Studs and Fighters and Attack and Defence

The general impression in sport is that attack is “stud” and defence is “Fighter“. This is mainly because defence (in any game, pretty much) is primarily about not making errors, and being disciplined. Flamboyance can pay off in attack, when you only need to strike occasionally, but not in defence, where the real payoff comes from being consistent and excellent.

However, attack need not always be stud, and defence need not always be fighter. This is especially true in team sports such as football, where there can be a fair degree of organisation and coaching to get players to coordinate.

This piece in The Athletic (paywalled) gives an interesting instance of how attacking can be fighter, and how modern football is all about fighter attacking. It takes the instance of this weekend’s game between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool F.C., which the latter won.

Jack Pitt-Brooke, the author, talks about how Liverpool is fighter in attack because the players are well-drilled in attacking, and practice combination play, or what are known in football as “automisations”.

But in modern football, the opposite is true. The best football, the type played by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City or Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, is the most rigorously planned, drilled and co-ordinated. Those two managers have spent years teaching their players the complex attacking patterns and synchronised movements that allow them to cut through every team in the country. That is why they can never be frustrated by opponents who just sit in and defend, why they are racking up points totals beyond the reach of anyone else.

Jose Mourinho, on the other hand, might be fighter in the way he sets up his defence, but not so when it comes to attacking. He steadfastly refuses to have his teams train attacking automisations. While defences are extremely well drilled, and know exactly how to coordinate, attackers are left to their own forces and creativity. What Mourinho does is to identify a handful of attackers (usually the centre forward and the guy just behind him) who are given “free roles” and are expected to use their own creativity in leading their team’s attacks.

As Pitt-Brooke went on to write in his article,

That, more than anything else, explains the difference between Klopp and Mourinho. Klopp wants to plan his way out of the randomness of football. Mourinho is more willing to accept it as a fact and work around it. So while the modern manager — Klopp, Guardiola, Antonio Conte — coaches players in ‘automisations’, pre-planned moves and patterns, Mourinho does not.

Jurgen Klopp the fighter, and Jose Mourinho the stud. That actually makes sense when you think of how their teams attack. It may not be intuitive, but upon some thought it makes sense.

Yes, attack is also being fighterised in modern sport.

Two steps back, one step forward

In his excellent piece on Everton’s failed recruitment strategy (paywalled), Oliver Kay of the Athletic makes an interesting point – that players seldom do well when they move from a bigger club to a smaller club.

During his time in charge at Arsenal, George Graham used to say that the key to building a team was to buy players who were on the way up — or, alternatively, players who were desperate to prove a point — but to avoid those who might see your club as a soft landing, a comfort zone. “Never buy a player who’s taking a step down to join you,” Graham said. “He will act as if he’s doing you a favour.”

This, I guess, is not unique to football alone – it applies to other jobs as well. When someone joins a company that they think they are “too cool for”, they  look at it as a step down, and occasionally behave as if they’re doing the new employer a favour.

One corollary is that working for “the best” can be a sort of lock in for an employee, since wherever he will move from there will be a sort of step down in some way or the other, and that will mean compromises on the part of all parties involved.

Thinking about footballers who have moved from big clubs and still not done badly, I notice one sort of pattern that I call “two steps back and one step forward”. Evidently, I’m basing this analysis on a small number of data points, which might be biased, but let me play management guru and go ahead with my theory.

Basically, if you want to take a “step down” from the best, one way of doing well in the longer term is to take “two steps down” and then later take a step up. The advantage with this approach is that when you take two steps down, you get to operate in an environment far easier than the one you left, and even if you act entitled and take time to adjust you will be able to prove yourself and make an impact in due course.

And at that point in time, when you’ve started making an impact, you are “on the way up”, and can then step up to a club at the next level where you can make an impact.

Players that come to mind that have taken this approach include Jonny Evans, who moved from Ferguson-era Manchester United to West Brom, and then when West Brom got relegated, moved “up” to Leicester. And he’s doing a pretty good job there.

And then there is Xherdan Shaqiri. He made his name as a player at Bayern Munich, and then moved to Inter where he struggled. And then he made what seemed like a shocking move for the time – to Stoke City (of the “cold Thursday night at Stoke” fame) in the Premier League. Finally, last year, after Stoke got relegated from the Premier League, he “stepped up” to Liverpool, where, injuries aside, he’s been doing rather well.

The risk with this two steps down approach, of course, is that sometimes it can fail to come off, and if you don’t make an impact soon enough, you start getting seen as a “two steps down guy”, and even “one step down” can seem well beyond you.

Experience and Cows

A lot of people make a big deal about experience. If some people (and some companies) are to be believed, the number of years in a job should be the only criterion of what someone needs to be paid and whether they deserve to be promoted.

However, not all experience is created equal. Experience matters when you are learning on the job, and where you learn the patterns that are inherent in your job, and you can over time replace your “slow thinking” about the job with more “fast thinking”.

If you continue to do the same thing in the same way throughout the years of experience, not bothering to figure out why things are done certain ways, and how things can be done better, the experience isn’t of that much use.

I leave it to former Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino to explain this concept with a beautiful and profound analogy (there’s a video in this link which I’m somehow unable to embed here).

It is like a cow that, every day in 10 years, sees the train cross in front at the same time.

If you ask the cow, ‘what time is the train going to come’, it is not going to know the right answer.

In football, it is the same. Experience, yes, but hunger, motivation, circumstance, everything is so important.

It is unfortunate that the journalist who covered this story for Sky Sports thought this analogy was bizarre. Maybe he has been doing his job reporting on press conferences in the same way a cow sees a train passing by at a particular time every day?

Liverpool FC: Mid Season Review

After 20 games played, Liverpool are sitting pretty on top of the Premier League with 58 points (out of a possible 60). The only jitter in the campaign so far came in a draw away at Manchester United.

I made what I think is a cool graph to put this performance in perspective. I looked at Liverpool’s points tally at the end of the first 19 match days through the length of the Premier League, and looked at “progress” (the data for last night’s win against Sheffield isn’t yet up on my dataset, which also doesn’t include data for the 1992-93 season, so those are left out).

Given the strength of this season’s performance, I don’t think there’s that much information in the graph, but here it goes in any case:

I’ve coloured all the seasons where Liverpool were the title contenders. A few things stand out:

  1. This season, while great, isn’t that much better than the last one. Last season, Liverpool had three draws in the first half of the league (Man City at home, Chelsea away and Arsenal away). It was the first month of the second half where the campaign faltered (starting with the loss to Man City).
  2. This possibly went under the radar, but Liverpool had a fantastic start to the 2016-17 season as well, with 43 points at the halfway stage. To put that in perspective, this was one more than the points total at that stage in the title-chasing 2008-9 season.
  3. Liverpool went close in 2013-14, but in terms of points, the halfway performance wasn’t anything to write home about. That was also back in the time when teams didn’t dominate like nowadays, and eighty odd points was enough to win the league.

This is what Liverpool’s full season looked like (note that I’ve used a different kind of graph here. Not sure which one is better).

 

Finally, what’s the relationship between points at the end of the first half of the season (19 games) and the full season? Let’s run a regression across all teams, across all 38 game EPL seasons.

The regression doesn’t turn out to be THAT significant, with an R Squared of 41%. In other words, a team’s points tally at the halfway point in the season explains less than 50% of the variation in the points tally that the team will get in the second half of the season.

Coefficients:
            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)    
(Intercept)  9.42967    0.97671   9.655   <2e-16 ***
Midway       0.64126    0.03549  18.070   <2e-16 ***
---
Signif. codes:  0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1

Residual standard error: 6.992 on 478 degrees of freedom
  (20 observations deleted due to missingness)
Multiple R-squared:  0.4059,    Adjusted R-squared:  0.4046 
F-statistic: 326.5 on 1 and 478 DF,  p-value: < 2.2e-16

The interesting thing is that the coefficient of the midway score is less than 1, which implies that teams’ performances at the end of the season (literally) regress to the mean.

55 points at the end of the first 19 games is projected to translate to 100 at the end of the season. In fact, based on this regression model run on the first 19 games of the season, Liverpool should win the title by a canter.

PS: Look at the bottom of this projections table. It seems like for the first time in a very long time, the “magical” 40 points might be necessary to stave off relegation. Then again, it’s regression (pun intended).

Video Geographic Monopolies

There is one quirk about video which we don’t face with print – some content is simply impossible to access legally in some parts of the world.

I’m specifically talking about BBC’s Match Of The Day, their end of day highlights package covering the English Premier League. It was one show that I watched unfailingly during my time in London, both for the match highlights, and for the quality of the discussion featuring Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Ian Wright et al.

Now I find that the show is simply not available in India – some youtube channels illegally offer the show (before they are taken down, I guess), but without the bits that show pictures of the game (which they are not allowed to show). And that makes for rather painful watching, knowing that you’re watching something substandard.

This is not the case with something like text – as long as I’m willing to pay, I’m able to access content produced anywhere in the world. I can sit here in Bangalore and buy a subscription to the New York Times, and access all its content. Audio is also similar – I can sit here and subscribe to any international podcast, and be able to access the content.

Video doesn’t work that way. The problem is with the way rights are sold – the Star network, for example, has a monopoly on showing pictures from the Premier League in India (having paid a substantial amount for it). And part of their arrangement means that nobody else is allowed to broadcast this material in India. A consequence of this is that we are stuck with whatever (mostly crappy) analysis Star decides to provide around its games. Stuff that is unwatchable.

There is a lot of great sport content online, but the video part is constrained by the inability to show pictures. Check out analysis by Tifo Football, for example – it’s absolutely top class. However, for most games, they have to rely on stock images and block diagrams since they can’t show the pictures which someone has a monopoly on. And that makes the analysis less rich (the Athletic, which I have a subscription to, “solves” this in an interesting way – by using screenshots of the TV footage of the game as part of their text analysis).

I wonder if there is a way out of this. Some leagues such as the NBA have shown some enlightened thinking on this – while they are anal about copyright of their live feed, they don’t care about copyrights on recorded footage. This means that anyone can use footage from historical NBA games as part of their analysis. Better analysis means more people interested in the sport, which means more people watching the live feed, which makes more money for the league (read this excellent interview of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver).

I’m also beginning to think if there is a regulatory antitrust response to this issue. Video distribution (especially of live content) is a natural monopoly, so it doesn’t make sense to have competing broadcasters. However, I wonder if there is any regulation possible for historical feeds that makes them more tradable (with the rights holders getting appropriately compensated without much transaction costs)!

One can only hope..

Evolution of sports broadcasting

I had a pleasant surprise yesterday morning when I was watching the highlights of Liverpool’s 4-0 victory at Leicester. The picture quality suddenly looked better. The production aesthetics in the first few seconds (before coverage of the actual match began) looked “American”. I doubted myself for a minute if this was actually English football I was watching.

And then I remembered that the pictures for this  game came from Amazon Prime. The streaming service had got rights to broadcast two full rounds of Premier League games this season, making a small chink in the duopoly of Sky Sports and BT Sport.

Traditional media wasn’t too impressed by it. Streaming necessarily meant a small delay in broadcast, and that made it less exciting for some viewers. The Guardian predictably made a noise about the “corporate takeover” with Amazon’s entry. From all the reports I read (mostly across the Guardian and the Athletic), commentators seemed intent on picking holes in Amazon’s performance.

That said, the new broadcaster also brought a fresh production aesthetic. While there were the inevitable teething problems (I must confess I didn’t watch these games live – being midweek evening games, they were very late night in India), Amazon for sure brought some new ideas into the broadcast.

Just like Fox Sports had done when it had done a big launch into NFL broadcasting in the early 90s. Read this oral history of that episode. It’s rather fantastic. Among the “innovations” that Fox Sports brought into American broadcasting (based on its sports broadcast in Australia, primarily) was this box at the corner showing the time and the live score. The thing wasn’t initially well received, but is now a fixture.

For evolution to happen, you need sex. And that means mixing things up, in ways they weren’t mixed before. If we were all the children of a super-god and a super-goddess, we would all be pretty much the same since the amount of “innovation” that could happen would be limited. And things would be boring, and static. Complex forms such as human beings could have never happened.

It is similar in business, and sports broadcasting, as well. When you have the same channels covering the same sports, they get into well-set local optima, and nothing new is tried. There is no necessity for improvement in that sense.

When new players comes in, preferably from another market, however, they see the need to differentiate themselves, and bring in ideas from their former market. And this leads to a crossover of ideas. In their efforts to stand out and make an impact, they might also bring in some ideas never seen anywhere – “mutations” in the evolutionary sense.

A lot of them don’t make sense and they die out. Others score unexpected hits and catch on. And that way, this memetic evolution leads to better business.

The great thing about memetic evolution is that while bad ideas come along much more often than good ideas, they get discarded fairly quickly, while the good ideas live on. And that leads to overall better products.

Right now in India we have a duopoly in sports broadcasting, controlled by the Star family and the Sony family. I’ve ranted several times about how the latter is absolutely atrocious and does nothing to improve the game. Hopefully a new player getting rights of some sport here will shake things up and bring in fresh ideas. Even if some of the ideas turn out to be bad, there will be plenty of good ideas.

Check out the highlights of the Leicester-Liverpool game, and you’ll get an idea.

Why Mourinho failed at ManYoo

Yesterday, Baada and I decided to try and record one of our recent WhatsApp conversations and release it as a podcast. I was in charge of tech, and I messed up massively. I was using Skype, and for whatever reason, it appears that my phone picked the microphone input from the phone itself and not from the AirPods I was using, so my voice came very faintly. Baada’s voice came well, though.

Leading up to the podcast, both of us had done our homework, so it’s a pity that it didn’t come out well and we can’t release it. The topic of the podcast was what kind of strategy, tactics and formations Jose Mourinho will use at Spurs. As part of our preparation, we had looked at the formations that he had used in each of his previous six clubs (Porto, Chelsea (1), Inter, Real Madrid, Chelsea (2) and Manchester United). There was one clear trend.

There are a number of positions that Mourinho prefers, and we were able to identify players in his first five clubs who occupied that position. And when it came to ManYoo, we drew a blank. This happened repeatedly as we talked through his possible formations and possible personnel to use at Spurs.

For example, Mourinho has a history of playing a Number Ten, and giving him a largely free role, encouraging him to get forward and score. Deco at Porto, Lampard at Chelsea 1, Sneijder at Inter, Ozil at Madrid, Hazard at Chelsea 2. And nobody at ManYoo! Through the Mourinho years, ManYoo didn’t have a proper Number Ten (and they don’t have one now) – it’s almost like a Number Ten wasn’t part of the ManYoo school of playing.

Then, people like to talk about Mourinho parking the bus, but an interesting feature of his game is that he uses a defensive midfielder who is good on the ball. Costinha at Porto. Makelele at Chelsea (he’s not that ultra-defensive midfielder commentators make him out to be – read Michael Cox’s Mixer to know more about him). Motta, Cambiasso and Zanetti at Inter. Xabi Alonso at Madrid. Nemanja Matic at Chelsea the second time round.

And again ManYoo didn’t have a comparable player. Mourinho took Matic along, but he didn’t do particularly well there (maybe he was past his prime?).

Then Mourinho likes a box-to-box midfielder who doesn’t mind doing dirty work. Essien in Chelsea 1, Khedira at Real. Ramires in Chelsea 2. Again ManYoo lacked such a player by the time Mourinho arrived (had he taken over earlier, maybe he might have used Paul Scholes in the role).

You can go on.

The remarkable thing is that Spurs actually have good personnel for most of the roles that Mourinho likes. They have an excellent Number Nine in Harry Kane. Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Hyong-Min Son are all capable of being the Number Ten (Alli is most likely to play there). Moussa Sissoko will be the box-to-box hardworking midfielder. Harry Winks can actually play the ball from central midfield. And so on.

So I expect Mourinho to do better with Spurs than he did with Manyoo. Even if he doesn’t have the budget to buy players of his choice in the next window.

Spurs right to sack Pochettino?

A few months back, I built my “football club elo by manager” visualisation. Essentially, we take the week-by-week Premier League Elo ratings from ClubElo and overlay it with managerial tenures.

A clear pattern emerges – a lot of Premier League sackings have been consistent with clubs going down significantly in terms of Elo Ratings. For example, we have seen that Liverpool sacked Rafa Benitez, Kenny Dalglish (in 2012) and Brendan Rodgers all at the right time, and that similarly Manchester United sacked Jose Mourinho when he brought them back to below where he started.

And now the news comes in that Spurs have joined the party, sacking long-time coach Mauricio Pochettino. What I find interesting is the timing of the sacking – while international breaks are usually a popular time to change managers (the two week gap in fixtures gives a club some time to adjust), most sackings happen in the first week of the international break.

The Pochettino sacking is surprising in that it has come towards the end of the international break, giving the club four days before their next fixture (a derby at the struggling West Ham). However, the Guardian reports that Spurs are close to hiring Jose Mourinho, and that might explain the timing of the sacking.

So were Spurs right in sacking Pochettino, barely six months after he took them to a Champions League final? Let’s look at the Spurs story under Pochettino using Elo ratings. 

 

 

 

 

Pochettino took over in 2014 after an underwhelming 2013-14 when the club struggled under Andre Villas Boas and then Tim Sherwood. Initially, results weren’t too promising, as he took them from a 1800 rating down to 1700.

However, chairman Daniel Levy’s patience paid off, and the club mounted a serious challenge to Leicester in the 2015-16 season before falling away towards the end of the season, finishing third behind Arsenal. As the Elo shows, the improvement continued, as the club remained in Champions League places through the course of Pochettino’s reign.

Personally, the “highlight” of Pochettino’s reign was Spurs’ 4-1 demolition of Liverpool at Wembley in October 2017, a game I happened to watch at the stadium. And as per the Elo ratings the club plateaued shortly after that.

If that plateau had continued,  I suppose Pochettino would have remained in his job, giving the team regular Champions League football. This season, however, has been a disaster.

Spurs are 13 points below what they had scored in comparable fixtures last season, and unlikely to finish in the top six even. Their Elo has also dropped below 1850 for the first time since 2016-17. While that is still higher than where Pochettino started off at, the precipitous drop in recent times has meant that the club has possibly taken the right call in sacking Pochettino.

If Mourinho does replace him (it looks likely, as per the Guardian), it will present a personal problem for me – for over a decade now, Tottenham have been my “second team” in the top half of the Premier League, behind Liverpool. That cannot continue if Mourinho takes over. I’m wondering who to shift my allegiance to – it will have to be either Leicester or (horror of horrors) Chelsea!

EPL: Mid-Season Review

Going into the November international break, Liverpool are eight points ahead at the top of the Premier League. Defending champions Manchester City have slipped to fourth place following their loss to Liverpool. The question most commentators are asking is if Liverpool can hold on to this lead.

We are two-thirds of the way through the first round robin of the premier league. The thing with evaluating league standings midway through the round robin is that it doesn’t account for the fixture list. For example, Liverpool have finished playing the rest of the “big six” (or seven, if you include Leicester), but Manchester City have many games to go among the top teams.

So my practice over the years has been to compare team performance to corresponding fixtures in the previous season, and to look at the points difference. Then, assuming the rest of the season goes just like last year, we can project who is likely to end up where.

Now, relegation and promotion introduces a source of complication, but we can “solve” that by replacing last season’s relegated teams with this season’s promoted teams (18th by Championship winners, 19th by Championship runners-up, and 20th by Championship playoff winners).

It’s not the first time I’m doing this analysis. I’d done it once in 2013-14, and once in 2014-15. You will notice that the graphs look similar as well – that’s how lazy I am.

Anyways, this is the points differential thus far compared to corresponding fixtures of last season. 

 

 

 

Leicester are the most improved team from last season, having scored 8 points more than in corresponding fixtures from last season. Sheffield United, albeit starting from a low base, have done extremely well as well. And last season’s runners-up Liverpool are on a plus 6.

The team that has done worst relative to last season is Tottenham Hotspur, at minus 13. Key players entering the final years of their contract and not signing extensions, and scanty recruitment over the last 2-3 years, haven’t helped. And then there is Manchester City at minus 9!

So assuming the rest of the season’s fixtures go according to last season’s corresponding fixtures, what will the final table look  like at the end of the season?
We see that if Liverpool replicate their results from last season for the rest of the fixtures, they should win the league comfortably.

What is more interesting is the gaps between 1-2, 2-3 and 3-4. Each of the top three positions is likely to be decided “comfortably”, with a fairly congested mid-table.

As mentioned earlier, this kind of analysis is unfair to the promoted teams. It is highly unlikely that Sheffield will get relegated based on the start they’ve had.

We’ll repeat this analysis after a couple of months to see where the league stands!

Prodigy

Sometimes I wonder if being a prodigy is more of a curse than a blessing. The sense of having “achieved something” fairly early in life leads to a lowering of objectives, not being excited by anything, and a sort of satisfaction of having “arrived” that reduces motivation to do anything else in life.

A few prodigies keep up the fight and make a successful career for themselves as adults (eg. Sachin Tendulkar). Most fall by the wayside. And find it struggle to come to terms of having become ordinary. And find being an adult incredibly hard, and then get into all sorts of issues.

Five years ago, the Guardian identified the “best young player from each Premier League club“, and they’ve kept at monitoring the progress. Five years later, the results aren’t encouraging.

Out of our 20 players from the English top flight in that 2014-15 season, only three are playing at Premier League clubs now: Marcus Rashford, Dominic Solanke and Hamza Choudhury.

That may not sound very impressive but some others are at Premier League clubs but on loan in the Championship. Six of the 20 are playing second-tier football (five in England and one, Harley Willard, in Iceland) so nearly half are playing at a very high level. On the other hand, two of the 20 – as far as we are aware – are not playing football any more.

While it is natural for parents to push their kids and get them to “achieve something” at a young age, such achievements in most cases don’t result in any lasting advantage as adults. Instead, children who achieve something get labelled as “prodigies” or “gifted” or “talented” and these labels only seek to increase pressures on them as they grow up, rather than helping them build sustainable careers.

OK I might be ranting so I’ll stop here.