I am watching the Benfica–Juventus match, and I couldn’t help but notice some of the behavioral patterns of members of both teams. The players are clearly following rules that they learn during their training, and that are both generalized (for all matches) and specific (to deal with specific qualities of the opposing team). It reminded me of a comment Atlético de Madrid manager said a couple days ago. He said that managing is not so much about motivation, because all top division players are winners; rather, managing is about providing players with a specific set of instructions, to help them along with their own skills and intelligence. What characterizes a good football team? A good set of instructions, or rules.
There is a similarity between what makes a good football team and what makes a well-off society. My discussion on rules and football serves as an analogy for rules, or institutions, and coordination between society’s members. Likewise, it may serve as a more direct analogy for what makes the firm what it is.
A football manager is similar to an entrepreneur, in that this person is responsible for finding the best way of allocating the inputs (the players) at his disposal. He is responsible for finding and producing along some demand curve. The way the manager does this is by imputing on to his team a set of tactics. Tactics specifies how the different players interact between each other, and therefore how they are allocated. But, it’s not enough to just organize your players on the field — i.e. decide on a formation —, and then let your players simply decide for themselves what to do on the field. Well, a manager could do this, but he wouldn’t be very successful (and they rarely are).
Good teams are well drilled. There are decision-making heuristics that players must known by second-nature. Defenders have to know when to challenge for the ball, and when only to harass the opponent; it might be that by challenging they can break their own defense, if they make a mistake. Players need to know when to press and when to track back. They need to be drilled on how to decide when to launch ambushes, to try to swarm an opposing player and rob the ball. In football, the team is greater than the sum of its parts. These rules are to in place to guide decision-making such that it is mostly congruent with the general tactics the manager has imposed. For the team to work the manager wants it to, the individual has to choose in certain ways that make the team work well.
Juventus provides one piece of evidence. Dominated by Benfica, they formed two lines of four, with Tévez and Vicinic looking for the counter-attack. Benfica’s midfield was passing it between themselves in front of the Italian team’s defensive lines. You could see Paul Pogba and, I think, Andrea Pirlo trotting back and forth as Benfica’s men passed it in front of them. In fact, the entire defense was synchronized. These players have internalized a set of rules that help them the display a high degree of unity and discipline as a team, oftentimes at the expense of the individual. In a Europa League semifinal, this type of intensity is to be expected, but an average team does not display this degree of tactical rigor in an average game — because they are not well drilled, that is they don’t always follow the rules.
Rules are important in attack, as well. Players are taught how to coordinate counter-attacks with each other, by passing into open spaces ahead of them and relying on their individual strengths to beat their rivals to the ball. They develop heuristics on who to seek, and what the best way of providing a teammate the ball is. A team, for example, might have a distributor, which other players might seek. This player is the lynchpin in the transition from defense to attack, because he distributes the ball to wingers or strikers. The decision to seek out a specific player to set up the counter-attack is based on a rule, because that rule leads to the best outcome on average.
If the ball is lost, a good, title-winning team needs to be drilled on how to press, and how to track-back the defense if they can’t recover the ball soon after losing it. A well drilled team will shave a good number of seconds in the amount of time it takes to recompose their defense if their counter-attack is cut short. Players need to be given instructions on how to judge when to press, when to ambush, when to track back, and how to maintain cohesion. In fact, a great example of the advantage of a well-drilled defense is Benfica’s defense during this semifinal with Juventus: their defense responded as quickly as Juventus’ counter-attack.
This Benfica–Juventus match provides yet another example of how rules are used in football. In the first half, Benfica managed to essentially nullify Juventus’ midfield. They did this by minimizing Pirlo’s interaction with the ball. How? The Benfica manager, Jorge Jesus, instructed his midfield to organize in what almost looks like a box, with four men surrounding Pirlo and moving to block passing spaces. Remember, the manager has to think about how to best associate his inputs with each other, to produce the highest value product possible. Jorge Jesus is denying Juventus the use of one of their most important inputs, their playmaker. Juventus’ manager, Antonio Conte, did not provide Pirlo, and other players, a set of rules to deal with these kind of situations. The Juventus midfield is doing better this second half, so maybe Conte has issued a new set of instructions.
Why are rules so important? A player can respond to a situation in many different ways. If he does not consider anything else but his own circumstances, there will be some optimal decision that he will come to. But, there may be circumstances which matter, but which he does not consider because he’s not aware of them. The player has an imperfect set of knowledge. Rules help him overcome this “ignorance.” Rules are informed by disparate circumstances. Good rules guide individual decision-making for the good of the team, because they help the player decide as if he held knowledge on circumstances other than his own.
The more complex a system is, the more difficult it is to plan and impose a set of rules. Rules have to be informed by many different circumstances, and the less of these any one person is aware of, the less any one person is capable of designing a set of good set of rules for the system. In complex societies, many rules may arise spontaneously. They may be developed by players, but they become popular because they work — it’s a sort of institutional evolution, of the kind Hayek had in mind. But, orders of lower complexity can be well understood, and once abstract rules come to be well-known, they can be imposed. A good manager is a good central planner, because he can devise a set of rules that allows his inputs to work best with each other and produce the most value product.