, unwittingly echoed this point in a recent column for the Independent (like ghostwritten by Guilleme Balague or something). Benitez wrote:

My Napoli team have played five games so far in Serie A and we have been up against a different system in every game, with some opponents changing their system two or three times during a game. For those of you like numbers, we’ve faced 5-3-1-1, 5-3-2, 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 and the challenge of counteracting and reacting to the systems is a great challenge for any coach in this country. It is more challenging than England, in that sense. Everyone seems to be talking about analysis and statistics in football, and managers’ philosophies about offensive football. Well, I’m sorry, but the philosophers were Plato and Socrates. The essential part of winning games for a coach is the work done on the field, helping players to deal with the systems thrown at them. Never is it more so than in Italy.

This idea that in-game decision-making pragmatism (all these crazy formations I have to deal with!) and pure, single minded attacking idealism are somehow opposed brought to mind comments once made by the great former Real Madrid player Francisco Gento, someone who won European Cups alongside Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano in the documentary History of Football. When questioned on Real Madrid’s approach, he said something along the lines of “We overcame all systems. We were Madrid.” Madrid were good enough that they didn’t have to adapt. Most of the time in the late 1950s early 1960s the team destroyed their opponents with no-name coaches staring off into space on the sideline.

One would never see this today, but there are examples of teams that don’t generally make big tactical adjustments for each game but instead rely on a general attacking “philosophy.” But what happens when two idealist teams, both influenced by an attack-minded ideal but one patently superior in most respects (sorry City) meet on the football pitch? What happens when neither side makes room for pragmatism?

Well, you get Barca 4, Ajax 0. Or there was last night’s match between Man City and Bayern Munich at the Etihad, which ended 1-3 for Pep Guardiola’s team. No doubt Manuel Pellegrini made some dubious decisions in his selection policy, perhaps by putting Micah Richards in full-back and not putting in James Milner to start the game. But Pellegrini was not going to be the one to “adjust” to his opponent; instead, he put out his usual line-up so far this season. He also started two strikers, perhaps with the idea that City would have the advantage in Bayern’s final third. In other words Pellegrini didn’t blink. It would be City’s philosophy vs Bayern’s.

The problem was City were clearly not prepared for the Bayern variation on Pep Guardiola’s pressing game at Barcelona. Another, perhaps slightly more self-aware coach might have considered playing a little deeper, maintaining defensive vigilance throughout, and attempting to score on the break, perhaps through some variation on the long-ball. Or for managers with more dignity (presumably like Pellegrini), they might have employed a selective press, attacking furiously in the opening stages, shelling for an hour, and then pushing up the pitch in the final stages of the match as the opposition tires.

That was never going to be on for Pellegrini though, and City’s match was upended when there were some, including Michael Cox, who pointed out a few means to mitigate the damage that Pellegrini did not seem to consider.

I’ll stop here of course and warn against the dangers of reading too much into a single match, even one as apparently decisive as this. But there have been a few other instances this season already of City underestimating their opponents, including a few unexpected results against Cardiff City (scored on set pieces) and Aston Villa (scored on a set piece and a long ball) in the Premier League.

That’s why for example freshman manager Tata Martino’s tactical adjustments at Barcelona this season, the team associated most with Guardiola’s preferred manner of play (press and possess), are so interesting. Here’s Jonathan Wilson from a few weeks ago, a piece I’ve come back to a lot lately:

Gerardo Martino, who will return to Argentina for his father’s funeral after the game, is still feeling his way as Barcelona coach, but he too is of the same school, albeit the South American branch established by Marcelo Bielsa, a huge admirer of Van Gaal, at Newell’s Old Boys in the early nineties. He is not as idealistic as Bielsa, perhaps not even as idealistic as Guardiola and already, his more pragmatic nature has begun to emerge: he does not simply try to pass teams to death as his predecessors have; he is not, as Gerard Piqué put it in an interview in Gazzetta dello Sport last week, “a slave to tiki-taka”.

Wilson goes on to quote Gerard Pique discussing Martino’s focus on using the long ball to prevent opposition sides from pouring forward late in a match, or packing a midfield to overcome an aggressively pressing opposition. That, for example, might have been a helpful strategy for Bayern to have employed near the end of the City match, when Guardiola’s team tired and City poured forward, a situation that could have been threatening had the scoreline not been so emphatic. While Martino’s Barca still has some work to do (they struggled to overcome Celtic’s defensive posture this midweek), Martino seems to grasp well that philosophy and pragmatism need not be locked in opposition to one another.

Easy to write, but hard to implement. Football managers, with only a few midweek training sessions to really work with their players, likely struggle to find a very difficult balance between over-preparation (“Always do this in the X area of the pitch with a Y scoreline against a Z opposition formation with Q players!”) and relying on an overly idealistic, one-size-fits-all approach. This is particularly difficult in a game like football: messy, low-scoring, driven by luck and a ton of turnovers. Yet within that balance lies a wider pathway to long-term success.

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I know this column is about tactics, and I also know that it has often overlapped with issues that might seem more appropriate for the Tuesday analytics column. That’s intentional; as long as “analytics” gets cordoned off as its own separate niche category, the more easily it can be ignored by fans, journalists, and football managers and directors.

The isolation of analytics is a hot topic right now. If you’ve ever spoken to any of the leading lights in the football analytics world, the number one issue that you often hear again and again is: “How do we as performance analysts gain the trust of the manager, the director of football, and the first team coaches?”

The advice you hear along these lines involves everything from being a nice guy to not inundating your boss with spreadsheets and statistical baffle-gab. I think this is generally good advice, unless it comes at the cost of making the best decision for the team.

I think however that the caricature of coaches and managers as old school boors who wouldn’t know an algorithm from an albatross isn’t realistic or helpful. These are people who are in charge of getting the most out of their squad, selecting the right players for the right match, and taking them through midweek training exercises that will help propel the team to victory on the weekend.

For managers, nothing is theoretical. As a manager, you are in charge of a squad of human beings, working alongside other human beings, in order to win a game that is overwhelmingly decided by luck and the talent of your players even before you’ve scrawled on a single chalkboard. You are expected to be a teacher, a motivator, a tactician, a football expert, a judge of player quality, and sometimes, a parent to some very difficult but supremely talented people. You must do all this under intense pressure from supporters, the board, your players, and (depending on the size of the club) the media. You also must perform to a public that often ascribes far greater responsibility to the manager for the state of the team than might objectively be deserved.

Every manager is different, and each considers their training, their personal preferences, their understanding of the game, and the opinions of their coaching staff (of which the performance analyst is but one) in how they run the team. While many of the best managers are risk takers, they are also well aware of how tenuous their jobs are.

So you can see how a performance analyst might get lost in the mix.

It doesn’t happen at every club, of course. Sam Allardyce’s West Ham clearly relies heavily on their performance analyst David Woodfine, and players regularly receive data dossiers. I hope however that the data presented in those documents is a) something the player can actually work to improve on their own and b) is actually correlated to an objectively better performance.

For those analysts who might not have as great a say in how the team is run, I think there is good news. Because I honestly think that good analytics makes for good coaching, if applied in a useful, meaningful way which can be practically integrated into team training sessions and one-on-one work.

Earlier this week I looked at how statistics might be used by fans, bloggers and journalists more effectively. Here therefore are some completely speculative questions data analysts might consider to help craft their work to fit the needs of first team coaches and managers. Keep in mind I have NO IDEA whether this in fact how things work. I’d love to hear from some PAs about this stuff.

Which individual/team metrics are the most important?

Here is an excellent post from Alex Olshansky on StatsBomb which makes the case that it would be better for analysts to look at shot volume and key pass numbers instead of goals and assists. Why? Because they’re far more repeatable from season-to-season.

That might seem odd to herald; if the player is scoring goals and making assists, who cares about those numbers that don’t help my team to win?

Well that repeat-ability hints at an underlying individual consistency. It hints at something that is more marked by talent than by luck (although we need to be careful here to isolate for factors that might be influenced by other players).

The tricky part for the analyst is to explain the difference between a positive process and a positive result. So a player with great key pass/shot volume numbers but bad goals/assist numbers might have been affected by factors beyond their control. That presents a very interesting opportunity for the first team staff.

Which individual/team metrics can be improved on through coaching, and which can’t?

As an addendum to his post, Olshanksy writes that while shots and key passes are better, they’re still not good enough. But he adds:

Luckily, much work has been done on shot location/type and expected goals (here and here and many other places). As far as I know, adjusting for shot location/type hasn’t been attempted yet for shots resulting from key passes, but that is a logical next step. Theoretically, an expected goal and expected assist model would be the best predictor.

This seems to make sense, but it raises the question: can the ideal player position on a certain shot or key pass be coached? Can an individual player learn to take more effective shot types? To what degree? Or within a season does it come down mostly to random variation?

Or maybe improving these qualities falls under a broad, ambiguous category, like decision making, which Tony McKenna and Lee Mooney touched on in a great article for the Tomkins Times, and can’t be coached at all. It’s important for both the analyst and the coach to know with some measure of certainty, while at the same time not hesitate to experiment.

How do I work with individual players and the team in order to get an improvement?

The analyst is not the first team coach, but there ideally should be good communication between both groups in order to ensure that the analyst is providing the manager not only with good and bad numbers, but some input on concrete, workable means to improve them. For example, are there some ways a team of average quality improve their possession of the ball in the final third and create better chances? If so, how could a first team coach work on the training ground?

Or—how exactly does game state change the behaviour of the opposition? Is there a set of tactical actions a team can take to make the best advantage of the situation?

However, this leads to another important question…

Are there potential negative trade-offs in getting the team to focus on improving certain metrics?

We can call this the Reep Trap. Here is the crudest example I can think of to explain what I mean. You know that shots-per-90 is a good, repeatable metric. So you tell the first team coach, and then he shrugs and then encourages his forwards to take more shots in a ninety minute match. Of course what happens is the shot conversion rate drops because the forwards are just shooting willy-nilly from wherever to drive up the numbers, possession drops because these shots lead to goalkicks, and the team actually starts to suck.

Or, to take a more sophisticated example from above, you tell the first team coach that “these areas of the pitch tend to produce higher shot conversion rates.” But you as an analyst haven’t checked to see whether the reason shot conversion goes up in certain areas has more to do with the habitual defensive positioning of the other team than anything having to do with a magical pitch.

So your forwards take shots from or work to get in these positions regardless of what’s happening around them, and nothing much improves.

This to me strikes at the perilous, dark heart of translating analytics into coaching and management. It’s my guess that the best analysts will take these very complex problems into consideration when making their judgments.

Barcelona's Argentine coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino smiles during a news conference after the training session at Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper in Sant Joan Despi near Barcelona

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.

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All eyes will be on Mesut Ozil this weekend (and no weird eye joke pun whatever intended here) on his likely debut for Arsenal at Sunderland this Saturday. Why? I’ll leave that to Ted Knutson:

I’m fairly agnostic about the value of goals versus assists – to me they are all scoring elements that differ slightly by the end result. In my opinion, it’s probably best to measure offensive contribution by combining the two numbers into one value. Ozil had a higher G+A per90 than Gareth Bale last year and in fact, every year, but is only one year older than Bale. Yet Bale sold for twice as much. Ozil’s non-penalty stats were similar to Cavani’s, but Cavani cost more. They were better than Falcao’s, but he also cost more. And that only addresses the direct scoring contributions, when Ozil actually plays a much busier and more active role.

He scores goals, he makes goals! He is an assist machine, leading the Big Five leagues in assists for the past five seasons, which is kind of insane.

But the question of Ozil is particularly interesting from a tactical perspective too, and not just in discussing how he will “fit” into the Arsenal midfield (presumably by being on it). This is one of the reasons why:

Arsene Wenger’s striker shortage has deepened after an injury to Yaya Sanogo left Arsenal with just one fully-fit recognised centre-forward [Olivier Giroud].

Sanogo – who as it stands is Arsenal’s second-choice centre forward – has returned to the club from France Under-21 duty after picking up a back strain.

The 20-year-old will undergo intensive treatment at the club’s London Colney HQ in attempt to ensure his fitness for the weekend visit to Sunderland – £42million signing Mesut Ozil’s debut.

The context here is clear: Arsenal is going to have this great play-maker but, for the time being at least, only one not-that-great-striker for him to make plays for. This presumably means Ozil will find Giroud in the box somewhere only for Giroud to miss or shoot the ball directly at the keeper. This seems to be the concern of not a few Arsenal fans.

You might have missed a very subtle (if perfectly reasonable) assumption at play here however, and one that, if we were to tease it out a little, would reveal a very narrow-minded view of the sport. In order to demonstrate what I mean, let’s look at every Ozil assist (and goal) from last season. Except instead of focusing on the brilliance of Ozil, keep an eye on the movement of the goal-scorers, particularly Ronaldo (I recommend turning down the volume unless you want to listen to some truly vile compilation music).

Ozil’s vision is hard to believe. More often than not, he passes to the player that we typically jab our fingers at while watching the game at home, screaming “Pass to that guy!” He distributes the ball with the perfect weight into the perfect corridor of space at the perfect moment. He managed to do this 91 times last season, which led to 13 goals. He did it with the face of a man half out of bed (but that’s probably neither here nor there).

Yet there is something else going on. Note how for example Ronaldo moves slightly further out wide in the final moments before a goal in a few instances in the video. He waits for the perfect moment to step away from the defenders marking both Ozil and the forward moving up in support.

The point here is that the striker isn’t some pylon that finishes goals, but a player who helps make the space for Ozil to find. I think here to Xavi’s famous quote in his interview with Sid Lowe: “Think quickly, look for spaces. That’s what I do: look for spaces. All day. I’m always looking. All day, all day.” But ‘space’ isn’t static, nor is it the sole discovery of one player. Despite the intense focus on finishing for strikers, much of the work is done before the ball meets their feet.

If that’s the case, where does the striker’s ability to create space end and the play-maker’s ability to discover space begin?

You’re probably wondering why I just crapped out nearly 700 words on such an obvious question. But the point here is that, at least to some degree, we should be careful both when assuming absolute quality based on a high number of assists at a single club, and, more importantly in Ozil’s case, overreacting when those numbers dip at a new club (this obviously also applies to goals scored for strikers).

That’s going to be particularly important in Ozil’s case if he doesn’t set the team on fire right away. But it also points out the importance of finding the right focus in midweek training. A manager can motivate, can practice so that a player becomes comfortable and familiar with the movements and approach of their teammates, practice finishing, practice improvisation in attack. A manager cannot simply look at their players as a set of numbers or set of limited behaviours (“he tends to move out wide”) and just slot them in and sub someone out should it all fail.

These kinds of relationships are difficult to establish and maintain. They involve mutual understanding, subtle movement, and perfect timing. They cannot be reduced to Player A Good, Player B Bad. This should not only apply to Ozil, but any play-maker who has had trouble transitioning to a new team with new players, no matter how individually talented.

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Henry Winter has a really insightful piece up on Cristiano Ronaldo’s development as a player while at Manchester United in the Telegraph. Winter spoke with former Manchester United first team coach Rene Meulensteen on Ronaldo’s development as a player while under Alex Ferguson. Ronaldo, a perfectionist, in Meulensteen’s opinion tried too hard to find the perfect, ideal finish. Here’s what Meulensteen specifically focused on:

Ronaldo was focused more on the spectacular. “He was thinking: ‘That ball comes to me, I hit it top corner.’ I needed him to get out of that. I told him: ‘It doesn’t matter how you score, where you score, as long as the ball goes in the net.’” It was time to score ugly goals as well as beautiful ones.

“We worked on positions, which zone he was in, 1 (in front of goal), 2 (to the sides) or 3 (further out). We worked on what type of finish. One-touch. Do you need to control it? Volley it. Pass it in. Side-foot it in. Chip it in. We worked on certain goalkeepers. Did they have a certain trend? It’s details. When [post-Ronaldo] we played Schalke away in the Champions League semi [in 2011], we knew that Manuel Neuer, a good goalkeeper, was like Peter Schmeichel and would come out with a star jump [spreading himself]. So we worked on finishes low to either side, low through the legs.’’ Ryan Giggs scored.

And this, which I find particularly fascinating:

Ronaldo was educated to create an image of the situation and the desired outcome: “Where am I [position]? Where’s the ball coming from? Where’s the goalkeeper? Where’s the finish?” Meulensteen gave colours to the four corners of the goal. “Cristiano had his back to the goal. He had to shout which colour, green whichever, he was aiming for, so subconsciously working his brain. He knew his target in advance.’’

Muscle memory, speed, accuracy. United, as we’ve seen a bit in this column and from some pitch analysis, emphasise quick, accurate finishing and rapid transitions. We know a little bit at the team level of game situations that favour a higher conversion rate, and they roughly boil down to finding space in behind a defence that is in transition (often because they’ve had to push up the pitch). This is the entire principle behind counter attacking football, and not in the pejorative, “direct” sense implied by critics of the long-ball school. Rather it refers to the idea of transitioning quickly from possession in the final third to a chance creation, a United speciality.

Yet there is another very important lesson here. Consider these words from the former Champions League-winning AC Milan manager Arrigo Sacchi on the state of modern footballers in an interview with our very own Paolo Bandini in the Guardian a couple years back:

What Sacchi found in Italy’s youth teams disgusted him. “I see kids who are 14 or 15 years old who are already specialists. But football is not a sport of specialists,” he says. “I was watching the under-15s the other day – 14-year-old boys – and the central defenders arrived and all they did was mark their man. They took themselves out of the game. This is suffering, this is not joy, this is not football. If someone does just one thing over and over, they will get better at that thing. But is football just one thing?”

To illustrate Sacchi’s point, this Tweet was making the round and getting shared with a kind of awe:

A professional footballer was capable of switching from one side of the pitch to the middle! What sorcery is this? But in the era of player specialists, the idea that a footballer can significantly change or improve their game seems more and more remarkable. When players are forced to play in a different position than they’re used to due to player injuries for example, it’s either used by commentators as a reason for a poor performance or cited as a hindrance in spite of a win.

It could be too that increased interest in individual player statistics may be fueling this idea that player ability and position are unchanging and unchangeable. I am obviously a big supporter of analytics and analytics research, but I think the temptation to cite a player’s numbers or ideal playing position without understanding whether they reflect baseline talent, random luck, or something which can be improved unfortunately gives the impression that footballers are their numbers/role and nothing more.

I think in a post-FFP world in which clubs are going to have be a lot smarter about which players they buy, the concept of malleability in skill and ability is going to be an vital aspect of the game. I read yesterday for example that the going impression from some anonymous football scouts is that Ajax’s attacking mid Christian Eriksen is too “soft” and “unathletic” for the Premier League. But surely these things can be worked on by a diligent first team coach in cooperation with the fitness staff? Or maybe they can’t, and both scouts and fitness coaches are aware of this, hence his small valuation. Maybe his skills could be adapted to a less vulnerable position?

The experience of Meulensteen with Ronaldo too might also provide a clue as to why managers and coaches might be reticent to embrace the analytics movement. They might see a spread sheet from a technical scout with final third entries and key pass statistics and think, “This could all change for the better with focused first team training.”

Part of the job of analysts would be to demonstrate which indicators are amenable to change, which tend to extrapolate well as a career progresses, and which indicate underlying ability. They need to be able to explain to a first team coach, “These numbers look weak right now, but we believe based on X factors they can and will improve with the right kind of focus.” That might already be going on at the club level, but it isn’t as apparent within a lot of public analytics.

Of course it could be that Meulensteen’s experience is neither typical, or even accurate…Ronaldo’s “improvement” may have just been random variation, correlation but not causation. I’ve heard in hockey analytics circles there is general skepticism over the ability of a first team coach to significantly improve player performance, particularly in the area of shot quality (exactly what Meuelensteen was working on with Ronaldo).

But considering football is first and foremost a learned skill, it would be ridiculous to dismiss the possibility that professional footballers of a certain age are capable of significantly improving their game through instruction and practice.

Many believe player development ends as soon as a player joins a professional first team. Without the benefit of hard evidence though, we should be wary this transfer market of wielding the numbers as if they have the final say.