Friday, 21 December 2012

Why Manchester City is Tactically Inefficient

Manchester City are a wonderful team, there is no doubt about that. They have magnificent players and they are reigning champions of England. However, City finished in last place in their Champions League group with a miserly 3 points, winning no games, scoring only 7 goals and conceding 11. Since this is the case, I would like to point out a couple of things which I believe would make Manchester City a better team.

Against the weaker teams, Man City can afford to play Tevez, Aguero, Nasri and Silva together. However, this system runs into problems when up against stronger opposition, namely, sides who are very good on the counter attack such as Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United. It is against these sides where I think Mancini fails his team. Let me explain:

Image from
Mancini this season has found it problematic to find a suitable formation with the suitable players against the top sides. The reason is because his team is set up to play one of two ways. To play a compact and defensive game, or a game based on fluidity and attacking intent. The problem is that it can't do both. This is the heart of the problem which Mancini faces and the leading factor, in my opinion, which has led to their poor performances in Europe.
Against the weaker teams, City must play at least three of Aguero, Tevez, Silva or Nasri, but preferably all four of them. The reason is that in such games, the responsibility is placed on City to break down the other team's defensive block which you would expect to be tight and compact. Naturally, City would have the majority of the possession and would be the team who are expected to win the game. Such a strategy is pretty safe to use as long as they are playing against a team who do not counter attack very well. The negative aspect of this strategy is that against teams who can counter attack very well, City can be left exposed. A major reason comes from the way City are set up when the four players I mentioned play.

All four players play centrally. Aguero and Tevez are both strikers who play in the middle, while Silva and Nasri are not natural wingers and prefer to drift inside. Since this is the case, the only natural width City have is with both fullbacks pushing forward to support the play. It is essential that the fullbacks get involved in the attacking play, otherwise any team would find it difficult to create chances against a well organised defence. The reliance on the fullbacks to provide natural width can prove to be a problem. The reason is because when both fullbacks push forward, they can leave huge space behind them which can be exploited by the opposition players. Manchester United recently took full advantage of the space to create two goals in open play. The fullbacks going up by themselves is not a problem in itself. It only becomes a problem if the rest of the team cannot compensate for this particular movement.

Firstly, Silva and Nasri do not cover for their respective fullbacks forays forward. It is left up to Clichy and Zabaleta to track back to defend themselves even if they have advanced further up the pitch than Silva or Nasri.

Secondly, Yaya Toure is crucial to City's attack in that he often creates danger with his driving runs forward from deep areas, especially in transition. While this is all well, the harsh reality is that this means he leaves Barry isolated as the lone holding midfielder. In essence, the style of Toure often means that City's 4231 shape becomes a 4141 shape. People often debate whether Toure is better suited to a deeper role or a role behind the striker. The truth is that he can do both roles fantastically well. The problem is that he's asked to do both in the same game. Furthermore, this means that Barry is often forced to go forward with Toure in order to close up the distance between himself and Toure and this leave space in front of the two centre backs.

City's actual formation leaves too much space for Barry and both fullbacks to cover. Image from
Thirdly, Barry is not mobile enough to move laterally across the pitch. This is a crucial tactical error in City's shape because it means that Barry cannot cover for the fullbacks when they've gone forward. If Barry was as dynamic as a Ramires for example, City's 4141 formation could theoretically work. Sadly, this is not the case. Mind you, Garcia and Rodwell are similar types of players as Barry so they wouldn't make a tactical difference if they played instead of Barry.

The overall pattern seems to be that Mancini chooses to overload the middle and take numbers off the flanks in order to play four creative players all at once. While this system of play is not radical, it does require the players to do so. The problem City have, and is the ultimate problem Mancini has to solve, is how to give City width so that they can expand when they have the ball, while keeping compact when they lose the ball. At the moment, City don't do either. I get the feeling that City are not playing to the potential that they have. They have spent a great amount of money on players without a cohesive system in mind. Considering the money spent, City shouldn't be having so many and consistent tactical problems to deal with, and they should be dominating the league. Inefficiency in the transfer market is largely to blame and future managers (should Mancini not be in charge next season) will have the same problems as Mancini has. Too many players on highly paid wages that do not fit together in a cohesive system.

Having said all this, it still must be said that Manchester City are a great team with plenty of great players. They deserved to be champions last season. This season is different. Manchester United have strengthened and Europe taught them a lesson. In order to win the Premier League this season and to advance to the last 16 of the Champions League next season, Mancini has to find a way to incorporate his highly paid players into a better balanced system, otherwise he might no longer be wearing his blue scarf in the technical area of Etihad Stadium.

Published with permission from Sportskeeda

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Why Football is Better than Tennis and Golf

I was recently watching a Pep Guardiola documentary of sorts on Youtube. Actually, it was more like an intimate and revealing interview between Pep and Spanish movie director Fernando Trueba recorded in 2011. Among many things, Pep talked about how the player that plays in front of huge stadiums packed full of huge numbers of people once played played football on the streets with his friends. He went on to illustrate how he never met a professional football player that does not love the game. Expanding further on this point, Pep explained how his love of football shaped him as a person, saying that the best education he had received was from the school of football.
"I have learnt to deal with defeat, that others can be better than me. I have learnt to recover after not performing well, to try harder to be the best. I have learnt to accept that a team mate can be better than me, that the coach can pick another player if I have behaved badly. All that knowledge about relationships I have learnt from sport...I did not receive that education in theory, but in practice."
At this point I was thinking all the points he was making were fairly normal...until the following quote struck me.
"That is why group sports are more powerful than individual sports."
This got me thinking about comparing group sports and individual sports. I was curious as to which particular category of sport is better, on an overall scale. Which type of sport requires the most skill, the most determination, the most sacrifices and the most mental toughness. In essence, which type of sport is it the most difficult to become world class.

Having a limited knowledge of individual sports such as tennis and golf, I tried to picture myself in Roger Federer or Tiger Wood's shoes in the middle of long tennis game or golf tournament. No doubt a key distinction in both these sports is that when times get tough, there are no team mates to turn to. All the pressure is on the shoulders of a single person. There is no-one but yourself to blame if things go wrong and the performance is not good enough.

On the other hand, in a football team, there is a different kind of pressure. Your performance has a direct impact on the performance of your team mates. If you make mistakes, not only have you let yourself down, but you have let down your team mates as well. It is what I call the 'guilt factor' in team sports. This guilt factor enhances the pressure an individual feels to perform because the guilt of not performing is multiplied. This is not the case in individual sports because you are not playing for others and as such your actions have no consequences so to speak. The only consequence is what thoughts a player has in his head. Roger Federer clearly has mastered the art of controlling emotions:
"Previously I always thought it was just tactical and technique, but every match has almost become mental and physical - I try to push myself not to become upset and stay positive, and that's what my biggest improvement is over all these years. Under pressure I can see things very clearly."
It is clear to see that in a game like tennis mental strength and psychology plays an important part in the success of a player. While I do not doubt this, I do doubt that the role of the mind is more important in individual sports than in team sports. The reason for my doubt is that I believe you need even more mental stability in football due to the complexity of the game. Not only can obstacles come in the form of a loss of confidence on your part, it can come from the opposition players or your own team mates. It is not enough to simply be at ease with your personal psyche, it must be integrated successfully and harmoniously within your team.

An example of this might be the case of Mario Balotelli. He is a man who does not lack confidence or self belief. The problem is that his mental strength does not lie within the accepted limitations for his team to cope with. This is especially true for his manager Roberto Mancini. Mario's "self confidence" is perceived as a bad attitude, a brash cockiness and a weak team orientated mentality. If Balotelli's personality was to be used in tennis or golf he might stand a better chance of annoying and disgruntling less people, allowing him the freedom to express his talents to the full. In football, a more subtle approach has to be taken to successfully integrate with the people around him. This is what I mean when I say that team sports represent a more difficult and complex environment to control your own emotions, even if your are self confident and mentally tough.

Image from
Application of skill on a tennis court or a golf course is much, much easier than in a team environment. This is another reason why I believe football is better than tennis and golf. Golf especially is played in a closed environment. This is a state where the skill takes place in a stable and predictable environment. Corresponding with the closed environment, golf is an internally paced sport. In other words, the golfer controls when he chooses to commence and conclude the skill action. The skill has a clear beginning and end, the golf swing being an example of a closed skill.
The football environment is the opposite of these conditions, being both an open environment and an externally paced sport in which the athlete's decisions and execution of skills are affected by the players around him and the time that he must execute skills. I.e. a striker cannot miss an opportunity to shoot on goal because he feels rushed into taking the shot. Football players have to contend with a highly charged and pressured environment where quickness and speed of thought are crucial to skill execution, unlike in golf where you can take your time and pace yourself. Tennis is in between golf and football on the scale, where some plays are internally paced (executing a serve) and it is an environment where you must contend with only one or two opponents instead of eleven.

The final point I want to make is that group sports can have a bigger impact on the audience because it is a social event as much as it is a sporting event.
"You have to learn how to relate to others. I have learnt to make an effort for a team mate and I know that tomorrow he will do the same for me in order to achieve our common goals."
It is these interactions between team mates which enrich the sport. Football is a microcosm of society, where people gather together, share aspirations, make plans and objectives, and sets out to achieve them together. Differences of opinion will occur, people will get upset and bust-ups will inevitably occur. Managing these issues is part of the sport. Achieving victories together sweetens the experience of playing the sport.

In my opinion, the complexities and the richness of football cannot be compared to individual sports such as tennis and golf. Football is simply the best game in the world. Pep Guardiola perhaps has the ultimate reason for why football is the only universally loved game:
"It is also a fun game, it brings pleasure, it is a game in the end. We have forgotten about that word, to play. We at the bottom play football, we play everyday. I play dreaming about the next game and my players play everyday."
Published with permission from Sportskeeda

Friday, 7 December 2012

10 Slightly Quirky Ideas to Make You a Better Player

I am generally a serious and philosophical person. My writing reflects that and I'm sick of people telling me that I can't be fun. So I wanted to prove to them that I can let my hair down and be silly like them. So I have written the following article for the less serious people in life. (Or for serious but just not today people as well). Either way, put your silly hats on and don't tell me that my article is stupid. I will tell you now, it kind of is.

1. Driving bad for two-footedness

If you have a car and drive, you will already know that you mainly use your right foot to push the accelerator and the brake pedal. If you have a manual car your right foot will operate the accelerator and brake pedals, while your left will operate the clutch pedal. Either way, you will be using your right foot no matter what country you drive in. This means there is an imbalance in the work that your legs do. After many years of driving, the muscles in your right leg will have performed many more contractions than the muscles in your left leg. This means that the myelin surrounding the nerves in those muscles will have thickened, an adaptation related to muscle memory, or the ability for muscles to become more precise to certain movements. This may lead to an imbalanced use of one leg when performing football tasks such as always trapping or passing the ball with the right leg, simply because the muscles in your right leg are more used to contracting. If you want to be able to use both feet in football, don't drive. Or at least drive a manual car.

Want to be as good as Zidane? Image from

2. Playing chess improves tactical awareness

It is vital to improve your mental attributes such as awareness, confidence, decision making ability etc to improve as a football player. One of these attributes is tactical awareness, the ability to know where you are and where you should be. Chess is basically football played on a smaller field where the game lasts longer and is played at a lower intensity. It is proven that the chess masters have superior intelligence such as spacial awareness, problem solving and concentration. These attributes are basically the same ones that players such as Xavi, Zidane and Scholes have. If you play chess you can also improve these qualities which is the difference between the best players and the good ones.

3. Getting into your pants with the same leg makes your balance asymmetrical

Think about this- which leg do you use first to get into your pants or shorts when you dress? The first leg in is in all likelihood your preferred leg when kicking a football. In other words, since your childhood days you have been dressing and undressing without realising that you have been using the same leg over and over to get in or out of your trousers. If you assume that you change attire twice a day since you were five years old and you are now 25, you have dressed yourself 14,560 times. In a similar way to driving, you have been doing your non-preferred leg a major disservice. Not only has this affected your ability to use both feet, you have affected your balance. Try this experiment- wear different trousers to the one you are wearing now, but use your other leg to get into the trousers first. Not so easy, is it? If you are right footed, you have been overbalancing on your left leg. This means the action of passing, shooting or dribbling with your right foot is accentuated because your left foot is better at balancing your body than your right. If you want to improve your balance on your right leg so that you can use your left foot more in football, swap the leg you use to get into your pants.

4. To improve movement, walk backwards

Not a great point I admit. I was thinking of the movements in football and came to the conclusion that everyday human movement is non-specific to football movement. Football players run forward, run backwards, skip sideways, jump, jog, spin, hop- basically more than just walk, which is what we do in our everyday lives. If you want to improve your physical shape in football, then stop walking to work - skip instead. When you are in your office building, don't walk to your water cooler - walk backwards instead. When you walk up stairs, don't walk - hop up the stairs. These simple modifications in your day to day life will improve your football movement.

5. Playing FIFA helps you deflect blame so your confidence doesn't drop

It is a well known fact of playing Fifa on your game console that we humans refuse to blame ourselves when we concede a goal or lose a game. It is usually the players fault for not being good enough. Either that or you pressed X to pass but the button was faulty. You know what, the other player was cheating. Yep, that has to explain why I've lost every time I've played against my friend. What does this mean to us aspiring football players. It means that you will never blame yourself for mistakes you did. Never blame yourself for losing. It is this mentality which makes us bullet-proof. We will never get a dent on our armour of arrogance. Never accept it was our fault. (Why should it be - I tackled fairly but the referee gave a penalty - conspiracy!). All in all, we will never be hurt, never think it is me that's the problem and never lose our sense of self worth. If you want to never lose confidence in your ability as a football player, play Fifa. But never play as Fernando Torres.

6. Architects have a developed spacial awareness

The chess master moves his pieces in a particular space with obstacles in the way, but an architect designs the space. Not only does he design it, he designs it differently every time. That requires a mastery of spacial awareness and planning ability. Not to mention a real building is on a whole new level to a small board of 64 squares. Do you get what I'm getting at? If you want to improve your spacial awareness and ability to visualise and plan ahead, become an architect. Enough said.

Karate!!! Image from

7. Cycling will shorten hamstrings

On a slightly more scientific tone, it is said that fitness trainers who make their players cycle on a machine to improve their aerobic endurance are doing their hamstrings a disservice. You see, after constant repetition of cycling, your hamstrings will reduce in length due to the constantly shortened state it finds itself in a cycling motion. When a player kicks a ball hard or shoots on goal, the hamstring explosively lengthens as the leg moves away from the body. If your hamstring has been used to contracting in a shortened state, a sudden lengthening in such an action can cause a tear. In short, if you want to increase your chance of getting an injury, cycle. If you are smart, you would stick to good old running.

8. Ice skating improves balance

Ice skating improves balance because your whole body weight is balanced on two extremely thin strips of metal that has a much smaller surface area than your two feet. To improve your balance, take up ice skating. Simple really.

9. Karate kicks means better football kicks

Football is much like karate or taekwondo. In football, you use your leg to kick a ball. In karate, you use your leg to kick many things. Experienced martial artists have a greatly developed kinesthetic sense, the ability to know where your body is in relation to space. When performing a complex spinning kick, a martial artist must know precisely where his leg is and where it will go, as well as the ability to actually move his leg in the desired way. Elite football players also have an acute sense of their body position and can also precisely control the movements of their body and legs. Maybe Bruce Lee would have been a great football player if he hadn't discovered martial arts.

10. Artists can play number 10

I have written about creativity before on this site and on my own blog site. Having thought about it deeply I have come to a single conclusion. Artists are the most creative people on the planet. No doubt.  If you want to be creative as a football player, if you want to be able to make more assists, if you want to be revered like the most creative players in the history of football, I will tell you one piece of advice. Paint!

You can now take off your hats and resume normal life.

Published with permission from Sportskeeda

Saturday, 1 December 2012

What is Creativity in Football?

We all know what creativity is-yes? It is something which allows you to create. Ok, that's not quite the description that gets me any closer to answering this rather complex and simple question. Wikipedia tells us that creativity is the invention of something new which has value. That is a very broad answer and is open to interpretation. No doubt scholars and philosophers have debated and reshaped this concept of creativity for thousands of years and as far as I'm concerned haven't truly defined in a single statement what creativity actually is. This is because creativity is one far reaching intangible concept in which it is impossible to definitively encompass all of its aspects in a single definition. With this, I will now attempt to create my own definition of creativity. Creativity, that is, in football.

If I were to ask you which are the ten most desirable attributes you would want in a football player, you would probably give me six or seven answers. You would pause, think hard, struggle due to thinking too hard, but finally give me a total of ten attributes. I would list those attributes you gave me and write them down on a piece of paper and stare at them. I would guess that there would be a good chance that I had noted the word 'creativity' somewhere on that list. Moreover, if I were to repeat this process with another nine people, I would find the word 'creativity' nine times. So what is my point. My point is that we must first establish how people think about creativity in terms of imagining a perfect player. Done. We've now established that creativity is something which is valued by all the stakeholders in football, that is the fans, players and others. Since creativity is a highly desired attribute, it would make sense for it to be something quantifiable- but it isn't. Creativity (until someone discovers an algorithm) is an intangible quality, something which cannot be analysed through statistics like we can possession or passes for instance. Funnily enough, by attempting to find some kind of statistics to define creativity, we might be systemetising a trait which stands against the very systemisation which attempts to define creativity. If this is the case, how can we possibly define what creativity is in football? Well, John Cleese, one of the most creative comedians in history once said that "[Creativity] cannot be is literally inexplicable."  Now that we have established the value people see in creativity in a player, we can now start to answer our original question.
Image from
To answer this it is perhaps wise to start by explaining some fundamentals of the game. Fundamentals such as the objective is to win. This is achieved by scoring more goals than the other team. This in turn is manufactured in the two most basic aspects of the game: defence and offense. The defending aspect is concerned with preventing the other team from scoring while the offensive aspect is concerned with scoring goals for your own team. I think at this point it is fair to make the statement that creativity can only be achieved within these two aspects of the game. If your team has the ball, you are generally attacking and vice-versa. We all know that people generally associate creativity with attacking players, but can creativity also come from defenders? This is a hard question to answer but I believe the answer is no. Let me explain.

If we go back to our definition "creativity is the invention of something new which has value", defenders do not invent. They respond to what the other team is doing. Since reaction is in response to an outside stimulus, the "invention" has already been made by the attacker. The defender is simply responding to, and acting for a solution to the attackers' invention. However, (and this is where it gets complicated) one could argue that in the act of preventing an attacker from scoring or making any meaningful offensive play, the defender has "invented" a solution for his problem. I must admit that is correct. However, this is where the second part of the definition comes into play.

While the defender has had to invent a defensive play to counter the offensive play, his invention is not of a great value. In other words, the defenders' options to invent were restricted by the position of the ball and the opponents. This means that a part of the defenders' choice was actually chosen by the circumstances to which he could fully exert his creative thought over. This is where a a defender differs from an attacker. The attacker, unlike the defender, has the ball. This means that the responsibility is for the attacker to create in order to generate chances to score. Since the natural instinct of a defender is to react to the opponents' movements, their is less of a limit on what options an offensive player has to create goalscoring chances, than a defender has to limit goalscoring chances. The implication of this is that an attacking player with the ball has to create in a situation where he is, arguably, the player with the most pressure on his next decision. He is the reference point in the game at that moment in time and he controls the destiny of the next phase of play. This is why I think the player with the ball has to make a decision which holds a greater significance and value than a defender who does not have the ball.

Even though the player with the ball is supposed to be the most creative player on the pitch at that particular moment, there are a lot of players who do not display their talent sufficiently enough to be called creative. There are two viewpoints to try to explain why this is. The first possible answer is that certain people are born with creativity and others are not. The second possible answer is that all people are born with creativity but only a few have the ability to display their natural creativity. Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognised leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation according to his website. He once said that "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original...adults have lost that capacity...we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it." He suggests that all children have a natural talent for creativity and argues that the modern day educational model frowns upon mistakes and fosters an environment which does not encourage creative thinking. Applying this to football, we can say that a football club or academy is much like a school and a coach is much like a teacher. A child can enter an establishment which creates an environment which can help creativity or deny it. 

Arsene Wenger once said that "a coach can stand in the way of creativity or he can foster it. But true creativity comes from the player himself. It's the player and not the coach who's creative. The coach can only help a player discover creative solutions a player wasn't aware of." It is an inspiring way to look at why children are more creative than adults. A famous psychological test is one where children and adults are asked to come up with as many uses for a paper clip that they could think of in one minute. Over and over again, children came up with significantly more ideas than adults. On the other hand, Cleese has a slightly different interpretation of creativity suggesting that it is as much about how one chooses to seek out creativity in one's life. According to Cleese, "Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating...Creative people get into a particular mood to allow their natural creativity to function." He talks about how creative people get into an 'open mode' in order to think creatively while being in a 'closed mode' is only to be used when you have the solution to the problem in order to effectively implement it.

The next angle of enquiry is to find out exactly what separates the best from the rest-the most creative players to the rest. Can we just assume that players who make assists and score goals are the most creative ones? Or is that too simplistic. By now, you should know that I like to go deep into any analysis, so naturally I think this is too simplistic a view to take. For example, Jason Puncheon from Southampton has five assists this season so far. Santi Cazorla has four. We all know who the better and more creative player is with all respect to Jason in the event that he is reading this post. So what is it which separates the best from the rest.
Image from Source: Michael Regan/Getty Images Europe

I often wonder if people think a player is creative simply because of his skill and a stereotype. If I asked you to choose who is the more creative player between Iniesta and Lampard the majority would probably choose Iniesta. Why is this? Lampard has greatly outscored Iniesta in his career and also had more assists than Iniesta, and yet, people usually refer to Lampard as a 'box-to-box midfielder' while Iniesta is a 'playmaker' or a 'number ten'. Could this categorisation of Iniesta and Lampard in creativity terms simply be because people think Iniesta is a skillful player. Or that Iniesta is a smaller player than Lampard, and that he's Spanish and Lampard is English. I think it is quite reasonable to suggest that skill/technique and public stereotyping have led people to believe that Iniesta is a more creative player than Lampard even though there is no statistical evidence to suggest so. Perhaps the reason people view Iniesta as a more creative player than Lampard is because Iniesta has the ability to make a play which surprises us, which was unexpected. With Lampard you get the feeling you won't get any spontaneous plays, it is all methodically efficient.

A player can be highly creative but cannot display his creativity because he lacks the skill to do so. It is no coincidence that the most creative players are also the most skillful ones. A truly creative player is one who views the game with curiosity rather than a series of inconveniences. Like both Cleese and Robinson say, a creative player does not fear mistakes and play as if they were kids. Be curious for the sake of being curious, without a conscious plan to seek a solution. It is players who can shield themselves from outside pressure so that they can get into the 'open mode'. Arsene Wenger puts this nicely- "This necessity [winning] can become a constraint that spoils everything. When you're obliged to do something, you do it badly. When you enjoy something, you do it with more conviction but also with creativity." The next time you watch a game, ask yourself which player is making mistakes but does not seem bothered. Who seems he is enjoying his football, who is not affected by the jeers he receives from the crowd. Which player does things which make his manager unhappy because he was not supposed to do that, but he wanted to try it so see what would happen. These are the things which should point you to the creative players.
Three amigos. Image from

One area of curiosity for myself is to ask whether a team can be considered a creative one when there is a heavily systematised approach, that is heavily tactically orientated and planned. Consider Arrigo Sacchi's famous AC Milan team which dominated world football in the late 80s and early 90s. To this day, that team is considered one of the most creative and attacking teams who were successful. However, this particular team is a paradox. Although they had wonderfully creative players like Van Basten, Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit, their team tactics were highly organised and planned and were led by a coach who was famous for his ability to structure a team to play a highly organised and structured system with strict patterns of movements. Aldo Serena, AC Milan 1991-1993, said that "Sacchi had imprinted some tactical concepts and that Milan side almost played on memory. The movements were perfect at the back, the midfielders came back to help and all of this was because of Sacchi's maniacal work, which actually ended with him stressing and exhausting all the players." In this light, was that Milan team truly creative, or just very well drilled? Perhaps the secret was that Sacchi had found the perfect balance between system and individual, as Thierry Henry explains- "If you have a player who's creative on the pitch, someone who's different from the rest, he has to blend in with the unit, but also be allowed to do what he wants. For a coach it's a tough job to allow an individual player to do what he wants and still integrate him into the team. In moments like this I'm glad I'm not a coach." Sacchi had three such players which he had to balance and he did so. Perhaps thinking that Milan were not a creative team is naive, because they were. It could just be that Sacchi had created an organised system, a stable platform to allow his three amigos to function at their creative capacities. Or perhaps that Sacchi himself was creative, maybe more so than his players were. Franz Beckenbauer believed that "A coach has to be more creative than a player. After all, a player's creativity only takes place on the pitch."

In the end, creativity is like water. You can put water in a jug and the water takes the shape of the jug. It is what you want it to be. It is hard to explain and hard to control.  Whatever you may think of it, creativity is like gold. It is precious and highly valued. I leave you with one last gem of a quote from John Cleese. "Telling people how to be creative is easy, it is being it that's difficult."

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Most Famous Shape In Football - The Triangle

Football is a beautiful game when it is played in the beautiful way that it should be played. It is a sport which combines the strategic thinking of a chess master, the touch of a Formula 1 drivers' foot, the balance and poise of an Olympic gymnast and the creativity of a master painter. It pleases our senses, stimulates our impulses, shapes our feelings. These are the reasons that this sport of ours is unique, unmatched by any other. Sure, you get those who say you can get all those qualities in basketball, tennis or rugby. For those who do say that, I have some bad news for you - it's not the same. Nowhere close.

Art is everywhere around us. Have a look at the world around and tell me what you see. What do you see in your building-on the outside of your building, the landscape around you, the cars, roads, and man-made structures. The answer is shapes. Virtually every man-made structure is based on the fundamental mathematical division called geometry. It is the shapes of geometry which allow our architects, engineers, designers, builders and artists to create the buildings, tunnels and bridges of our world. Just like in our physical world around us, our beautiful game is based on geometry and just like the physical world, the shapes that are created by football are disguised by our inability to see the deep aspect of football, or profundus. With such a huge amount of our attention invested on the actual ball, we miss the shapes that would seem obvious to a coach or one who is looking them. Such shapes are created by the relationship of players to each other, the relation between the balls' position on the pitch to the position of the players, and of the balls' movement on the pitch. It are these shapes which occur thousands of times in a single game and are the ones which spectators are oblivious too. Quite often, the only time a spectator (especially a spectator who is not at the ground) will only be prompted to notice these patterns when they are pointed out by the commentator. Even then, the average spectator will soon forget about these patterns and resume their narrow-sighted attention on the ball and not much around it. So why does it seem so difficult to concentrate on these patterns? It is because they are so complex.

If we have a look at a 433 formation-the most fantasised of triangulated formations-it is clear to see what's on offer in terms of the potential passing routes. Graphically, there is a potential to have every player to be part of at least one positional triangle in relation to his teammates. Since this is the case, it is also possible for the ball to make a triangle on the pitch in three passes with three players. Another option is for only two players to complete the triangle if one of them moves to compensate for the third player not being there. Furthermore, there are thousands of possible combinations of passes that the players can make and the path that the ball can travel. It are these possibilities which people tend to associate with possession football.

The potential triangles in a 433 and the lack of in a 442. Image from
The next question we must ask is whether this association between triangular spacing and possession is in fact a correct one. To answer this question, we can look at the actual geometry to reveal the answer. Firstly, ask yourself this: can you create a shape on the pitch other than a triangle using only three players. The answer is no. The only way you can position three players on the pitch without forming a triangle of some sort is by placing them in a straight line. In football, straight lines are the enemy of footballers because this is the worst type of spacing that three players can make. The reason is because only one player in this line has the option of passing the ball to both his teammates assuming that there are no defenders in between. The players on either side of him can only pass to the teammate in the middle. The only way that a player at the end of the line can pass to the other end of the line is by chipping the ball in the air or curving the ball around the middle player. This is bad for accuracy and requires greater skill to perform, thus reducing the efficiency and probability of a successful pass. To sum up- only one of the three players has the option to pass to the other two player, while two players can only pass to a single teammate.

This nicely leads to the principle of triangulation, or, spacing players such that they form the triangle shape. The first thing to note about a triangle is that a triangle cannot, by the law of physics/mathematics/geometry, exist on a flat plane (the playing surface) with having some sort of latitudinal and longitudinal spacing. In other words, at least one of the points of the triangle must have at least one of either horizontal deviation or vertical deviation. If this does not happen, the three points would essentially be in a straight line. If you still don't understand, try thinking of it like this. Imagine that you draw two points on a paper (the paper represents the football field). If you connect these two dots with a line, you will have a straight line between the dots. Now extend this line so that it goes beyond the dot. Now draw another dot on the extended part of the line. You should now have three dots on a single straight line. Because you drew the last dot on the extended line, you still have a straight line and not a triangle. However, if you drew the third dot off-centre from the extended line, you have created a triangle because you have deviated the last point so that it is no longer directly in line with the first two dots. Think about it, to deviate the third dot off-centre from the straight line, you either moved the dot left, right, up or down. That, essentially, is what I mean by latitudinal and longitudinal spacing.
Now that we understand a basic property of a triangle, we can now explore how triangles make it easier for a team to keep possession. Before we do so, we must firstly understand a basic requirement that allows a team to keep possession. This requirement is teammates for the ball possessor to pass to. If a player with the ball has zero available teammates to pass the ball to, it is virtually impossible to keep possession of the ball. Triangulation helps to solve this problem by utilising a brilliant geometrical property of the triangle- the hypotenuse.

The hypotenuse is a property of the right-angle triangle and it is the key as to why triangles are so effective to keep possession. It has to do with distance. If we imagine a right-angle triangle, we know that the hypotenuse is the longest of the three sides. If we had three players who formed a right-angle triangle on the pitch, the two players who are stationed on either end of the hypotenuse will have the longest pass to each other in terms of distance. The other two possible passes are both shorter in distance. This means that a defender would have more distance to run along the hypotenuse and less distance to run along the other two sides. This has important implications for football because if we can can figure how to manipulate the triangle so that we can make more use of the longer hypotenuse and less use of the shorter sides, possession football will become easier because the opponents would have to cover more ground to reach reach the player with the ball and his teammates. This effectively means extra space is created for the team in possession and consequently increases the time they have to make correct passing decisions and makes it easier for his teammates to find space to receive passes.

The way to achieve this is to ensure that no two consecutive players are on the same longitude or latitude as each other. l.e. no player is directly vertical or horizontal to his nearest teammate. In the following diagram, we see a midfield four that are all on the same horizontal plane, meaning there is no vertical deviation at all. In the second midfield, there is a clear vertical and horizontal spacing between the players, i.e. vertical and horizontal deviation.

What this does is create triangles which maximise the distances between each point of the triangle. In effect, it creates triangles entirely made up of hypotenuses. The knock on effect of this is that, since the distances are maximised by utilising both vertical AND horizontal spacing, it is harder for the defending team to intercept passes, close down opponents with the ball, and mark the players without it. The other effect it has is spacing the players of the defending team away from each other so that they cannot keep a compact shape or press in numbers. This reduces more of the game to 1v1 battles and favours the team who has better technique and tactical organisation to pass the ball and keep possession. All these favourable outcomes are due to the triangle, and cannot be achieved with any other shape.

As triangles are crucial to the design and construction of real world structures such as buildings and bridges, so too are they crucial in the design of a football team. When you hear a comment such as "passing in nice triangles" in reference to a nice piece of passing by a team, they are referring to the concept of triangulation. Even though people tend to ignore the deep analysis of geometry to explain why triangles are so important in football, they are nevertheless correct in making the connection between triangles and effective possession. Perhaps the team that are currently most famous for the use of triangles is Barcelona. One term which sums up perfectly this style of play is "strangulation by triangulation". When you have players such as Messi, Xavi and Iniesta playing in triangles across the whole field, it makes for a lethal combination.
In the end, triangles in football are not just something that is thrown around by managers and the media when referring to possession. It is a fundamental geometrical part of football, something which makes football beautiful. Just like the most famous artists, the brightest mathematicians and the engineers of this world use triangles to create and innovate new methods, styles and discoveries, so too does football. When we start to truly look for the profundus, the deep side of football, we can truly appreciate how important and fundamental the hidden world of geometry is to football. Perhaps it is only appropriate to label the humble triangle as the the most famous shape in football.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Are Systems Overrated? (Bonus Article)

Are systems overrated? What do I mean by that. I am talking about systems of play and formations that the average fan talks about e.g. 442, 433, 4312 and so on. My question is whether we talk and compare formations of two teams playing against each other too much. Do we overrate the way a team is written on paper in the sense that the formation a team adopts on the field has a large effect on the flow of the game and ultimately the result.

To give you a prime and recent example I point you to the recent game between Italy and Spain in the 2012 European Championships. the major tactical talking point was Vicente del Bosque's decision to not start with any of his three recognised strikers and instead play with Cesc Fabregas in a false nine position. While this was a surprise to many observers, it wasn't a major shock by any stretch of the imagination as Spain can comfortable play without a striker because their ability to possess the ball is unmatched by any other national team currently. In theory, playing a midfielder in the number nine position should enhance the team's ability to possess the ball for even longer periods of the game. After Italy scored first through Antonio di Natalie, Fabregas equalised soon after and the game ended in a draw. While Fabregas scored a goal in that game, the general consensus from journalists and supporters was that the striker-less formation used by Spain restricted Spain's goalscoring chances. The media suggested that a striker must play the next game against Ireland and indeed the inclusion of Fernando Torres in that game yielded two goals for him and a 4-0 win for Spain. It seemed to confirm in many people's eyes that by playing a natural striker who would play on the last man, Spain had a focal point to aim for and created many more chances to score.

You could argue that this is the case but you could also equally argue against it. Was it the change in formation that allowed Spain to win? Possibly. However, it is even more probable that it was just a case of Spain's opponent being of a lower quality than Italy. It is natural that you would expect Spain to score more goals against Ireland than you would against Italy. Consequentially, the argument that Spain's change in formation was the largest contributor to them being more successful in the second game than the first suddenly makes less sense and logic. It is by this example where I question whether tactical formations are over-emphasised in the media. I am not entirely dismissing the notion of formations entirely, far from it. I am simply pondering if the result of games are attributed to the formations of the two teams. To show you an example of what I mean, I would like to point your attention to a common stereotype of a 433 vs 442 formation battle.

Dream team vs Fantasy team. 433 vs 442. Who wins?

The standard perception is that the team playing the 433 will outnumber the team playing 442 in midfield and will therefore dominate possession. On the other hand, it is said that the team playing 442 will deliver a greater threat up front via the twin striker partnership and can also dominate the wings by utilising the space between the opponents wingers and fullbacks. This stereotypical attitude is common throughout the world of the football commentator. You often hear a commentator complain that,
"the striker is isolated upfront and has no support. I think the manager should throw on [strikers' name] at halftime and change to two upfront. The gaffers' got to shake things up a bit, otherwise they'll never get back into this,"
or something to that nature. Naturally, the solution always seems to throw on another striker and change formation and somehow that is always the way to fix the problem on the pitch. The problem I have with this attitude from pundits and fans alike is that it seems that they are not trying hard enough to properly think and analyse the situation at hand. To often I find myself in a position of watching a match and virtually predicting word-for-word what the commentator is going to say next. I find it a rather unique skill to be honest.

The main thing to take out of this is that too often in football it is the micro-tactics which are neglected; that is, the tactics which look into really detailed analysis of the individual interactions between players and the movements and spaces these create. It is these aspects (or "finer details") that ultimately make the difference between who wins and who loses. By being to broad and too general is our analysis of the games, we are missing the key substances which are the real difference makers. It is perhaps a symptom of a lack of expertise in the field of micro-tactics which causes commentators and fans to become so predictable and boring in their communication of the tactics of a match. Not to mention that it takes an incredible amount of data, time and work to compile some resemblance of a usable and useful dossier on micro-tactics. However, this is slowly changing as more data and statistics becomes available to the public in the form of television, internet, communications technologies and modern performance data capturing capabilities.

While the trend is starting to go in the direction of micro-tactics, there is still a huge misconception to those unfortunate enough not to have caught up to modern trends, that believe that a 433 will always dominate in midfield against a 442. Unfortunately, you may be hearing that from a commentator who is voicing his opinion in the next game you watch on your television.

Monday, 15 October 2012

What Makes an Entertaining Game?

Now the reason that you are reading this post and indeed anything related to football is because you like football. Depending on how much you like it, you might love it, like me. In fact, to be more specific, I shall assume that you love football because you like to play football and to watch other people play football. When I say 'other people' I am referring to the players who make up the teams of Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and so on. We love watching these teams play because they have the best players. It's quite simple really. However, while we like watching these players on these teams play football, we must ask ourselves the question: what situation would make us like watching these players slightly less than normal (at least for a temporary time). The answer is quite obvious, is it not? It's watching a football match that is boring. I can't say that this is the only situation that would answer the above question but I would guess that watching a boring match is not desirable for the viewers of that match. Now that we (or I) have established this truth (unless anyone wants to disagree with me) there is a whole new branch of questions that we must answer. For simplicity and easy reading I will list these using the magic bullet points:

  • What exactly is a boring game? Once we can establish this we can find out;
  • What is an exciting game?
  • What are the components that make a boring game?
  • What are the components that make an exciting game?
  • And lastly, how can we make more boring games more exciting?
Let's start by answering the first question. What exactly is a boring game? I don't have to give you a definition of 'boring' because that is a pretty basic descriptive word which is pretty broad in its meaning and interpretation. What is more important is to make the term 'boring' football specific. This is beacuse boredom is relative and you cannot compare being bored by doing school homework in a subject you do not like to being bored by a particular football match. In this example, you cannot say 'I am bored by doing homework and I am bored by watching this match, therefore doing homework is equally boring as watching this football match.' I would hazard a guess that the majority of people would prefer to watch football, rather than do school homework. So this simple example highlights that even though, as a generalisation, a game of football has a superior ability to stimulate our excitement levels, it outweighs homework in terms of our expectaion that it should entertain us. This means that even though on an absolute level, a football match is not boring, it can seem so if it does not meet your expectation. Therefore, a person's expecation levels has a direct influence on the perceived entertainment value he/she recieves. For example, let's pretend there are two games that you want to watch this weekend. The first is between Bolton and Sunderland and the second is between Bayern Munich and Juventus.. Let's assume that your expectation of the two games were very different. For the first game between Bolton and Sunderland you expected a game which was going to be less exciting than the second game between Bayern Munich and Juventus on the (quite reasonable) assumption that the players of the second game were better. Therefore, in theory, the second game would produce better football and more entertainment value. Now let's produce some imaginary results for both games: Bolton 3 - 4 Sunderland; Bayern Munich 0 - 0 Juventus. If we take out the scorelines, the second game is the more desirable game to watch, but if we look at both games with the scoreline included, the first game suddenly seems much less undesirable to watch. To sum up the scenario, if we take games in context of the results, the first game has exceeded our expectations while the second has not reached our expectations. This doesn't mean that the first game was a better quality game of football and I can remember many games which finished scoreless that were more entertaining to watch than other high scoring games. However, while the absolute level of entertainment might have been better in the second game (on account of better quality football), the relative level of entertainment is greater in the first game which had a lower expectation from the viewer. In summary, if match>expectaion=exciting game. If match<expectaion=boring game.

Pheeew! Ok, now let's start to answer the second question in my bullet point list. What is an exciting game? Well, I think I have partly answered this question in the previous paragraph but nonetheless I will expand on it. Firstly, what I already wrote is quite a simplistic model of what a boring game is and I know that there are things you might disagree with. That is fine, but at least it gives us some kind of context to play with when answering this question. The simple answer would be the opposite of this: match<expectaion=boring game. The opposite being: match>expectaion=exciting game. As I've already mentioned, this is a simplistic view so now let's try to go into greater detail. Instead of looking at the scoreline vs the expectation of any single match, let's look at the quality vs the match. Let's get back to our example from above and let's keep the same scorelines of 3-4 and 0-0. While the expectation model tells us that the Bolton-Sunderland match was more entertaining, what will the quality model tell us? Firstly, what constitutes a quality match? Well, this delves into the delicate world of opinion because there can be many indicators, both qualatative and quantatative, to determine the quality of a match. For the sake of this article, I will eliminate the actual players as a possible predetermination to the quality of a game simply because it is dangerous to assume that two teams who have great players will automatically produce a quality game. This of course, does not always hold true. We could use statistics like passes completed, pass completion rate, interceptions, successful tackles, or anything else you can think of to give us an indication of quality. While this is all well, there are two reasons why I will not use statistics in this article: the first is I can't be bothered to reasearch and even if I did it would take me ages to find it and collaborate it, but the second and more important reason is that statistics cannot measure the aesthetic quality of football, one of the few remaining sports where there is still a wide discrepency between what the statistics tell us and what actually occured on the field.

Again for the sake of this article I need to make a few assumptions about our two example games. The first assumption is that the high scoring game between Bolton and Sunderland was a poorer quality game than the second game which was a scoreless draw between Bayern Munich and Juventus. If this was the case, how does that change how exciting the games were in relation to each other? To put it another way, knowing both the scoreline and quality of the games, which game would you rather watch? Rearranging the question again, I could ask you which kind of football watcher are you? Are you the kind who doesn't mind the scoreline as long as the quality is good or do you get easily bored by watching two top of the table teams battle out a high quality but dour scoreless draw. I believe that a persons' knowledge of the game as well as the reason for their interest can affect their opinion of a game. For instance, a person with an intimate knowledge of the game, whether through playing, watching or coaching, will have an empathy and therefore an appreciation of good football. On the other hand, a person with limited knowledge of the game might find he/she misses the finer details of the skill, technique and tactics of the game and think that the whole point of the game is who scores more goals. The reason a person watches football can also dictate their perceptions of the game. For example, a football coach would watch football because he wants to learn about the game and obviously loves the games of football. In contrast to the football coach, a girlfriend who is only watching the game because her boyfriend insists, would not appreciate the game in the same way. Getting back to our example, if we use the quality model instead of the expectation model, the 0-0 between Bayern Munich and Juventus would be the more exciting game. But if we were to ask our girlfriend to choose which game she would prefer to watch it would come as no surprise if she chose the more "exciting sounding" game with the 3-4 scoreline. So maybe the answer to the question "what is an exciting game?" depends on three things: your expectations of the game, your knowledge of the game, and the reason you are watching the game. Even by answering these three factors it is still not certain that we can know exactly how we will feel after every match. Perhaps-no, not perhaps-that is exactly why football is so addictive-because it is so unpredictable. Not only can the outcome of the match be unpredictable, but how it affects us emotionally as well.

Righto, now that we have some idea about why we find certain games entertaining and others not so much, we can now go into a bit more detail or a bit deeper if you wish. What are the elements that are common throughout all the classic games? Indeed, is there a pattern among the good games and a pattern among the bad games to watch? Can we use this to predict (or at least guesstimate) which matchups will be more likely to entertain. We all know that in all sport, especially in the last decade or two, that people will hype up some games more than others. When I say people I mean the media, the fans and the players and coaches. A classic example is the build-up to the El Clasico which is huge. Thinking about this, I made up a poll asking which hypothetical match-up would produce the most exciting game. I broke up these matchups into three categories. The first is the strength of the two teams, either weak or strong. The second is the type of fixture which can either be a competitive fixture or a friendly. The last category asks you to decide on a trade-off between the quality of a match (i.e. high technical quality displayed by the players whether due to the skill level or weather conditions etc.) and how many goals scored. In other words, the poorer the quality, the higher the goals scored and the higher the quality, the lower the goals scored. In my poll published on a club fan site, there were 114 votes cast and here were the results:

The first thing to note is that people were not interested in seeing a game containing a strong team and a weak team playing a friendly match with only 6% of the vote. Not far behind that option was the option of having two weak teams playing a competitive match with only 8% of the vote. The other four options all fell within 7% of each other, so people were not entirely convinced that a there was an obvious combination that should have won the poll by a landslide. Another interesting thing to note is that only two of the six options did not give you a say in the type of team. That means that 42% of the 114 who voted did not care about the strength of the teams involved as long as their demands for either a high quality match or goals galore were met. All-in-all this simple poll demonstrates that their is a wide variety of opinions concerning what people think makes an entertaining game. In this regard, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what fans want to see in a game of football and one cannot account for the unpredictable things that can happen on the field which can perhaps inflate the underlying entertainment value based on a single incident like a controversial red card or penalty.

Perhaps the last thing I want to touch upon is whether we can predict which games will be entertaining and which ones will end in a bore game. No we can't. Well, not perfectly anyway. We can however make life easier for us if we understand our psychology. Firstly, have a go at the poll-which option would you pick if you could only pick one. Or if you want, pick either option 1 or 2, 3 or 4, 5 or 6. Secondly, ask yourself if you have high expectations in terms of the level of entertainment you need to feel satisfied. Thirdly, ask yourself if you have a high knowledge of the game or a poor knowledge. A good way of knowing this is by looking in your cupboard and seeing how many jerseys you have. The more jerseys, the higher your knowledge (I am kidding of course). Fourthly, ask yourself why do you watch games on a game-by-game basis. I find that if you watch a game because you are utterly bored sitting on your couch and have done nothing for the whole day, you will tend to become less stimulated and therefore less entertained than if you were in a good mood watching a game with your friends because you have invited them over to watch the game. Another way of looking at it is if you have many options and you choose football, you are more likely to be entertained than if you had to choose football because their were no alternatives. Once you have answered these questions about yourself, I think you will find that you will now start to be aware of the emotional aspects of watching a football game and therefore start to understand more about yourself. Once you understand, you can manipulate and hopefully avoid the boring games and enjoy more exciting ones.

I leave you with a quote from the Sherlock series from BBC which I find quite amusing and only slightly relevant to this article. Happy watching!

[John comes in to Baker Street, where Sherlock is casually shooting up a smiley face on the wall]
John Watson: [comes in] What the HELL are you doing?!
Sherlock Holmes: Bored...
John Watson: What?
Sherlock Holmes: BORED! [continues to shoot wall] BORED! BORED! [stops, hands the gun to Watson] Don't know what's got into the criminal classes. Good job I'm not one of them.
John Watson: So you take it out on the wall?
Sherlock Holmes: Oh, the wall had it coming.
John Watson: What about that Russian case?
Sherlock Holmes: Belarus? Open and shut domestic murder. Not worth my time.
John Watson: [dryly] Oh, shame!

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Are Spain Boring?

They don't look boring
 It is unbelievable, at least to myself, that there have been quite a few rumblings complaining that the Spanish national team are boring to watch-huh? Have their mesmerising passing brand of football really become boring to watch? Back in 2008 when they were European Champions, they were hailed as an attacking, entertaining, highly skillful and brilliant team to watch and were regarded as the model to follow for all national teams. However, as of the day before their Euro 2012 final clash against Italy, many fans are complaining that all Spain do is pass, pass and pass, with no end product and no goals. Forget the fact that they haven't had to score many goals to win games, since they've only conceded one goal so far this tournament, Spain are a defensive team all of a sudden they said. Excuse me! Defensive? How could the most talented team in the world, whom half the squad are made up of Barcelona players, be accused of playing defensively? The critics claim this is true because in the past Spain used their possession to create many goalscoring chances, whereas today they merely use possession as a defensive ploy to keep the opponents from scoring goals against them. Forgive me if I come across a bit harsh, but I want a few paragraphs to dispute the critics.

Was it not just a few months ago when Pep Guardiola declared he was to leave Barcelona, a team he built which was uttered in the same breath as Ajax under Michels, Sacchi's Milan and Puska's Madrid. Was it not in the last four or so years where Barcelona's football was the pinnacle of football, where their football was the most sophisticated, technical and most seductive form of football in the world. Was it not every nations dream to cultivate players who could reproduce their type of football and use it to strengthen their national team. They say imitation is the best form of flattery. Perhaps the biggest compliment and ultimate form of respect that Barcelona could recieve is that they have impacted the way the world thinks about football. No longer is it acceptable to play negative football, not least in the top leagues. To support my point, I give you the example of the criticism Chelsea received when they won the champions League. Even Roberto di Matteo was second choice to Guardiola for the position of manager. So what do Barcelona have to do with Spain. If you haven't figured it out yet, Barcelona and Spain are very similar to each other and that gives us a direct comparison to evaluate. If the two teams play similar football, why is it that Spain are boring and Barcelona are entertaining. It doesn't make sense. Keep in mind that Barcelona have been the most successful club team in the past four years and Spain are the most successful national team in the past four years. So why is their a distinction between these two different (but similar) teams?

Sacchi talking with his players
 One fascinating aspect of human psychology is that we are very fickle. We expect too much sometimes, especially when we have experienced a lot. Perhaps this applies to Spain as well. You see, we have been spoilt by Barcelona and by extension, Spain with their possession and unbelievable technical passing skills. While this led to opposition teams being crushed and goals flowing freely, we celebrated their philosophy of football. However, when there are a few games in succession where they haven't been able to score as many, the fans all of a sudden start to doubt- or perhaps a better descriptive phrase is 'grow impatient.' It's not that we get impatient with Spain's possession style of play since we never grew tired of it four years ago, rather it is a negative response to the type of football match that Spain inadvertently create- predictable. By that, I mean the flow of the game is slowed down as a consequence of Spain's unyeilding possession. And this is the issue when Spain play. Unless Spain can create additional excitement, in the form of goals, the match becomes predictable and loses the reason why sport has become a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. That reason is unpredictability. It is the reason football is so popular worldwide. Football creates unpredictability like no other sport because of the very foundations of the sport. It is a free flowing sport, where their are no phases of play and its unstructured, unlike American football. Perhaps the reason that American football is so popular in that country but not in any other is indicative of their culture and their people. Even sports like basketball, baseball and ice hockey are much more structured sports than football in almost every aspect. In baseball for instance, their is a clear start-stop flow to the game where play resets after every phase of play. The fans of football and the culture of football demands a blank canvas where the creativity of the players can be expressed by the players and seen by the audience without artificial interventions like phases of play, timeouts and even specific positions on the pitch. (Teams in the NFL play with two teams - one for the offensive phase and one for the defensive phase). The feeling with Spain is that the canvas is already half painted with the La Fura Roja enjoying the possession of the ball. There is not much different you can paint on the other half, exept to complete the canvas by more painting more Red Fury.

It is a symptom that Spain have created for themselves. It is a bit like a catch-22 situation where Spain have become so good at what they do, that they simply are better than everyone they play. They have become so good at passing the ball and keeping it that they have gone beyond the point of using it as a style of play which suits them. It has become precious to them, a philosophy, a way of thinking, a way of living even. The two entities, the players and the system, have ceased to exist as two autonomous entities. Instead, they have morphed into one body, they have entangled between each other and are engrained so tightly that it may never be able to be separated. Like a woman and her baby, the bond is universally strong. The system does not change with the players and the players do not change with the system. The players are the system that they play and the system are the players that play within it. It's the same way we associate Neil Armstong with the Moon. We associate possession tiki-taka with Spain and no other team. Spain have become the sole rightful holders of their way of football and no-one can take it away from them. It has become almost a secondary goal of any match they play, where they want to keep their soleful right of their way of football. If they don't, they lose their identity, and many of the worlds conflicts are the direct consequence of people fighting for their identity. As in life, people tend to stick with what's worked in the past, and for Spain, possesing the ball has won them two major trophies in two years and they are in the final for a third in a few hours time. Spain's football is not boring and has never been boring. It just so happens that some people find watching Spain playing matches in a constant fear of losing their identity boring.

I've heard the phrase familiarity breeds contempt. I would like to change it to familiarity breeds boredom. Perhaps this simple phrase can explain how people who hailed Spain as the brilliant modern version of football can now claim to be bored by the very same football. Trust me, Spain are not boring and I certainly don't find them boring. Instead, I find their passing football brilliant and I urge you to enjoy it until their generation of brilliant footballers end and we are left to lament that they are gone. I am bored of people saying that Spain are boring because they are just not.

Prandelli doesn't think Spain is boring-

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Who's the Better Manager, Pep or Jose?

This is an interesting question which many football fans have argued over for a few years now, with Pep having just quit Barcelona and Mourinho about to manage in his third season at Real. In many ways, this debate is just as interesting as the Messi vs Ronaldo debate, but perhaps less discussed and certainly much less tedious that the debate surrounding the two best players in world football. In many ways, the two managers reflect the two individuals they are managing, or in Pep's case, managed. Like Ronaldo, Mourinho has been well traveled with stints in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain currently. In Guardiola's case, he has been a one club man like Messi. Mourinho has been a top flight manager for 12 years whereas Pep has been Barca head coach for just four. While this does not necessarily mean that Jose has learned more throughout his career and therefore has accumulated more knowledge than Pep, it does mean that by definition, Jose is more experienced than Pep in that regard. Whatever your opinion is, it is hard to argue that Jose has experienced different tactical cultures and other things not related to anything on the football field, for instance, the media, supporters and even different styles of referees. While these factors certainly do make anyone a great manager on its own, it certainly contrasts with Pep's only experiences of these kind being restricted to Champions League games. Taking these things into consideration we can now start to judge more important things like results and style.

Let's start with the style of teams that these managers have gotten their teams to play. It is quite blatantly obvious that there is one clear winner here: Barcelona. Pep got his team to play football that has not been seen since Johan Cruyff's Dream Team. Pep is quite well known as a believer in the possession orientated philosophy, but one thing is to dream and another to actually implement and achieve. With players like Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Alves and Messi in his team, Pep redefined the term "possession football." He managed 246 games in four years and his side have had at least 50% possession in every one of those games, quite incredible. But was this the result of Pep's brilliant skills as a coach or was it simply that he inherited an unbelievable group of talented footballers. I would tend to steer clear of accusing Pep as a lucky man who happened to stumble across these said players. There are countless examples of teams who have had a great bunch of talented players but could not produce football to match. Pep is a smart man and he figured a way integrate and mold the players to produce the football they do. Perhaps his biggest quality is that he believes in a single philosophy and would never change it. His belief in this system and the way he made his players believe in it as well was the crucial element and the starting point of the making of his team. To go along with style, he has overseen a team that has won a total of 14 trophies including 3 Liga titles and 2 Champions League titles. It also included the famous sextuplet in his first season as head coach. It is these trophies which has led to the labeling of this edition of Barca as the best ever. While Pep's records are undeniably impressive, Mourinho has won more trophies in his career, a total of 19 including seven league titles across four countries. This equates to 1.58 trophies per season for Jose and 3.5 for Pep. While Pep's average is better, I point to the fact that Mourinho has had 8 years longer as coach than Pep and he has won trophies in four different countries. While the value of each manager's trophy tally is debatable, most people would agree that Mourinho's influence on his teams in terms of aesthetic style is dwarfed by his Catalan counterpart. Mourinho famously made his Chelsea team a highly organised and extremely watertight in defence. In 185 games in charge of Chelsea, they conceded a miserly 119 goals which is a very low number. This theme has continued across his time at Inter and Real Madrid with a prime example of this defensive prioritisation represented in the 2010 Champions League semi-final first second leg between Pep's Barca and Mou's Inter. That night, Inter defended for their lives and Barca completely dominated the game. Eventually, Inter made it through courtesy of the first leg result. In many ways that game summed up the two managers perfectly. Mourinho wanted to get the desired result no matter the method while Pep stuck to his guns and failed, or more like refused to adapt, like a child who refuses to eat his spinach. Ultimately, Jose is a master tactician but Pep is a purist of the highest order.

Whatever may bring Pep in the future, his time at Barcelona has revolusionised the old philosophy of tiki-taka football and brought in into the modern context. Jose on the other hand has revolutionised football coaching for different reasons- by being one thing: a winner. I guess it comes down to personal preference in terms of what kind of football you want to see. In fact, Jose's Madrid actually play quite nice attacking football so there might not be reason to doubt the prettiness of his teams' football, but that's for another post!  At the proverbial end of the day, I love football and I understand football. So in that sense I appreciate Mourinho just as much as I appreciate Guardiola and I appreciate Pep just as much as I appreciate Jose. So who's better? Who cares. They're both awesome!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Clash of Philosophy

It is startling to read about so many comments on various footballing websites to the tune of 'Chelsea were lucky' or 'Chelsea do not deserve to be champions.' To me, it seems that in this day and age it not only enough to win trophies to earn the respect and applause of the general spectating populous. You have to win with style as well. Easier said than done. It seems that the globe has been spoilt rotten by Barcelona and their once in a generation mesmeric style of football, better described as 'tiki-taka,' where playing the 'right way' is to keep as much possession as possible (usually mid 60%) and to never play the ball long, but always keeping the passes short. Uruguayan football journalist and pundit Jorge Ramos who works for ESPN Deportes, recently presented his top ten teams in world football right now. Who did he put first? Reigning European champions Chelsea? Nope. Runners up Bayern? No. Real Madrid, winners of the La Liga? Not a chance. Number one on his list was Barcelona. Where did Chelsea fit in his top ten? He placed them number six. Fellow ESPN pundit Tommy Smyth was asked to compile his own top ten. On his list, Chelsea were number one and Barcelona were number seven. For the record, Barcelona have not won a trophy this season whereas Chelsea have won two. In this example one can assume that Ramos places more importance on the 'means to an end' philosophy in evaluating the greatness of a team. On the other hand, Smyth places more importance on an 'end's to a mean' mentality. Whatever your view, one thing is clear: not every team can play as good as Barcelona. This is not to be confused with playing like Barcelona. The criticism of Chelsea is not because they are not as good as Barcelona, but because they chose not to play football the 'correct way' in the final. That is, they chose to 'park the bus' and play 'ten men behind the ball.' The other side of the argument tells us that defending is just as important as attacking and the ultimate aim of football is to win. But that seems to not impress modern football fans.

The clash between Chelsea and Bayern Munich represents a fundamental evolution of football. This theory of football evolution can be described as a clash between teams who represent the Chelsea model and those who represents the Barcelona model. In simple terms- attack vs defence. This clash is viewed out on the pitch, but when two polar opposite football philosophies clash, it not only represents just another game. The game represents a clash between two two ways of thinking. Two opposite ways of thinking. History is littered with clashes on the battlefield that represent more than just a battle for geographical position-it represents two ideologies between different nations. That is why there is so much discussion and opinion when games like this happen. This year- defence won. It also won in 2010 where Inter Milan beat Barcelona on their way to the Champions League, where coincidentally they beat Bayern in the final. Barcelona won the trophy in 2009 and 2011. When Inter or Chelsea win, it is a travesty to football. When Barca win, they are worthy winners. There are those who argue that efficiency in front of goal and taking your chances is part of the game. Chelsea scored from their only corner of the game. Bayern could not score a single goal from over 20 corners. In that sense, Chelsea deserved to beat Bayern. Former Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich often tells us that football is played in the middle of he field but it is won in both boxes. Quite true. Smyth's top five teams have all won a trophy this season: Chelsea, Real Madrid, Man City, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. Ramos' top five are: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Man United and Man City.
Who will win next year's Champions League? Or more importantly, which philosophy will triumph?

Here's a link to Tommy Smyth v Jorge Ramos