When Jesus fails to cross

Ever since I watched Spain in the 2010 Football World Cup, I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve since called the “Jesus Navas model“. In game theoretic terms, it can be described as a “mixed strategy”.

In that tournament, when the normal tiki-taka strategy failed to break down opposition, Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque would send on (then) Sevilla winger Jesus Navas. Navas would hug the right touchline and fling in crosses. So the opposition defence which would have otherwise been massed in the middle of the pitch to counter the tiki-taka now had to deal with this new threat.

Based on Spain’s success in that tournament (despite them winning most of their games by only a single goal), the strategy can be termed to be a success. The strategy is also similar to how Kabaddi is typically played (at RSS shakhas at least), where six defenders form a chain to encircle the attacker, but the seventh stays away from them to lure the attacker further inside.

I revisited this Kabaddi-Jesus Navas model some 2-3 years back, during the last days of the UPA government, when senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh made a series of comments that ran afoul of the party’s stated strategy.

I’d described Digvijaya as “Congress’s official lunatic”, who had been authorised by the party’s high command to take stances contrary to the main party line. The advantage with this strategy, I had reasoned, was that there was one “official looney form of dissent”, which the party rank and file who wanted to dissent could follow.

At that time, I had pointed out that the then-opposition BJP had lacked such an “official lunatic”, because of which there were too many “fringe elements” associated with the party which ended up damaging the party’s prospects.

I don’t know if anyone in the BJP had read that post of mine, but they presently recruited Subramanian Swamy, who, in 1999, had been responsible for bringing down the BJP-led government. While the induction of Swamy into the party didn’t make intuitive sense, it was clear that he was being brought in to be the party’s official lunatic.

From all measures, he seems to have done rather well. The BJP’s looney fringe has rallied around him, and instead of having different fringes representing different ideas, the fringe has now been united. Swamy’s policies are crazy enough to attract the craziest of the fringe, and for those who find him too crazy, there’s always the mainstream party to back.

The problem for the BJP, however, has been that the “official lunatic” has now become too powerful. When Spain put on Navas, it was one guy who represented the alternate strategy – the rest were all committed to tiki-taka. In the BJP’s case, the official lunatic has got much more weight in the party.

And as Raghuram Rajan’s exit, and the attacks on leading finance ministry officials show, Swamy has actually started getting his way, with the rather large looney fringe cheering him onwards. The question is how the BJP should deal with this.

The obvious solution is to appoint a new official lunatic, one who is lunatic enough to attract the fringe, but no so popular as Swamy to have a following that rivals the mainstream party. A Digvijaya Singh equivalent would do well, but such “moderate lunatics” are hard to find. And even if one is found, the question is how the party can move the looney fringe to backing the new official lunatic.

Even worse, if a new official lunatic is appointed, the party will have to (at least temporarily) deal with two internal official lunatics, not an enviable task by any means. And if they decide to expel the incumbent official lunatic, there is the risk of alienating his (now rather large) support base!

It seems like there is no way out of this mess for the BJP! Sometimes copying policies from political rivals may not work out that well!

Handling Jesus

A few months back, perhaps during the football world cup, I had talked about the role of Jesus Navas in the Spanish attack. He would mostly be brought on as a “plan B”, mostly when the Spanish tiki-taka failed to break down the opposition defence.

And by hogging the right touchline, he would single-handedly offer a new line of attack, without taking too much away from the existing tiki-taka attack down the middle. Though quite under-rated, I think he had valuable contributions in the Spanish victory.

So I was thinking about the conditions that are essential for the success of Jesus Navas. And the primary condition, I thought, was the support of his team-mates. For example, when Xavi passed the ball right to Navas, he recognized fully well that there was little chance Navas would give it back to him. Xavi would recognize that Navas would play his own game, and all he had to do would be to perhaps send Sergio Ramos to support and get players in the box waiting for the cross.

It is to the credit of Xavi and the other members of Spanish “Plan A attack” that they recognized this and allowed Navas to play his own game whenever he came on. If they hadn’t, Navas would surely have never been as effective. In fact, he would have been a complete misfit and failure.

You might want to draw your own analogies from this but what I want to say is that when you have a guy in your team who does things differently, who is there to “provide a different angle to the attack”, you need to create conditions to facilitate his work. At the very least, you need to ensure that all members of the team recognize that this guy is different, and what they need to do to enable his success.

Talking about diversity and diversity policies is all fine, but to get the best out of the diversity policy, you need to create conditions to extract the best out of the “diversity hire”, in whatever context you choose to view this.

Kabaddi and Jesus Navas

I’ve always talked about the Kabaddi style of solving a problem. In Kabaddi, when you are defending, six out of the seven players in the team form a chain in order to encircle the attacker. The seventh defender, however, strikes it alone, in a different direction, trying to draw the attacker into a position where he can be effectively surrounded.

Now there is a footballing analogy to this – the Jesus Navas style. Those of you who watched either Spain’s game with Honduras or the second half of their loss to Switzerland would’ve noticed that Spain effectively followed two lines of attack. The first was the traditional way – attack down the middle in a series of slow passes and build-up. Five of Spain’s front six players would get involved in this attack down the centre, almost rendering their game one-dimensional. And then there was Navas.

I haven’t confirmed this stat but in the game and half that he has played Navas has completed more crosses than anyone else in the tournament. He would strike it on his own down the Spanish right flank, hug the touchline, beat the full back and put in crosses. Minute in and minute out. Sometimes with a little help from full back Sergio Ramos, but mostly alone. It was fantastic to watch.

What this ended up doing was to divert the attention of the opposing defenders to cover Navas. If everyone were to have been attacking down the centre, the defending team could’ve just parked their bus in front of their centre and prevented any scoring. Spain letting free this one guy to take a different route meant that the opposition needed to cover that also leading to insufficient cover in the centre (it is another matter that Spain failed to score against Switzerland. But they did get so many more chances after Navas came on).

I’ve always been fascinated by such strategies at work, in business. You have a bunch of guys who try to attack the problem front-on, in the conventional way, working together, passing to each other frequently. And then there is this one guy who has been left out of this clique who attacks the problem “from the flank”. In his own way, without fear of failure. He knows that he is only an auxiliary solver, that he has nothing to lose (Navas lost his place in the XI after the Honduras match but I don’t think he had expected to ever play at all), and he can just go for it. The option value of letting one guy in the team loose in order to search for alternate solutions while everyone else is building up down the middle is immense, I think.

This is similar to Nassim Taleb’s “barbell investment strategy”. Acccording to that, he parks some 90% of his assets in ultra-risk government securities. They don’t give spectacular returns but his money is safe. And the rest of the 10% he uses to punt by buying stuff like out-of-the-money options. If they expire worthlessly, he hasn’t lost much of his wealth. The optionality (here, literally) of that additional 10% is, however, immense, and there is potential for spectacular returns from this strategy. with losses being capped.