Category Archives: Football

What Happened to Spain? #WorldCup2014

This is my amateur theory on why Spain got pummeled 1–5 by the Netherlands.

Spain’s philosophy is that the best defense is when you control the ball and the opponent doesn’t. Like Pep Guardiola says, the less time the other team has possession the less time they have to score on you. It’s a good philosophy. “Tiki-taka,” Spain’s short-pass centered possession game, gave Spain back-to-back European Championships and a World Cup; it gave Barcelona four La Ligas, two Champions Leagues, and two Copa del Reys, and countless other titles. People are quick to criticize “tiki-taka” because of the latest results (e.g. B. Munich 0–4 R. Madrid; Barcelona’s poor 2013–14 season), but maybe the criticism is misdirected.

The problem is focusing too little on how to play the game when you don’t have possession. Teams that defend well do so because they have disciplined defenses. A well ordered back line usually consists of two lines of four (or one of four and one of five,…). Spain’s defense against the Netherlands looked like a mob. Their was no organization to the defensive lines.

While it’s almost traditional that Spain’s defense to be weakly organized, compare Spain’s defending in its 2010 World Cup match against Germany,


I mean, Spain is no Atlético Madrid. But, it’s defending against Netherlands was atrocious.

I think Barcelona’s poor season is also explained, at least in part, by my theory. Something I noticed when I watched Barcelona play is their slow reaction time. Barcelona has a hard time counter-attacking, because Spanish teams can play well defensively — they can re-organize relatively quickly. Barcelona has a very slow pace of re-organization. It’s easy to catch them on the counter. When they play a team with an organized defense and a top attack, that’s when Barcelona (and Spain) get crushed.

Spain should still play a possession-focused game. This has been Spain’s most successful era in its football history. But, it can’t ignore other elements of the game. Even 70 percent possession means that the opponent is attacking for 30 percent of the game. Any strategy is going to have to figure out how to cope with defending when you don’t have possession, especially if you have a high defensive line (to reduce the playing space). Unfortunately, Spain has neglected that part of its game — I think, because Barcelona has neglected it too, and Spain plays with many Barcelona players, especially midfield and behind.

What of Spain’s chances to reach the next round? Let’s assume (1) Spain wins its next two games (and Spain is not going to have an easy time beating Chile) (2) Australia loses all three matches. It still depends on the outcome of the Chile v. Netherlands match. If Chile lose (and also lose vs. Spain), that leaves Spain second with 6 points. If Chile wins, there will be three teams with six points: Netherlands, Chile, and Spain. The current goal differences for these three are: +4, +2, –4. Spain is going to have to score a lot of goals in their next two games to have a chance of progressing, if Chile beat Netherlands. Spain is not known for scoring a lot of goals. It was good while it lasted.

First Female Manager in European Top Division

Helena Costa becomes the first woman to manage a football team in a top European division. She is taking over Clermont, a club currently in France’s second division. This is good news for football — at least, men’s football —, because management is male-dominated. While I’m sure there have been, I can’t think of a single woman in the coaching staff of any of the teams I follow. Costa is breaking down a prejudice, and that’s a good thing. I hope that she’s successful, finds a path to promotion to a first division team, and opens the way for many other women down the road.

(By the way, this is a good example of the kind of discrimination people have in mind when they blame it for, part of, the gender pay gap. They are talking about biased cultural values that act as barriers to entry.)

Soccer Players Don’t Fit Permanent Income Hypothesis

[Xpro] says 33 per cent of players get divorced within a year of retiring, 40 per cent are declared bankrupt within five years of playing their last game, and 80 per cent will suffer from osteoarthritis…

And Holdsworth says that an alarming number of players don’t plan for their future from what is a very short career and the first contact Xpro has from most players is a panicked phone call when their contracts are about to finish.

John Drayton.

Footballing (Soccer) Institutions

The Spanish sports newspaper Marca has an interesting blog post on the penalty kick and the evolution of football (soccer). It’s in Spanish, so my own post will mostly be a paraphrasing of it. But, it reminded me of institutions and their constraints, and how which institutions are optimal can change in accordance with changes in constraints. Written in response to the defeats of Manchester City and Arsenal, to Barcelona and Bayern Munich, respectively, Marcos López argues that the penalty kick no longer accomplishes the same task it did 20+ years ago.

Originally, football was a very defense-oriented sport. Consider, for example, catenaccio, which was a defensive tactical formation employed during the 1960s. In the 1970s, Dutch “total football” was developed to respond to these heavy defensive tactics, but evolution in the latter ultimately nullified these new attacking tactics. Besides, attacking tactics like “total football,” and “tiki-taka” today, require a considerable accumulation of attacking talent, something most teams simply can’t afford. So, most teams practiced something close to parking the bus, and then launching counter-attacks — think of Mourihno’s tactics, or Atlético de Madrid’s current tactical set up.

When two teams are playing with highly defensive tactics, launching counter-attacks against each other, the penalty kick — awarded for a bad tackle inside the box — makes a lot of sense. Defensive games are low scoring, and the penalty kick provides an opportunity for emotion. One team has a good chance to get ahead, and the now trailing squad has to open up and attack, allowing for a much more fluid and entertaining game.

But, attacking tactics have developed quite a bit since “total football.” We now have teams like Barcelona (which is an extreme case), Manchester City, Bayern Munich, et. al., who are very good at maintaining possession and launching attacks. When they get ahead, their ability to maintain possession also minimizes the opportunities the opposing team has to launch attacks, which essentially means that the spectator is left to see one team passing the ball between each other, waiting to see how much time is left on the clock. This is even more true if a penalty leads to an expulsion of one of the rival’s players, since then the one team who can maintain possession can play a passing game between 11 players (including the goalie), against their nine outfield opponents. The penalty simply leads to an unfair advantage, and it kills the game.

López proposes doing away with the consequent game of suspension, and suggests limiting the penalty to either an expulsion or a penalty kick. I wonder why football doesn’t adopt a time with possession rule, allowing one team a certain number of minutes during each possession spell. One could say that maybe other teams should simply innovate, but huge differences in budgets makes this very difficult. Besides, football is an industry that ultimately serves the consumer, and the consumer wants entertainment. The sport needs new institutions — rules of the game — that constrain teams’ actions, to the benefit of the consumer.