Category Archives: football

Rodgers and the Ranatunga Principle

It was a wonderful display of the “Ranatunga Principle” by Brendan Rodgers last night, when he fielded what was effectively a second string Liverpool team at Real Madrid. That they lost only 1-0 shows that it wasn’t that bad a ploy, especially given the more important features coming up ahead.

Firstly, Liverpool have not given up on the Champions League. They have simply prioritised. The group they are is a rather weird one – where one team is significantly superior to the others which are approximately at the same level. It is not inconceivable at all that Real Madrid will win all their six games and get 18 points.

Before the game at Anfield two weeks back the degree of Real Madrid’s superiority over Liverpool wasn’t yet fully established and Rodgers smelt the chances of handing out an upset at home and fielded his strongest team. It backfired spectacularly as Real Madrid hammered Liverpool. The more important result of the night, though, was the unfancied but promising Ludogorets beating Basel at home. It was that result that allowed Rodgers to do what he did yesterday.

Real Madrid’s dominance means that Liverpool, Basel and Ludogorets are effectively playing a 3-team mini league the winner of which will go through to the knockouts (of course the extents of their respective thrashings by Real Madrid will matter if it comes down to goal difference). So far, in this mini group, all games have gone to the “home team”.

Liverpool’s last two games of the season see them take on Basel at home and Ludogorets away, and if they win both of them, they are through to the knockouts. Even if Liverpool had come away with a point in last night’s game, this equation would not have changed significantly (three points last night would have helped but the game at Anfield showed how impossible that was).

Liverpool have had a rather busy fixture list in the last 3 weeks. In the space of three weeks they’ve had to play QPR, Real Madrid, Hull, Swansea, Newcastle, Real Madrid and Chelsea – not an easy fixture list at all, and Liverpool’s poor form in the league has made them take even the Capital One Cup seriously, meaning not too many players could be rotated for the game against Swansea. In the loss to Newcastle on Saturday, the fatigue was evident as Liverpool’s attackers were all anonymous. A rest day was thus in order.

This, combined with the weird nature of the Champions League group that Liverpool are in meant that last night’s game was the “least important” for Liverpool in the current run of fixtures, which permitted them to rest key players and give a run out to the perennial subs. And on the evidence of the 1-0 defeat, it seems it didn’t go too badly. Now if only Liverpool can make use of this rest and beat Chelsea on the weekend!

Postscript

Gerrard came on around three-quarters into last night’s game. I have come to believe that is his best position for the team now. Come on as an “impact substitute” in the second half and play in the “old Gerrard role”.

The Steven Davis Role

The first encounter between Liverpool and Southampton in the 2013-14 English Premier League season happened at Anfield in September, and Southampton won 1-0 with a Dejan Lovren goal from a set piece. So when the two sides met again at St. Mary’s in the latter half of the season, with Liverpool chasing the title, it was known that it would be a tough game for Liverpool.

Southampton dominated the first half, playing a front four of Steven Davis, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodrigues and Rickie Lambert. However, it was Liverpool who scored in that half, and led 1-0 at the break. Here is a picture I found on twitter that was uploaded at half time:

Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino decided to change things for the second half. He took off his most unspectacular forward player Steven Davis and replaced him with Gaston Ramirez, the promising Uruguayan. Soon, Southampton unravelled and Liverpool completely dominated the second half as they won 3-0.

Now, there is no doubt that Ramirez is more talented than Davis and is definitely a better player in general. However, in the context of the rest of Southampton’s team, Ramirez’s introduction proved to be a disaster and there was little cohesion in their attacking play from the time he came on. Southampton became a disjointed team and went out of the game.

This has led me to define what I have come to call the “Steven Davis role”. It is basically a player who is not individually the best, but provides some kind of a glue that holds the team together. The player’s key skill, rather than looking at it from traditional axes such as passing or shooting or tackling or intercepting, is to change position, and to make sure that the team holds its shape at all times. It is to make sure that any players who are out of position are covered for, and that the attack retains its shape and focus.

Now, it must be remembered that last season Southampton’s attacking play was primarily based on strong movement and interplay between their front four. They had nominal positions defined, but they hardly stuck to those as they moved around in attack. Thus, Lambert who would start upfront would sometimes appear on the wing, with the nominal “number ten” Lallana going forward, for example.

And key to this system was Davis, who wasn’t particularly talented, but who would move in a way that would balance the attack. If the other three would move left to attack, he would take up a position slightly to the right – not too far away from the attack but providing a kind of counterbalance. He never led attacks himself, but he was always available to support the others’ attacks. And this is what made Southampton dangerous.

Once Davis had gone off, Southampton had no one to play this role. The kind of interplay they had in the first half disappeared. And their attacks became toothless and each attack had only one dimension which was easy to cover even for Liverpool’s normally shaky defence, as they kept a clean sheet.

It was a similar case I saw last night at the Camp Nou, with Barcelona’s Pedro Rodriguez playing in a “Steven Davis” role. Messi started in the middle and Neymar wide on the left. Pedro nominally started on the right. But soon it became clear that he was a kind of a “wide support striker” – his job was to appear in positions that complemented the rest of the attack rather than being in positions where he led the attack (though he did lead one glorious counterattack where he hit the post). It was like a kind of balance that he offered the team, and ensured their attacks had coherence (of course this being Barcelona they had Iniesta and Rakitic just behind to offer more “focal points”).

Last night was the last game of Luis Suarez’s ban, and it will be interesting what Barcelona do with him when he gets back this weekend. The instinct will be to remove Pedro in his favour, but it is not clear if an attack of Messi-Neymar-Suarez will be able to offer the same kind of coherence as an attack of Messi-Neymar-Pedro. That said, Suarez is an extremely intelligent player and showed in his Liverpool days that he is capable of being a “fighter”, so he might as well be played. But that will mean that Neymar will have to occasionally play the Davis/Pedro role, and it is not clear if he is capable of doing that.

We are in for interesting times.

The post has so far focussed on football but it is evident that his kind of a role is necessary in other team situations, including corporate teamwork, also. Sometimes you need that one guy who need not be individually spectacular, but is versatile and mobile enough that he can do several things, fill in for different people and make sure that any team he is part of will be “complete”. And in the absence of one such guy, the team can lose coherence and fail in its task.

Brendan Rodgers makes amends

I had been highly critical of Brendan Rodgers’ handling of Liverpool in the game at Basel in mid-week. There was a flurry of criticism all over the interwebs after that game, and no doubt a lot of it reached Rodgers. And in last night’s win against West Bromwich Albion, he seemed to make some amends.

There were a number of things in last night’s game that showed that Rodgers is again showing some imagination, after having stalled (along with the rest of the team) in recent times. For starters, Philippe Coutinho played deep, almost like a regista (deep-lying playmaker) next to Steven Gerrard. This meant that the two box-to-box midfielders Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana could actually play box-to-box than being boxed in. This led to much better cohesion in Liverpool’s play.

Then, Rickie Lambert offered something different up front than what the static Mario Balotelli had been offering in recent times. Lambert moved  – more than Balotelli, though nowhere as much as the injured Daniel Sturridge would have – and provided the focal point of attack. His touch and finishing were poor, though, and he still looks nowhere close to the player he was at Southampton. But his presence helped in another way – in that his long-standing understanding with Lallana helped them play a beautiful one-two which ended up in Lallana scoring Liverpool’s opener.

One of the great tactical games of Liverpool I’ve watched (it’s unlikely anyone else will call the tactics of this game “great”, though) was the FA Cup final against Chelsea in 2012, in what turned out to be Kenny Dalglish’s last game in charge of Liverpool in his second coming. At the hour mark, Chelsea led 2-0, and Liverpool had struggled to break past the buses that Chelsea had parked. And that’s when Dalglish introduced Andy Carroll, who had long been out of favour at the club following his GBP35m transfer from Newcastle United.

Carroll is a big guy, and he suddenly offered another route for Liverpool to attack – the first ball would be played by Brad Jones (the reserve goalie) long, and Carroll would invariably get to it, and hold it up – this turned out to be a surefire way of getting past Chelsea’s buses (and Chelsea didn’t know how to react to this change in tactic), and Liverpool pulled one back, and could have had more.

Following Carroll’s sale to West Ham United, though, Liverpool have lacked this “route two”. Last season especially, when teams proceeded to park buses in front of Liverpool, there was no way to get around them apart from the usual quick-pass-and-move route. And Liverpool suffered.

The coming of Lambert and Balotelli, though, has reopened the “route two”, and it was interesting to see Liverpool take that route several times during the game yesterday. It will be interesting to see when Sturridge comes back if Liverpool might play two up front and play the same route, but it would work better as a Plan B (IMHO).

Coming back to yesterday’s game, Balotelli’s dropping seems to have inspired him and he put in a much better performance than midweek when he came on for Lambert two-thirds into the game. He held the ball up well, acted as a great focal point and tried hard not to be caught offside. Hopefully we’ll see this side of Balotelli more as we go along.

The most interesting thing about last night’s game, though, is that in the last fifteen minutes, Steven Gerrard was back to playing in the old “Gerrard role”, with Lucas having come in to the holding midfield role. Gerrard played his old role well, and created a couple of chances following interplay with Balotelli. It showed that Gerrard is still good at what we’ve known him to be good for, except that he can’t play that way (it’s a very demanding role) for ninety minutes. Given that he’s much better in attack than defence, it’s a good ploy to get in a specialist holding guy (Lucas or Emre Can) for the last part when Liverpool is trying to close out the game.

It was only a very close win, and it came against West Brom, but it was an important three points and showed that Rodgers has started thinking again. Hopefully with the return of all the injured players after the international break, Liverpool can start playing again like they did against Spurs.

The Johan Cruijff Derby

That’s the name I’m giving to my tour that starts tonight, and will last eighteen days. I’ll be spending 2-3 days in Amsterdam, after which I fly to Barcelona where I’ll spend two weeks (as you know, the wife lives there).

There are primarily two reasons I’ve given the tour this name. The first is Cruijff himself. Cruijff made his name as a footballer in the decade he played for Ajax, where Rinus Michels developed the Total Football paradigm (which incidentally is named after a “total architecture” paradigm that was popular in Holland in those days). After that he followed Michels to FC Barcelona, where he had another successful spell. While he didn’t play for Barcelona as long as he did for Ajax, he has continued to live in Barcelona. Hence, a short tour of Amsterdam followed by a much longer tour of Barcelona can be named after Johan Cruijff!

The other reason for nomenclature makes more sense – I have a ticket for a football match, to be played on the 21st of October. The ticket has set me back by more than ten thousand rupees, but it’s going to be my first stadium football experience (coming after nine years of football-watching, on TV), and so I’m quite excited. The game is at the Camp Nou, where FC Barcelona will be taking on – you guessed it – Ajax (in the UEFA Champions League). And if there is anything that deserves to be named after Cruijff, it is the game between Barcelona and Ajax!

If you’re in either of those parts and want to meet, do leave a comment. If you have any recommendations of dos and don’ts, let me know that also! I’ll keep this blog updated through the tour!

PS: I’ve downloaded Dr. Sid Lowe’s Fear and loathing in La Liga to read on my way to Barcelona – in flights, airports and all that!

Dear Brendan Rodgers

I’m beginning to write this at 64 minutes played in Basel-Liverpool. Basel is leading 1-0, not undeservedly. Liverpool have so far been extremely poor, and deserve to have gone behind. We started well in the first ten minutes, and it seemed like an eminently winnable game, but after the tactical substitution made by Paulo Sousa, we’ve never been in it. Some pertinent observations so far.

  • I understand our need to have wanted to buy a world class striker to replace Luis Suarez. One might have thought the purchase of Mario Balotelli, no doubt a world class striker, was vindicated when Sturridge got injured. But Balotelli just doesn’t suit Liverpool. He is too slow. He just doesn’t move.

    I don’t have the statistics (football statistics are extremely hard to come by, unlike cricket), but we need to look at the number of off sides conceded between last season and this one. Balotelli gives away too many of those. Most of them come about because of his slow movement

  • Raheem Sterling was due a poor game, and we are seeing one now. His touch has been poor all day today. In his defence, he was due one bad day. Except that you had no clue how to handle that.
  • Sousa saw the weakness in Liverpool’s left back zone with Jose Enrique, and thus decided to double up on his right wingers to attack that zone. Now, this ended up pushing Raheem Sterling back, and he has had more defending to do than what he thought would have been his share. That is understandable.

    But then you need to realise that when you double up on one zone, you end up weakening yourself in another. Basel have played almost the entire night without a left back, or anyone on their left side apart from their left winger Hamoudi. They are playing a very lopsided 3-4-3. And you have done nothing so far to exploit that. Markovic has played all evening, but hasn’t been leading attacks down that wing as would be optimal. Manquillo has been leading the attacks there, with Markovic drifting inside. What we needed was Manquillo and Markovic doubling down in that unguarded zone. Haven’t seen that at all.

  • Then there is the centre of midfield. The two of Gerrard and Henderson isn’t simply working. Even when playing out from the back, they have consistently been stopped at the halfway line. Ok there is Gerrard and Henderson, but they haven’t had a forward pass to play! Coutinho has been lost in the crowd. And Balotelli, unlike Suarez doesn’t come back to pick the ball there. So how do we go forward from there?
  • Liverpool simply haven’t been picking up the second balls in the middle of the pitch today. They’ve been thoroughly outnumbered in that area – with only Gerrard and Henderson against three central midfielders of Basel. When we demolished Tottenham last December, the key was in our picking up all these second balls and keeping attacks flowing. That’s been sorely missing all day today.
  • Lallana’s introduction was good, but it should have been Sterling who should have come off. He is evidently extremely tired, and nowhere close to his best. We can see that in the two clear chances he’s missed since I started writing this post.
  • Markovic shouldn’t start. He’s not enough of a lone ranger for that. With his pace you should look to him as a super-sub. A plan B to be introduced along with Balotelli and Lambert. I just don’t see him gelling with the rest of the team. And please – someone along with Gerrard and Henderson there. I know Allen and Can are injured, but even someone like Lallana along with Gerrard and Henderson would help. The World Cup showed us how those two together in a 4-2-3-1 are ineffectual. You haven’t learnt from that.
  • It’s been a scrappy game so far, but a great tactical battle. There was one big question that Sousa posed – by putting on Gonzales for Safari, but you have thoroughly failed to answer that. After two moves by Gonzales, you went into a shell, and didn’t attack enough in the newly posed gap. I’m absolutely disappointed with you for that. I expected you of all people to be more tactically sound.
  • The best formation Liverpool has played with the available players this season was in the second half against Everton. With Gerrard-Henderson-Lallana-Coutinho-(not out of form)Sterling-Balotelli. You never even tried that in this game, while I expected you to start that way.
  • The game has ended as I finish this post. We have lost. Deservedly.
  • Maybe a you could use the services of a statistical analyst to help you figure out the gaps in play and how Liverpool should structure themselves given the available players. You can leave me a comment if you think you need one (you surely do!), and I’ll come over to help!

Derivatives trading in football players

I love it! It’s a dream come true!! It’s official!!!

Football clubs have finally wisened up to trading in derivatives on players’ contracts, it is apparent based on the transfer deadline news of yesterday. Alvaro Negredo has been loaned out by Manchester City to Valencia, but at the end of the year Valencia have an obligation to make the deal permanent. The same article mentions Fiorentina taking Micah Richards on loan, also from Manchester City. In this case, however, Fiorentina has the option to make the deal permanent after a year.

In fact, thinking about it, this kind of option trading in football contracts is not all that new. When Brendan Rodgers was initially appointed by Liverpool in 2012, he was given a three year deal, with the club having an option of extending it by a year (the deal has since been revised).

It’s all very interesting. I’ve constantly lamented that some of the great concepts in finance which are well applicable to everyday life are not applied to the extent that is required. Option valuation is one such concept, for example. I wrote to a friend just now asking why I should join a club he is exhorting me to join, given it’s not doing much now. His reply can be condensed to “option value”.

Option valuation is not the only thing. There is the concept of liquidity. A very commonly used concept within financial markets, it is surprisingly absent in general economic literature. For example, in finance it is a well understood concept that the more the number of active market participants the less is the transaction cost (measured as the bid-ask spread). The same concept can be used to analyze markets for taxis, housing, cooks (why a cook costs much more in Rajajinagar where demand is much lower than in Jayanagar), etc. You never see too many economists talking about it, though.

The problem might be that practitioners of financial economics concepts find finance too lucrative to apply their concepts elsewhere, while mainstream or left-leaning economists might find finance (especially complex derivative finance) abhorrent, and thus are loathe to borrow concepts from that (generally speculating)!

In terms of liquidity, though, things seem to be changing. My old friend Sangeet has been practically making a living over the last couple of years evangelizing the concept of liquidity, through his excellent blog on platform economics. Check out his recent post on Uber, for example. Platform economics is nothing but the economics of liquidity. The success of Sangeet’s blog shows that people are finally beginning to take the concept seriously. Still not mainstream economists, though!

Levels of polymorphism

Different languages have different levels of polymorphism, and it is a function of the environment in which the language developed. I discovered this last night when someone wrote on twitter that there is no word in Tamil for snow:

That got me thinking as to whether Kannada has a word for snow. Thinking of words for all the super-rain things in Kannada, I figured that “hima” is the word for fog, and “manju” means mist. But there is no word for snow in Kannada!

I put up the question on twitter, and the answers again were variations of the list I’ve put up earlier – some suggested “hima”, others “hani” (means “drops”, as in “raindrops”). One suggested “tushaara” for snow, but it’s not a commonly used word, so while it might be valid, I was looking for more commonly used words.

It then dawned on me that like the Tamil country, “solid rain” (apart from hailstones – which has its own Kannada word Anekal – translates to “elephant stone”) is not all that common in the Kannada country too. Yes, the Kannada country is cooler than Tamil country, and “solid rain” does happen, but it doesn’t happen on a regular enough basis for each type to have a word of its own. So, while I might think that “hima” is fog (since that’s the context in which it’s used in Bangalore), it also stands for “snow”! It’s all solid rain, and since it’s not all that common, you can have one word that describes it all! Interestingly, I can’t think of a Kannada word for “ice” also (again I haven’t learnt Kannada formally, though I speak the language at home. So what i know is the everyday spoken language)!

On a different note, in Japanese, the same word “Ao” is used to describe both blue and green! I’m again not sure if this because Japanese people are blue-green colour-blind, but the level of polymorphism in colour is interesting. At the other end of the scale, Italian has at least three words to describe different shades of blue (my knowledge of Italy, and Italian, I must mention, is mostly from football).

First, you have “celesti” or sky blue, as in the Biancocelesti of Lazio:

Then you have the blue of the sea or “azzure”, as in Inter Milan’s Nerazzuri

And finally, the word “Blu” is used for dark blue, as in Genoa’s Rossoblu. 

As if all this was not enough, they have Viola for purple!

It is interesting how different languages use different levels of polymorphism for different things!