Big forward, little forward

When most teams play a front two, it comprises of a small quick guy (called the Number Ten) and a big guy (called the Number Nine). The convention is that when the team is defending, one of these two stays up ahead (just beating the off-side mark, wherever the opposition defence line is), while the other tracks back in order to help out with the defence. The worldwide convention in this regard is for the Number Nine to stay up front in anticipation of an attack while the Number Ten drops back to defend.

Liverpool, of late, however, have played differently. Their Number Ten (figuratively, since he wears seven on his back) Luis Suarez is the one usually left alone upfront when the team is defending, while the number Nine Andy Carroll tracks back to help out in defence.

The logic of this policy is two-fold. One, an additional big player coming back to defend means greater ability to win defensive headers within the box (think of it in terms of winning rebounds in basketball). Secondly, Liverpool under Dalglish have preferred a pass-the-ball-out-of-defence method rather than clearances. This means that when the offence breaks and a counterattack is to be launched, the ball is more likely to be played along the ground to the forward rather than up in the air. And Suarez is the more likely of the pair of forwards more likely to make use of that.

So what is the concept behind the conventional wisdom of leaving Nine upfront with Ten dropping back into defence? The typical strategy in English football is to clear the ball out of defence rather than passing it out, and the big number nine is well positioned to receive it upfront. The big nines usually also have the ability to ‘hold up’ the ball, to allow his team-mates to join him. The number ten, being quick, is able to quickly join the number nine in attack.

The other factor behind leaving the number nine upfront is that they are usually one-dimensional players, with the only abilities being to win headers and hold up the ball. They are either no good in defence, or have big strikers’ egos that prevents from joining defence effectively. Number tens, on the other hand are more skilled all-round and are more likely to come of use in defence.

In this sense, Carroll is not bad at defence, and more importantly he is young and out of form, which makes it easy for Dalglish to force him to track back while defending. So far, it seems to be working.

Diminishing Value of a Red Card

Often when we see players being sent off AND penalty kick being awarded in the event of an illegal stop of a goal-bound ball, Baada and I have thought that the punishment is too harsh. That for stopping one goal, the team effectively gives away the goal (conversion rate of penalties is high) and also loses a player (sometimes the goalie) for the rest of the game.

Now, after last night’s strategic hand ball by Luis Suarez, people are complaining that the punishment is not enough. Though it was a split-second instinctive decision by Suarez to handball, even if he were to replay the incident in his head and analyze the costs and benefits, I’m sure he would’ve done what he did. This clearly contradicts what I mentioned in the first paragraph.

The main issue here is with the value of a red card ¬†at various stages of a game. The red card has intrinsic value – of being suspended for the next game. In addition to this, the red card leaves the team one short for the rest of the game, and so it is clear that the later a red card is given out, the lesser the disadvantage it causes the team because they’ve to play for lesser time with a man short.

What makes Suarez’s decision more logical is the time value of a one-goal lead. The lesser the time left in the game, the more the value of the one-goal lead since there is lesser time for which it needs to be protected. And in this case, the handball occurred on what might have been the last “kick” in the game, and so the value of the one-goal lead was really high.

The earlier this incident had occurred in the match, the less would’ve been Suarez’s incentive to handball – more time to win back the conceded goal and more time to play a man short if redcarded. At the time when it actually occurred, Suarez would’ve been a fool to NOT handball. The payoffs were heavily loaded in favour of handballing and he did it.

People on twitter are suggesting that rules be changed, that the goal should’ve been awarded anyway instead of the penalty and stuff, but considering that the same punishment costs much more if given out earlier in the game, I think the current punishment is appropriate. The excess of this punishment in earlier stages of the game is compensated by the punishment being too little in the latter stages, and on an average I think it is appropriate.

Let’s continue to keep football simple and not clutter it with Duckworth-Lewis kind of rules. And congrats to Suarez for taking the most logical decision at the moment. It is indeed as great a “sacrifice” as Ballack’s tactical yellow card against Korea in the 2002 semis.

And I feel sad for Asamoah Gyan. But then again, with Ghana being in the knockout stages solely on the merit of two Gyan penalties, it is only appropriate that they are going out nowon the demerit of Gyan’s missed penalty.