The Tactics Tank: England vs Denmark, Exfoliated
With just a matter of days, weeks, months and minutes until England fly out to Brazil before flying back again either having done well or not so well at the FIFA World Cup, Wednesday’s friendly fixture against Denmark afforded boss Roy Hodgson the ideal opportunity to not only evaluate potential candidates for places in the squad, but also test and tweak the tactics with which he will either baffle or amuse the world.
Hodgson, of course, has long been derided as a kind of football conservative, the entrenched view of many being that he is to football tactics what Michael Gove is to education – namely a universally loathed, luddite Puritan mired in dark age thinking and possessed of a face that resembles an animal. While Hodgson’s failure at Liverpool hardly helps the cause of mainstream supporters prepared to defend him against his more vociferous detractors, his tenure as England manager – and particularly his record in recent games – has provided a more positive visualisation of what may lay ahead in Brazil.
Born in 1947, Hodgson’s has certainly been around the block a few times. His managerial career has been wildly varied, taking in domestic titans and smaller, obscure clubs, as well as a storied international career spanning several decades. This poses a big problem for soccer academics and tactical analysts trying to establish his heritage as a means to predict his future tactical trajectory; all those clubs, all those players, all those mentors, all those different systems and styles.
The overriding feeling is that Hodgson, in being exposed to so many different circumstances, has not been able to develop his own independent strategic philosophy. Instead, his vision has been clouded by innumerable external factors, leading to a muddled mess and an end product that, in the end, is just very average indeed. A bit like Red Hot Buffet Shack.
Conversely, there is another school of thought that contends that you can indeed marry Thai green curry with a roast dinner and not be left with something that leaves you feeling like your bowels are dissolving, and during Wednesday night’s game there were glimpses that Hodgson’s cross-bred tactics could indeed be effective.
The key to Hodgson’s plan isn’t new, but it is an intriguing response to the growing trend of soccer data computational analysis tactics: remove the tactics. It sounds outrageous of course. But when we examine the data from Wednesday night’s game – such as Raheem Sterling’s Percentile Pass Execution Win Rate ArrowSTICKS™ (PPEWRAS) – an interesting trend emerges: there is no trend. This is in itself a trend like no other; it is what legendary Rwandan tactics expert Isumbingabo Emma Françoise once dubbed muoala. Muoala, Françoise claims, is the football equivalent of copying and pasting text into Notepad to remove the formatting. In footballing terms, you scrub your team of patterns, habits and tactics. Muoala results in the complete absence of order such that even the most proficient of football statisticians are prevented from forming any kind of numerologicalisational conclusion whatsoever.
Removing trends from sporting activity is a critically important skill for those seeking to hoodwink rival analysts, and is a tactic often employed by teams like England who cannot rely on innate ability, or any kind of talent whatsoever, to vanquish opponents. “The trick is to knuckleball them,” Barnsley Wallgang, Professor of Soccer Tactivity at the University of Erie, told a coaching convention in Corby last October. There to speak about his new 685-page book on the Connecticut Bicentennials’ deployment of Françoise’s muoala in the 1977 NASL season, Wallgang’s advice was met with blank stares from the mostly British coaches, who were unfamiliar with baseball terminology, or indeed football tactics.
The knuckleball, is of course, a pitcher’s most potent weapon. Gripping the ball with the very edges of one’s fingers, or using the knuckles, the trick is to push the ball from the hand, so that it is released without any applied rotation. As the ball travels, air catches in the stitching, causing the ball to travel in a highly unpredictable arc. It is an exercise in randomness. No-one, least of all the pitcher, knows where the ball will go. Deployed correctly, it leaves batters bewildered at the plate. But it is a difficult skill to master, and deployed incorrectly it is a recipe for catastrophe – which is why Hodgson has been refining his own football knuckleball for some time.
Most major teams, of course, now possess an array of football analysts, detecting tends and patterns in their opponents that betray points of weakness. And in return, rival teams are finding out their weaknesses too, leading to what some experts worry will lead, in perhaps 10-15 years, to complete tactical stalemate.
“The worst case scenario is that one day there will be no point actually sending teams out to play games anymore, because we will be able to predict results to such a dizzying degree of accuracy that acting them out in person will seem entirely moot,” says Brian Wilcox, CEO of analytics firm Soccer Analysis Deck [SAD]. But Wallgang contends this is not an inevitable consequence of big data in soccer, and that there is an easy way to defeat the analysts – you knuckleball them. To knuckleball a rival team, Wallgang argued, was to leave them guessing with a more extreme version of the muoala: by actively introducing randomness into your play to undermine any statistics applied to your side. You just remove the patterns. If your rivals’ tactical analysis is based on nonsense data, nonsense data is output. Your rivals literally become nonsense. This, it seems, is how Hodgson aims to give his side the edge in Brazil.
Sterling’s PPEWRAS reveals precisely how Hodgson’s intends to achieve his goal. Any fan of football tactics will appreciate the randomness of Sterling’s win rate arrow sticks. But the plan has more immediate benefits too, as we saw on Wednesday. How, exactly, were the Danish supposed to predict England’s tactics, their methods, even how their transitional transitions would work, when England didn’t know either? As the PPEWRAS graphic highlights, Sterling’s capriciousosity levels were highly elevated throughout the game, culminating in increased legCHURN™ – always a problem for opposition featuring a player in Bendtner who is notorious for his low rates of legCHURN™. Indeed, the legCHURN™ chart for the night highlights the problem Denmark had in matching England’s various legCHURN™ metrics, with Bendtner being – as you would expect – the worst culprit.
Another highly useful measure of England’s unpredictability is of course the manMATRIX©. As you can see below, the manMATRIX© shows just one player dipping below the manMATRIX© Mendoza Line – that being Ashley Cole. Otherwise the matrix is dominated by blues and purples and greys – exactly the colours Hodgson will want to see from his side in the run up to the World Cup.
Elsewhere, Luke Shaw’s soccerSHAPES® show an interesting contrast. Dominating his soccerSHAPES® chart is the tackleTRIANGLE™, which totally dominates his passPENTAGON©, which, for a player who has won acclaim for his mature, cultured and somewhat technical style, rather than an aggressive physical game, is surprising. Again, this is all about subverting expectations, throwing your rivals off your scent trail and forcing them to make decisions not based on logic or reason derived from the mining of a data mine, but from a chunk of unknown unknown unknowns hewn from an open cast pit of nonsense.
The data all points to the same thing: England will head to Brazil to knuckleball Costa Rica, Italy and Uruguay. Whether they will succeed in perplexing them or get smashed out of the park for a 900-ft grand slam home run will depend entirely on Hodgson’s ability to get from his players what no other England manager has done in the last three decades: a total lack of direction, style; an absence of potent, driven attacking and a desire to win. Allowing any one of those principles to creep into the team, and affording his rivals the chance to prey on the predictable patterns inherently present within them, and Hodgson will be faced with a virulent imposition of order throughout the team that may just prove fatal in terms of qualifying for the knockout stages. And should that happen, his opponents will go back to calling him an owl-faced Puritan all over again.
Tactics fan Pete Brooksbank is the author of GIGFIELD GENERAL, the first of three very long books studying the correlation between crowd behaviour at Brixton Academy 1996-1999 and the success of Sam Allardyce’s reviled ‘packed midfield’ 4-5-1 formation at Bolton Wanderers.
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