Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away… *
I am continuing a short series of posts on the new book, The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by Chris Anderson and David Sally.
Last week was about the overrated importance of coaching interventions – praise and criticism – of performances that hit the limits of statistical variation.
This post is about the limits of human perception, especially appreciating the importance of events that do not happen, for example:
- Shots against
- Goals against
Anderson and Sally elaborate on this concept through analysis of defenders and tackling. Sir Alex Ferguson once famously sold a top defender, Jaap Stam, because he felt Stam was in decline. The Manchester United gaffer was well-known for preferring to unload players a season too early rather than a season late. But Stam went on the play seven seasons more and Ferguson referred to his decision as the biggest mistake of his career. “At the time he had just come back from an Achilles injury and we thought he had just lost a little bit. We got the offer from Lazio, £16.5m for a centre-back who was 29. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But in playing terms it was a mistake. He is still playing for Ajax at a really good level.”
Taking pride in being a good tackler is like a cook who’s proud about his ability to put out kitchen fires.
But the part not mentioned in this quote is that Sir Alex was tracking some stats, the number of tackles per game. And Stam had declined in this metric, a sign that he wasn’t playing as well as before.
Or – was it?
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Let’s review: what is a tackle and is it good or bad?
A tackle is when your opponent has the ball and you take it away from him with your feet. So the opponent has the ball (that’s bad) and you step in and win it (that’s good, let’s call it outcome (a)). But what else resides there? Well, when you’re tackling, other things can
happen besides winning the ball. You can (b1) step in and fail to win it, then your opponent is likely to go past you (bad). Or (b2) you can foul your opponent and give up a free kick and maybe get a yellow (b2.2) or red card (b2.3) (bad). Another common outcome is you get your foot on it but don’t keep it and the ball caroms in a random direction (b3). Now these outcomes are not equally likely but in general I think people agree that tackling is an exciting play because a lot can happen either way. As a defender, I think it makes sense to avoid tackles when possible. As a coach I advocate closing in, reducing space, and eliminating passing channels as first defensive steps, and tackling only when the opponent is about to shoot or they have misplayed the ball and it’s closer to you than it is to him.
So when the frequency of Jaap Stam’s tackles went down it is likely he was actually playing better, not worse. Certainly players weren’t going around him and scoring. But while many
consider defenders like Stam and Maldini the best in the world because they used positioning and patience to succeed, many fans are deceived into preferring players who stretch, slide, and lunge into action, because we have a natural human bias to notice activity much more than we see prevention. Xabi Alonso said on this, “tackling is a (last) resort and you will need it but it isn’t a quality to aspire to.” In this sense feeling pride as a good tackler is like a cook who says he’s really good at putting out kitchen fires – you might wonder about his craft.
As a goalkeeper, nothing makes more sense to me. For example, is the better keeper the one who flies through the air, clawing a shot around the post or one who prevents the shot by positioning his defenders better?
When I was playing well on a team that listens and talks, over 50% of my play consists of anticipatory looks and messages to my back line. I could ask them to step up high, not dive into tackles, or play to block a shot. If I noticed an opponent wasn’t ambidextrous I’d ask my teammates to force him to his bad foot. I supported when we were in possession, asking for back passes and routing the ball to the other side of the field instead of allowing defenders to kick the ball away to the other team.
A problem with this is that to the untrained eye, I probably looked like I wasn’t doing anything because I wasn’t making saves. But I’ve always figured it’s better to keep the other team from having shots on me than trying to stop them.
As Wayne Gretzky liked to say “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – the goalkeeper’s corollary is “you stop 100% of the shots that never happen.”
One culprit that feeds erroneous thinking in this area is television sports coverage. In any sport, TV shows the “highlights” – the unusual or the point-scoring plays. Baseball highlights are an endless parade of home runs and diving catches. You won’t see the put-out when an infielder is standing in exactly the right spot and the ball is hit right at him; that seems pedestrian. You will see the leaping catch at the warning track but not the at-bat where the pitch is two inches better placed, resulting in a pop fly instead of a long, high drive. In soccer we don’t see “defensive highlights” unless it’s a goalkeeper’s dive or a goal-line clearance. For this reason I tell my defenders “when you play well, you won’t be on TV”
No less than the baseball genius Bill James has said “Defense is inherently harder to measure. And that is true of almost any sport. In any sport, the defensive statistics are more primitive than the offensive statistics. It’s not just sports. It’s true in real life.” You can easily see this in Fantasy soccer, where measuring the skill of defenders is primitive. Attackers are assessed on goals, assists, and minutes. Defenders are measured on clean sheets and lost points for Team goals conceded – group stats but not for the individual. So unable are we to tell what good defensive play is, we just punish the player for his team giving up goals and reward him for giving up none.
Another example from real life. The Tuesday night pickup game. I note with some consternation that a “young ‘un” is on the opposing team. Andrei is about 30 and fully fit, he likes to attack. He plays actively, continually circulating from side to side, looking to receive a pass, turn and make a scoring opportunity for himself or a teammate. It is going to be a long night if he gets the ball frequently. So I position myself between him and the ball as much as possible, moving when he moves, making that pass as hard as possible. There are of course ways to beat me: a pass to a teammate who one-touches to Andrei before I can re-position, or a ball over my head. The first takes some tactical savvy I’m
hoping our opponents don’t have, and the latter requires a good touch and poor help from my fellow defenders. On the night, about an hour of play, Andrei scores one goal with no assists. He gets the ball about once every 5 minutes. My team outscores his and I can hardly walk the next day.
There are no statistics to measure what happened that night. I guess you could look at the number of touches he got and compare it to other games. But we are not seeing this analysis as of yet. Certainly no one commented on it It’s very hard to measure how much didn’t happen Tuesday night, the shots he didn’t take, the assists he didn’t get because the ball went other places.
* “Antigonish” is an 1899 poem by American educator and poet Hughes Mearns.