Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Politics and the Sporting Spirit

As time has gone forward, sport has taken on a greater significance and prestige in the world. This can be of doubt. The "cult of sport" as George Orwell put it, has made people actually care about who wins. That may seem a strange thing to say nowadays but back in history sport was considered nothing more than a past-time. These days, it is a heavily-financed activity, totally corrupting its purpose which was for young people to play the game simply for its own sake - for enjoyment. Of course, as with everything else, football has been caught within the hooks of political purpose, power struggles, and the ever-lasting attempt by men to exploit sport for their own uses.

George Orwell's summation of sport as nothing more than an arena for the show of prestige under the banner of local patriotism, stems from a culture which demands that in order to gain meaning from sport, it can only be achieved from the desire to do your utmost to win. It is precisely the value placed on the victory that justifies the struggle that preceded it. It is the case where the burden of proof lies with the method and not with the objective; or simply phrased: one must only justify his actions in order to automatically validate the reasons for his actions. No matter the reason, by using this logic, one can always succeed in justifying his actions no matter how capricious his intentions. This, I suspect, is Orwell's prime objection - a raw detestation - towards organised physical sport. So great was his attitude that he described international sport as mimic warfare. One cannot forget, however, that Orwell's time was dealing with the threats of Fascism and Stalinism, whilst clinging onto failing Imperialism. As nationalistic ideologies and tensions were at a crescendo, he was very much justified to assert that national sport was very often used as an identification marker for nationalists. When football matches were used as propaganda tools to highlight national pride, patriotism and prestige, [and they were frequently used by probably every autocratic government (a movie featuring Sylvester Stallone and Pele was made that demonstrates an example of this)] they did turn into "war minus the shooting", undoubtedly. Sport can be a great amplifier of passions and the politicisation of it is the most sinister of its uses.

While the threat of fascistic states has for the time being been diminished (until its inevitable return one day) it should be useful to bear in mind the possible uses of sport by propaganda in the future: football is now unquestionably the largest and most popular sport; it has an immense influence on culture; it is swathed in cash and the class system is very much representative of a right-wing economic model; the richest clubs are growing richer and at a faster rate than the poorer. If one were to choose an adjective to describe it, a good choice would be a gorging type of free market: resources are consumed, money is borrowed, then spent, then even more resources are consumed. Such a system is exposed to corruption and manipulation. We must therefore be careful which hands are allowed to mold the future of the game.

A leader who insists upon absolute power is already morally corrupt, in my judgement. Aristotle was of the opinion theory determined that benevolent dictatorship is the best form of government. Despite its appeal, this form of governance was most likely to be corrupted, leading to tyranny. Sir Alex Ferguson had almost complete control over his immediate surroundings and his is the best recent example of a dictator in power. Mind you, that is not to necessarily say that he was a bad dictator but, that he was a dictator, cannot be questioned. There is a joke: what is the difference between Kim Jong-Un and Sir Alex Ferguson? One is the leader of a tyrannical regime, the other is Kim Jong-Un. This joke would perhaps be more appropriate when applied to a club owner rather than a first-team manager. Replace Sir Alex Ferguson with Roman Abramovic and you will understand what I mean. Not only would it provide potential humour for a comedian to exploit, but thinking of Chelsea as a mini North Korea would allow us to imagine how a club would look like when a man who has one-hundred percent control is its owner. There is no account in history to my knowledge that describes a nation run by an all-powerful leader who has not exercised his authority for the purpose of some form of mildly sadistic practice, at the very least. Sure, football is not a country, but the principal applies. Sport is already ruled by money and in the future this will be even more so. Simply have an imagination and you can picture how a corrupted version future might look.

Football has always been vulnerable to serving the political purpose: a consequence of football's accessible nature, almost as if it were inviting its own molestation. It would take too long to outline every occasion where sport was forced to coalesce with this purpose, however, it would not be courteousness of myself if I abstain from mentioning a few occasions at the very least. Very well, let us start with a football riot in May 1990 that, for many, symbolised the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the beginning of its wars. The riot in question was a preprepared event at a match between the Serbian nationalists of Red Star Belgrade and the Croatian nationalists of Dinamo Zagreb, and was in its entirety, an act carried out in the name of political purpose; two football clubs playing the role of branded tattoos, the markers that identified who was to be hated and who was to be hating alongside. The sport in this scene had lost its purity, now merely serving as an unwilling vehicle for viruses, powerless to decide for itself who it allowed within its borders. If the potential strength of men - who only have a love for one badge in common, and who are solipsistic enough to expect respect for this devotion - has still not made its way in your mind, I can remind you that among the first men recruited to the Serbian paramilitary group, "The Tigers", were men from Delije, the Red Star Belgrade firm, or supporters group. (The recruiter of these men was later indicted for war crimes.) Any passion, properly funnelled, can be used for extreme purposes.

Shall I point out a few more examples? Very well, once again. This time not restricted to just the supporters, Athletic Bilbao has made it on a point of principle that it should champion the culture of its Basque region by recruiting only Basque players (with rare exceptions). Barcelona FC is the best known symbol of Catalan independence, seen as to courageously rebelling against the evil oppressors of its culture. Then we have Scottish football which has been a disaster on a whole, poisoned to a large extent by the utterly backward religious tribalism that comes standard, it seems. Such is the problem, that the cancerous condition of classifying humans as if we were insects is infested. One is not a Celtic supporter nor a Rangers supporter; one is either a Catholic or a Protestant. In cases such as these, pointless sectarianism is made infinitely worse when a charismatic authoritative leader further preaches this stupidity, spreading the rhetoric to otherwise indifferent spectators who simply wish to enjoy a rich spectacle with cheap food and mid-priced friends. The revealing thing is, this leader does not actually exist. The leader is a non-person - it is, in fact, the club itself. You hear it all the time: Celtic is a Catholic club. Rangers is a Protestant club. This is utter trifle, of course. A club cannot be anything. To classify it as such is to say that anyone associated with the club automatically shares the same identity with the club. Once a club is something, it can never be anything else. This is the problem with classification. Once Celtic is classified as a Catholic club (or Rangers with Protestantism), it will always be a Catholic club - it can never change. In short, it is fundamentalism. This is an evil that must be resisted, for the sake of sport.

Danger comes when one ceases to support a football team for its own sake. Opinions outside the sphere of sport such as politics, religion, class etc., is the pollutant of the sporting atmosphere, not merely diminishing it, but positively poisoning it. The boundary between what is sport and what is merely another form of an abused, agenda-spouting mouthpiece must always be fought to be kept absolutely distinct with an infinitely deep chasm in between. Even when the stakes of the match are not as critical as those involving deep-felt nationalistic or ethnic emotions, the merest hint of rivalry, or of national or local spirit, or gusto, will always spark the slightly sadistic desire to witness a certain degree of combative violence and a morsel of spilled blood. And even when football is seen as a peace statement, of solidarity and harmony, it is still a political statement. A match between Israel and Palestine is political no matter the context. It is never just a sporting contest.

The concept of national heroes and national pride are overstated. (What is national pride in any case but an appeal to geography? Should I have been born on the Moon, I should hope to curse this pride of mine for leading me to believe that living separated from the rest of mankind is an act of valour.) At any rate, it is the spectators who epitomise the silly idea that "running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue," as Orwell put it bluntly. In England, look at how the country who invented the game are so despondent at the state of its national team, decrying every game it does not win. When Wayne Rooney is the villain of the day he is not simply a disgrace to English football, but England of itself. Sure, there is patriotism, but then there is patriotism simply for its own sake. And on the other hand, when Qatar's national team actively seek out talented Brazilian players who would be willing to naturalise and play for them instead (via a fast-tracked citizenship process, no less), what does this say about the value placed on the spirit of international sport? Clearly, the objectives are more valued than the methods by which to achieve them. If one thinks that a football team can ever be a symbol for a nation's pride then one is obliged to say that he lives a life with twisted priorities . . . and probably a sad one, no less.

The pinnacle of barbarism in a "sporting" arena is the hybrid boxing-wrestling-kickboxing-thuggery sport quite honestly called "cage fighting". That such an activity can claim to be a serious and accepted past-time shows that the willingness to watch fellow people be bashed in such a brutal manner is not as reprehensible as we would like to think. One only has to look at the demography of the audience to realise that burly men with veins on the verge of bursting are the most interested of onlookers. Indeed, they are the vast majority of the spectatorship; the few female spectators are also noticeably the type who would not look out of place at a popular red-light district nightspot, making acquaintances with more men than she has in the whole of her extended family. I think it is overlooked that humans have a deep, inner urge to witness brutality, provided that they are not experiencing it themselves; Orwell describes it as a "sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence." Certainly, all modern entertainment - blockbusters, dramas, theatre and sport - have an obvious element of brutishness to it. It is accepted because it is stylised, choreographed, pre-agreed by all involved parties - it makes it all somehow not real. Take away the setting and the money, and cage fighting would be called street fighting. In an age where places to burn off excess energy are limited to the confines of sedentary life, organised group sport provides the best outlet to satisfy our primitive impulses for violence and combativeness. In regards to football, it is the ultimate escape, the gold standard of the group mentality, simple and accessible entertainment, with the bonus tribalism that is associated. One can properly belong to a club, feel a part of a family. However, this comes with a trap-door. To properly be a part of the family, you must adhere to its emotions at any particular time. Feeling injustice when the family does, as if there are dark forces deliberately sabotaging your team, is a requisite for anyone who claims to be a proper supporter and not merely a casual bogus; to display the "correct" emotion is to prove you are authentic. To stray from the official line is to dissent - it is Thoughtcrime, only with mildly amusing and slightly pathetic consequences. If it is not the only sport, football is certainly the best adapted to combine the perfect mix of the physicality and the primitive wolf pack mentality.

As we look forward, it does help to look back once in a while. It takes the occasional event to make us realise that we cannot be complacent, we cannot simply assume that sport will always be a thing we do for its own sake - for enjoyment. It is wise to listen to Orwell's prose as a reminder of what were the threats to the sporting spirit at the time, for one can never be too prepared to face those threats once more.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Power and Psychological Ownership in Football

Ask any player in any team this question: would you rather have possession of the ball or let the other team have it. The answer in most cases (and I can't think of any reasonable explanation to the contrary) is of course I would rather my team have the ball if we could make it so. It is a condition of our game that is set in place at a young age when a child first learns the game. Ask a young child to dribble to the edge of the box and shoot on goal and he will happily do it. Ask the same child to practice making late runs into the box without a ball and he will tire of it very quickly. Why is this? It is a known fact that any player only has possession of the ball for around two minutes during a ninety minute match, so theoretically a player must be used to playing without the ball for the majority of the game. If this is the case, it begs the question why it is less desirable for a team to defend without the ball rather than have it themselves. I believe that ultimately it's related to the psychology of the human mind - specifically, the psychology of power.

If you take a look at history it will keep telling you one thing - people will fight for freedom. Virtually every war or battle in human history are between two groups of people who are fighting for independence or greater control. Whether it be the right to vote, a piece of disputed land, religion, greater control over law/finance/ etc. all battles are over who can control their own lives. Humans by nature want to have control over what they do with their body, where they go, what they do and who they want to be with. It comes as no surprise then that, since the ball is the object of the game, ownership of this central figure in the war between the two teams becomes paramount. It is not so much that either team sees the value in obtaining the ball, rather, that either team feels inferior if the other team has the ball. It is due to a natural human tendency to seek power for oneself and take away power from another.  It is interesting therefore that sometimes the reason for seeking the ball is not with a purpose in mind for its use, rather it can simply be that the action of controlling the ball is the purpose itself.


The psychology behind control and domination is quite an interesting topic of discussion. It is rather intriguing when we think about an outnumbered army that has control of a relatively small amount of land fighting against a much more powerful enemy that seeks to capture this land. Historically, there are many examples where such odds has been overcome by the smaller and disadvantaged army. Perhaps the most famous example is the story of how an outrageously outnumbered Spartan army defeated the greatly more numerous Persian army on a very small piece of land. In comparison, we have such recent football examples as the second leg tie between Barcelona and Chelsea where Fernando Torres scored a memorable goal (not forgetting Ramires' memorable goal too) as the spirit of the Spartans seemingly helped the players in blue score a remarkable victory outnumbered against a superior enemy. This curious phenomena happens not often, but on a consistent basis and can be explained by a concept called psychological ownership.

The peculiar quirk commonly described as psychological ownership is a reflection of how an object or a state of affairs which is seemingly equal and identical in a legal or civil sense may have a disparate moral or emotional state to a particular party due to the perspective of the observation. In simpler words, the way we perceive an object or event can influence our judgement or perceived value of that object or event regardless of what we should logically be expected to feel about it. To state a simple universal example, most people would not care about a toy teddy bear that is old and ruined, where, by contrast, the adult who has owned this teddy bear since childhood would no doubt have a high perceived value of the object due to emotional attachment. The power of this perceived value is powerful enough to change the actions of a person, such as maintaining the toy bear where it would otherwise not be cared for. Now imagine the benefits if this power of psychology can be directed into a positive mindset which produces favourable actions in a football team.

I want to now expand on the phenomena of psychological ownership and examine in closer detail how it actually works in relation to football and to do so I want to focus on three specific points. The first point is that ownership increases our perceived value. This is a pretty simple idea which means that the mere fact of owning something, both tangible or intangible, increases how much we value it due to the emotional connection we develop. We see the effect of this in sport around the whole world, often termed as home field advantage. The simple fact that a team plays at their home ground means that they have an emotional advantage as they perceive that they have an added responsibility to protect their ownership of their home ground via not allowing their opponents to win. It also relates to a sense of self identity and group belonging, a powerful peer led force that is obviously stimulated more playing at ones own home with their fellow kinship supporting from the stands. While certainly not the only factor, it perhaps is the greatest contributory factor in explaining home field advantage.

The second point states that humans place a higher proportionate focus on avoiding loss rather than on gaining. This is important for the timing of goals scored in a game. If we take an inferior team playing against a stronger one, the scoring of the first goal becomes paramount. If the inferior team scores first, this second factor comes into play because the inferior team will now have something to lose which is more motivating to avoid (in theory at least) than gaining a goal for the stronger team. This motivation to hold onto a lead makes sense and can be often used to at least partially explain why we see inferior teams managing to defend with absolute determination and doggedness against all odds and sneak a 1-0 victory. As an added note, scoring the first goal might conceivably increase the belief that the inferior team has a valid right to ownership of the victory, although this is a bit of an abstract and less important thought to consider.

Thirdly, the more we work for something, the greater its value. If a team believes that it has put in a huge amount of effort in training, preparation and energy into a season or a match, it is more likely to perform at a higher level due to the increased value of that season or match. This takes a great team culture and belief in the work and more often than not a great leader to inspire this attitude - in most cases the manager.

So what does this all mean? In my opinion, such psychological concepts is of great significance and advantage for young coaches who are advancing their learning and knowledge. It is no secret that coaches have a holistic role to play in managing a team and that managers who are skillful in the art of manipulation can greatly increase the effectiveness of his messages. An effective coach can shape belief and affect behaviour. It is one thing which I believe to be the single most important thing in being a great coach - the ability to make your players believe in you, your philosophy and methods. Not only that, if you know the reasons why your players have certain responsive traits or behavioural tendencies, you can increase the effectiveness of your communication.

I do not pretend that I am an expert in the field of psychology; these are simply my thoughts on the deeper meanings behind the trends in our game. What I hope you will take away from reading this article is an appreciation that people do not often go deeply into questioning. Sometimes, a short and simplistic answer to an interesting question is not enough. Whether exploring these questions of deeper meanings, certainly in football, is worthwhile is up to you to decide. For myself in any case, I find them quite interesting. Curiosity after all is one of the more beautiful things in life.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Art of Effective Pressing

A common phrase when referring to principles of defence is "close down space and time". While this is not in objection, and rightly so, it carries a meaning that has been slightly generalised as a result of the commonality in the use of the phrase. What I propose is to explore the often overlooked tactic of positioning of defending players - not in an attempt to tackle a player in possession - rather, to place himself between opponents in order to intercept the ball. To purposefully seek to gain possession of the ball without having to resort to physically confronting a ball possessor requires a subtle and intelligent approach, not to mention a great appreciation for sophistication. Hence what I will now put forward to you is the idea that defending is not simple - the notion that it is more than just simply tackling. I offer the concept that defending to a large (and overlooked) extent is about positioning - the art of interception.

The whole concept of defending to intercept is only applicable by virtue of intelligence in the players executing the actions. The theoretical advantage of positioning to intercept can be represented and explained through a game which has been around longer than football and perhaps the only other game that can lay claim to being as popular - chess.


Chess pieces are variable in that they have different starting positions, legal movements and special qualities. One could therefore suggest that different pieces have different relevant values to the player. By virtue of common acceptance, it is said that a queen is of greater value to a player than a bishop since a bishop has limited movement compared to a queen. It can also be suggested that two of the same piece can have two different relative values depending on the position of those pieces. For example, a pawn protecting a knight can be said to be of greater value than a pawn that is isolated. Therefore, it is more accurate to suggest that the relative function of a piece, immediate or potential, determines the true value of the piece. Since a queen can engage in many more actions, and therefore can perform many more functions than a pawn, it is more valuable than a pawn, pound for pound.

A further examination can reveal that we can compare the average relative values of each piece.  C.J.S Purdy and G.Koshnitsky's 1998 short paperback Chess Made Easy gives us these values:

  • minor piece (Bishop or Knight) = 3 Pawns
  • Rook = minor piece + 1.5 to 2 Pawns
  • Queen = 2 Rooks, or 3 minors; or Rook, minor and 1.5 Pawns
  • Summary: minor 3(3.5), Rook, Queen 9-10

These values are only proximate but they nonetheless demonstrate the liberalism with which the chess pieces are representative. The conclusion from these set of insights which one can make, is that to gain maximum advantage a player must endeavour to increase the value of each of his pieces in order to maximise the functional capabilities of his whole army. The hidden art of pressing is that every player performs two roles at once, thus increasing the value of every individual to the team.

A football player who acts as fictional pawn would be undesirable compared to a more functional player. The aim is make more players on the team a queen, instead of a pawn. It is a characteristic of the modern game that players are becoming increasingly functional, capable of performing a wider range of roles within the limits of time and space. This functionality is also essential for an effective pressing tactic.

Pressing can simply be described as physically closing down the distance between you and another player who is usually in possession of the ball. By pressing a player, you are vacating the space you just occupied, thereby opening up a potential space in which the ball can arrive. If another opponent manages to occupy that newly formed space, the pressing has been ineffective, since one of the objectives of pressing is to deny space. Therefore, the solution is to press the ball carrier, while at the same time cutting off the passing lane to the space the act of pressing has created. Therefore, the pressing player must perform two roles in the same action: press the ball carrier & cut off the passing lane to the space created. The only way to achieve this dual function is by pressing from the correct angle - approach the ball carrier in a way that you also block off a pass to one of his team-mates. This dual functionality forms the core rationale behind the concept of effective pressing. In effect, this mechanism represents the theory that has been borrowed from chess, that of a focus on improving the relative functionality of an individual piece in order to strengthen the army as a whole.

Take this example from a Champions League game between Bayern Munich and Valencia. Watch Toni Kroos carefully (he is playing in a #10 position) and pay close attention at how he turns his head behind him a few times and then very subtly adjusts his positioning so that he blocks the pass to the nearest Valencia midfielder. The angle of approach is key and this is why he manages to intercept the pass.

video

Toni Kroos in this example has in effect raised his value to his team in that specific moment because he was essentially screening two opponents at the same time. If he would have positioned himself slightly to the left or the right, he would not have been blocking a passing lane, thereby reducing his value to his team in that instance because he would have only been screening one player. In other words, Kroos was functioning as a relative queen. A step to either side and he would be functioning as a temporary knight. Had Kroos been standing completely still, he would have been functioning as a relative pawn, rendering him completely ineffective. If multiple team mates can also replicate Kroos by pressing a player while simultaneously blocking a passing lane, the effectiveness of the whole team will increase exponentially. In effect, we are essentially outnumbering the opponents since every player is doing the job of two players.

The ultimate objective of every single midfielder and forward is to press your own man while blocking off a passing lane to another opponent. The opponent on the ball should theoretically have no options left except to inevitably lose the ball. As a side note, Toni Kroos is one of the best players I have seen who is exceptional at effective pressing so I encourage you to watch him closely.

These ideas within the tactic of pressing are not new by any means. However, I do believe they are somewhat misunderstood and people tend to generalise the whole concept rather than observe and acknowledge the micro-details. What I have briefly explained is only a part of the wider art of pressing. What I hope to leave anyone who has read this is a sense of the complex intricacies that truly make pressing an art form.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Football Explained in 420 Words

What is Football?


Affection, animation, excitement, feeling, fervour, fire, fit, demonstration, display, drama, event, art, misery, outbreak, jubilant, laughing, light, outburst, spirit, pride, satisfaction, calm, at peace, fear, foreboding,  graceful, grand, handsome, fretfulness, hardship, breathless, breeze-less, cool, pacific, placid, quiescent, reposing, restful, serene, slow, smooth, soothing, still, tranquil, undisturbed, unruffled, afraid, agitated, annoyed, apprehensive, bothered, concerned, distressed, disturbed, edgy, excitable, fidgety, fitful, flustered, fussy, hesitant, hysterical, irritable, jittery, jumpy, nervy, neurotic, on edge, ruffled, sensitive, shaky, shrinking, taut, tense, frenzy, fury, heat, indignation, intensity, joy,  timid, timorous, troubled, twitchy, upset, uptight, luck, blood pressure, occasion, split second, courage, stage, tick, time, twinkle, moment, why is this happening?

Pressure, concern, affliction, aggravation, exposition, extravaganza, marvel, performance, alarm, anguish, annoyance, anxiety, apprehension, bother, burden, consternation, aesthetic, artistic, attractive,doubt, scepticism, unbelief, wonder, weak, spectacular, striking, stupendous, worried, nervous, instant, minute, no time, discomposure, dismay, disquiet, disturbance, encumbrance, exasperation, load, onus, perplexity, pressure, responsibility, solicitude, sorrow, strain, stress, sweat, tribulation, trouble, uneasiness, unhappiness, vexation, woe, worry, anguish, bleakness, broken heart, gratified, joyful, disconsolate, dismal, dispirited, distress, downer, forlornness, harmonious, hushed, low-key, mild, motionless, heartache, heartbreak, heavy heart, hopelessness, let-down, melancholy, misery, mood, mournfulness, mourning, poignancy, sorrow, sorrowful, tribulation, crying, why? grief, angry, sad, happy, blessed, blissful, captivated, cheerful, content, delighted, ecstatic, elated, exultant, glad, gleeful, joyous, lively, looking good, merry, mirthful, on cloud nine, overjoyed, peaceful, playful, pleasant, pleased, sparkling, sunny, thrilled, upbeat, happy, sportsmanship, fairness, forthrightness, gamesmanship, goodness, honesty, honour, principles, righteousness, sincerity, virtue, tired, bleary, exhausted, dedication, passion, eagerness, ecstasy, smart, sparkling, splendid, crippled, dead tired, dead, alive, debilitated, done for, done in, uneasy, unrestful, windless, composure, nerve, drained, enervated, frazzled, had it, limp, prostrated, run-down, sapped, spent, tired out, weak, strong, wearied, worn out, can't take it anymore!

Unbelievable, amazement, gloominess, grief, grieving, experience, expertise, facility, finesse,  astonishing, astounding, awesome, best, breathtaking, cool, extravagant, fantastic, first-class, greatest, legend, experience, new, old, immense, inconceivable, incredible, out-of-this-world, outrageous, phenomenal, prodigious, remarkable, super, superb, terrific, friendship, enemy,  curiosity, phenomenon, play, representation, scene, show, sight, spectacular, wonder, inconsolable, dejection, despondency, genius, ability, date, flash, hour, accomplishment, acumen,  astuteness, brain, brilliance, capability, creativity, expert, flair, grasp, imagination, ingenuity, inspiration, intelligence, inventiveness, mature, originality, power, prodigy, prowess, reach, talent, understanding, virtuoso, wisdom, skill, address, artistry, legendary, marvellous, mind-blowing, out-of-sight, cleverness, clout, spectacle, comedy, command, competence, craft, cunning, deftness, dexterity, ease,  job, profession, proficiency, prowess, quickness, readiness, savvy, skilfulness, smart, technique, beauty,  beautiful, aptitude, aptness, becoming, curious, dainty, dapper, dazzling, delicate, elegant, enchanting, harmonious, lovely, magnificent, natty, neat, not amiss, ornamental, picturesque, pretty, refined, resplendent, rich, sleek, sublime, superb, svelte.



This is football.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Bayern and Borussia: Total Defending and Verticality

Bayern Munich absolutely destroyed Barcelona seven-nil on aggregate on their way to the Champions League crown and it wasn't just the result which simply demonstrated the dominance of one team over the other - it was a symbolic gesture of the type of football that is now needed to succeed in Europe. This type of football can be summed up in one word - balance. Bayern are the modern version of Sacchi's AC Milan in that they have everything any team could ever wish for: attack, defence, transitions, set pieces, fitness. This team are quickly becoming every coach's manual to base their training principles on. However there is one particular aspect of their play which I would like to focus on in this article: their defence.

Total Defending

Total football is a phrase used to describe the movements of players when in the attacking phase of play, that is, when we have the ball. It is based on fluidity of positions, rotations and covering your team mates runs. In this way, players use the movements of their team mates for reference rather than zones on the pitch. However, total football is almost seldom used in reference to the defending phase of play. The reason, because almost every team in Europe plays a zonal based defence, positioning themselves in a particular area of the pitch and rarely moving away from it. I can only remember one team in Europe who have used pure man marking - Bielsa's Athletic Bilbao who used this tactic to great effect on a rainy night in San Mames a few years ago against Barcelona. The problem with this way of defending is that it requires an extreme amount of concentration, discipline, commitment and fitness. Hence, few teams are able to implement it effectively. It should now be clear that any particular team should deploy either zonal or man to man defending, but not both. This is where Bayern come in. I believe that they have quite possibly set a new trend in defending tactics, matching the significance of Sacchi's invention - total defending.

Image from mirror.co.uk
It is well known that Arrigo Sacchi, who is widely regarded to have mastered the art of zonal marking, is to have said that there should be no more that 25 metres between the strikers and the defenders. The reason for this is to constrict the space in a vertical sense, hence reducing the distances between players and thus making it more difficult for the offensive team to pass or dribble right through the middle of this compacted space. The problem with this tactic (and any other) comes from geometry. Let's take a pitch with dimensions of 100m by 60m - this equates to 6000 square metres in area. If we take the goalkeeper out of the equation, each outfield player would have to cover 600 square metres, or about 25m by 25m in order to cover the whole area of the field. This means that when all players on one team are evenly spaced out, no player is closer than 25 metres to his nearest teammate. Breaking it down this way, it becomes clear just how much space is to be found on a football pitch. So why is all this a problem you may ask? In simple terms it means that it is not possible to defend the whole pitch. Consequently, in theory at least, no defending tactic can reach optimal efficiency. If a team chooses to defend via a high pressing tactic, space will be left behind their block. Alternatively, a tactic of defending in a low and compact block will allow space in front of the block and allow the other team to possess the ball. The logical conclusion to take from the theoretical resultant of these two systems of defending is that the best method to achieve the highest possible efficient way of defending is a hybrid of both low to medium block compact defence and a high pressing defence.

Total defending is a hybrid between zonal and man to man marking used in a clever way. It involves two phases of play: high pressing and low block defending. Bayern have mastered the art of structurally changing the way they defend mid-game. In other words, they interchange between man marking and zonal marking as the situation demands. Against Barca, there were times when Bayern chose to press high up the pitch, using the cue whenever Valdes had the ball. It is important to understand the situation of the game in this phase of play. Both Barca fullbacks are to be found right beside the sideline providing width. Both centre backs have split wide and the midfielders are spread out. Essentially, Barca are opening up the pitch to create as much space as possible. Consequently, the distance between players has increased. What might have been 10 yards is now 30 yards and this affects not only Barca's shape, but Bayern's as well. If Bayern choose to press high when Barca are in this formation, Bayern will essentially be man on man in midfield which is a potentially dangerous situation if Barca can play out of the high pressure. This is where the cleverness of Bayern comes into play. Ribery, Robben and Manzukic will engage the back five of Barca including Valdes, whereas the midfield trio of Kroos, Sweinstiger, and Martinez defend zonally. As soon as a Barca player receives the ball into their midfield zone they will pressure him immediately. Even more clever is the way that Bayern's players can leave their zone to follow his man further away from his own goal and force the play back to Valdes. If this happens, a player that is away from the zone of danger, i.e. far away from the ball, will replace the player who has just left his zone. In this way, the whole team mimics the positional rotation of the Dutch total football, only in defence. The advantage in defending in this very adaptable way is that the best tactic can be used at the best times. If the situation of the game requires a high press they can do it. It is the same with pure zonal or man to man defending.

On a theoretical basis, total defending is the most efficient way of defending. Think about it this way - pretend you are selling paint to artists. If you only have three colours - red, blue and yellow - you can only sell them to painters who want those colours. What happens if an artist asks you for some green paint? If you can only sell the paints individually, you will lose a customer. However, if you have the ability to combine blue and yellow, you can now sell green paint and expand your customer base. In football, the customer base is the other teams in the league and if you have the ability to combine all types of defending, you can play better against a wider range of teams. Certain opponents are better suited to certain ways of defending against. Bayern are the masters of mixing their core colours to create the perfect balance to counteract specific qualities and strengths. While they may never achieve maximum efficiency or be able to cover the whole pitch, they are the closest thing when it comes to defending perfection.

Verticality

In a period of the game where possession is preached ad nauseum, it is refreshing to watch Borussia Dortmund display a brand of football, while not revolutionary, different to most teams in a subtle but noticeable way. They play with a tactical mechanism called 'verticality'. Heavily influenced by a modern genius in Marcelo Bielsa, verticality is simply a reference to a style of play where the ball is brought from back to front as quickly as possible using short passing combinations. In essence, a slow, possession based build up is discouraged in favour of a more direct and quicker build up where the ball travels forward rather than from side to side.

Modern genius: Marcelo Bielsa
Image from mirror.co.uk
Bielsa himself explains this philosophy in a nutshell, "once we have the ball, we try and find a way of getting forward as quickly as possible, in a vertical direction if you like. But we don’t get frustrated if we can’t get it forward immediately, we aim to be comfortable on the ball, and if it’s not a case of going forward straight away, we keep it.” Klopp is not as idealistic as Bielsa but his team certainly display a characteristic of Bielsa's teams. Dortmund are much like Bayern in that they can adapt to what is is requited from them. They can keep possession for the sake of it or they can introduce a rapidity into their attack on the transition, which they are deadly at doing. "I support a football more urgent and less patient. Because I'm anxious, and also because I'm Argentine." -Marcelo Bielsa.

Perhaps the roots of the concept of verticality came from the father of modern statistical analysis, English coach Charles Reep, who was famous for his unwavering belief that teams should adopt a direct ball approach since, according to his statistics, most goals resulted in moves of three passes or fewer. He argued that the quicker the ball was moved into the opponents' penalty box, the greater the chance of scoring. In simple terms, Reep was a believer of long ball football. While Dortmund are certainly not a long ball team, they possess an adeptability for Bielsa's vertical approach. In fact, Klopp is a known admirer of Bielsa. The Argentine coach believes that vertical penetration using quick passing combinations brings about winning football. In this way it is a pragmatic concept as well as an idealistic one.

Much like total defending where many modes of defence combine to create a model as close to perfect as possible, the combination of possession and counter attack work in much the same way. The problem with possession is that, while having the ball is certainly more desirable than not having it, you force the other team into sitting deep in a low block defence. This is the bane of possession orientated teams such as Barcelona. In order to overcome this incessant and repetitive obstacle, the possession team must provoke the opponent with the ball either during a rapid counter attacking transition or during the build up phase. Andre Villas-Boas explains the concept of provoking the opponent with the ball using verticality:
There are more spaces in football than people think. Even if you play against a low block team, you immediately get half of the pitch. And after that, in attacking midfield, you can provoke the opponent with the ball, provoke him to move forward or sideways and open up a space. But many players can’t understand the game. Top teams nowadays don’t look to vertical penetration from their midfielders because the coach prefers them to stand in position (horizontally) and then use the movement of the wingers as the main source to create chances.

So, you, as a coach, have to know exactly what kind of players you have and analyse the squad to decide how you want to organise your team offensively. And then, there are maybe some players more important than others. For instance, many teams play with defensive pivots, small defensive midfielders. And, except Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso, and maybe Esteban Cambiasso and one or two more, they are players that are limited to the horizontal part of the game: they keep passing the ball from one side to another, left or right, without any kind of vertical penetration. Can’t you use your defensive midfielder to introduce a surprise factor in the match? Let’s say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration?

Barcelona play horizontally only after a vertical pass. See how the centre backs go out with ball, how they construct the play. They open up (moving wider), so that the right or left-back can join the midfield line. Guardiola has talked about it: the centre backs provoke the opponent, invite them forward then, if the opponent applies quick pressure the ball goes to the other central defender, and this one makes a vertical pass. Not to the midfielders, who have their back turned to the ball, but to those moving between lines, Andres Iniesta or Lionel Messi, or even directly to the striker.

At this time of ultra-low defensive block teams, you will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot. Louis Van Gaal’s idea is one of continuous circulation, one side to the other, until the moment that, when you change direction, an space opens up inside and you go through it. So, he provokes the opponent with horizontal circulation of the ball, until the moment that the opponent will start to pressure out of despair. What I believe in is to challenge the rival by driving the ball into him.
                                                                                                    Andre Villas-Boas 2009

In order to create space when a team is defending in a compact block, it is necessary to play the ball vertically, bypassing opposition players and making them turn towards their own goal. Now the attacking team has the advantage because the opposition midfielders are no longer shifting laterally - rather, they are running back towards their own goal which is a much less comfortable and organised way of defending. Defenders will get sucked infield, towards the ball and leave themselves open to passes to the flanks where the players have just left this space to contend with the threat of the vertical ball centrally. Klopp has masterminded a team which is deadly when they regain possession and the other team is not organised to defend as a group. Within one or two passes the ball has travelled forward and seized the space before the opponents have had sufficient time to close up. This is the key to Borussia Dortmund's game and it is a glimpse into the growing part that verticality has to play in modern football.

What Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have shown us this season is that balance is still a key factor in a successful team. The ability to interchange between systems mid game has come back into focus when the Barcelona model had previously shown us that only one system was needed, if implemented well enough, to be successful. The true success has been total defending and verticality.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Cruyff's Paradox: Is Tiki-taka Simple or Complex?

Image from laacib.net
"Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is."
                                                                                           Johan Cruyff
"To make something look simple, you have to master the complex." I would say that this quote (I made it up) goes a long way towards explaining the philosophical reasoning behind the way that Barcelona play football. It has always fascinated me how many observers make the conclusion that their style of play, and the reason that it's successful, is very simple, done very well. In my mind and in my experience with observing and studying Barcelona I cannot comprehend how people can come to that particular conclusion. A team which has revolutionised modern football since I started to follow the sport and that have broken so many boundaries of what was considered as the traditional norm surely does not play a simple brand of football. How can it achieve so much by playing so simply? Or perhaps there is more to this than first viewed. The man who can potentially answer this question is a legend of the game, or more appropriately, a legend of Barcelona - Johan Cruyff.

Perhaps Pele and Maradona can lay claim to being better players than Cruyff, but Cruyff has arguably had a bigger impact on the game itself. None more so than at Barcelona whom he played and coached, but more importantly, changed the whole philosophy and structure of the club. The most important idea he introduced was a concept of ball orientated football - to keep the ball when you have it and get it back quickly when you don't.

The original Dream Team coached by Cruyff
Image from themidfieldmaestro.tumbler.com

Cruyff often speaks about simplicity - to play with excess contradicts what passing was supposed to achieve - simplicity. Cruyff once criticised a goal that was scored because he claimed that the goal should have been scored earlier in the play. The extra passes were unnecessary and increased the chances that a mistake would happen. Simplicity increases efficiency and effectiveness. Think of Arsenal and how many times they overelaborate a goalscoring opportunity. According to Cruyff, a team should take a shot on goal at the earliest possible opportunity in order to increase the chances of scoring. To Cruyff, the perfect goal would be one which is scored with minimal effort, no unnecessary risks taken, and maximum efficiency.


"To play well, you need good players, but a good player almost always has the problem of a lack of efficiency. He always wants to do things prettier than strictly necessary."
                                                                                                       Johan Cruyff


Simplicity is an intangible concept which is falsely described by numbers and statistics. It is a concept invented by the human mind and is a quality which is vary hard to explain, much like creativity. However one defines simplicity, it ultimately reflects our perception of if it and more importantly, our understanding. To a physicist, the laws of physics make perfect sense because it follows certain laws. To a less learned person, it would make no sense whatsoever. The two different perspectives doesn't change the reality. The laws of physics is what it is. It remains the same no matter how we think of it. In applying this to football, Barca's football is what it is. It is the constant. The audience is the variable. This is why it is hard to definitively judge the complexity of Barca's style of play. To some it is an intricate web of movements and chain reactions - a systems version of football that is reliant upon every sub-system to function in order to make the whole system work and flourish. To others, tactics and details are overstated and that specific choreography has nothing to do with their style - it is the talent of the players and the way they simply pass the ball to the nearest team mate until someone can take advantage of an opposition defensive error.

I wrote an article stating that your opinion of what makes an entertaining game depends on three things: your knowledge of the game, the reason you are watching, and your expectation of the game. I believe that these three things also shape your view of the simplicity of Barca's football. In a way, your personal philosophy shapes the way you view football. You don't need to be a coach to have a philosophy, your philosophy is simply an aggregate of your past experiences and your personality. This goes some way towards explaining why some people would describe Barca's football as complex, and other people, simple.

When Cruyff speaks about football he often speaks about the entertainment value of the game, that there is more to it than winning. He believes in a certain style of play which has the power to put a smile on the people's faces as he described it. As such, he was a believer in his own philosophy, of a beautiful way of playing:

               "It's better to go down with your own vision than with someone else's."                
                                                                                                         Johan Cruyff

He would rather lose playing good football than winning playing ugly football. He said of the 1974 world cup final against West Germany that losing that final made the Netherlands more famous than it otherwise would have. To say that it was better to lose than to win because it left a better legacy speaks volumes about the mindset of Cruyff - quite romantic and idealist. It is therefore quite mysterious why Cruyff often speaks quite pragmatically. In a video on Dutch television Cruyff said that he never likes playing with two men in midfield because they could get exposed too easily. Instead, he always plays with three in midfield, explaining that "I am much more defensive than people think." Following on from this admission of pragmatism, he quoted this famous line:


                                "If you can't win, make sure you don't lose."
                                                                                                       Johan Cruyff


This evidence contradicts the common stereotype that Cruyff is the ultimate priest of tiki-taka and total football hell bent on entertaining the masses. He clearly does not like losing but he won't settle for playing a rugged and prehistoric style of football. This paradox in mentality is reflected on the pitch.

The concept that simplicity is the best form of playing football is all well and fine - it makes sense, certainly on a theoretical level. Put in practice however, it's a different story. Stoke City play with simplicity in theory because they do not overelaborate their build up play from the back. Compared to most Champions League teams, they play the most direct football because of their comparatively aerial style. Overall, it can be said that Stoke City play with simplicity. On the other hand, Barcelona have an opposite style of play compared to Stoke - a more indirect and slower buildup from back to front. It involves a greater amount of passes and more patience. What does this mean - is it an indication that Barca do not play simply enough? 

The spirit of Catalonia resembles the football of its team
Image from guardian.co.uk 

Take the example from the most recent Clasico game in the league at the Bernabeu. At one stage of the match, Messi and Iniesta exchanged several passes between them in the absence of any defensive pressure from the Madrid midfield players. It got them nowhere and it achieved nothing - no progression and no objective accomplished. It was a display in excess and indulgence - we can pass the ball all day, you see! It was like a scene straight from The Simpsons. It was akin of the analogy of the Arab sheikh living within his enormous mansion; living in it for show and prestige, but not for practicality. Has Barca become the Arab sheikh in a way? It seems as though tiki-taka has outgrown its initial purpose - to control the game with minimal effort and exertion. It's as if the club has become so entrenched in this way of playing to the point that passing has outgrown its existence as merely a mechanism to win football matches. It has instead become the objective itself, to keep the ball. In this case, possession is no longer merely a means to an end - but the end in itself. In this context, tiki-taka possession football is no longer useful for Cruyff.

"Every solution to every problem is simple. It's the distance between the two where the mystery lies."
                                                                                                 Derek Landy.


The system is one thing but the players who play within it can corrupt the theory behind it. The 4-3-3 system is one that was designed to give maximum options to any player in possession of the ball. In this way it is saying to the players When you have the ball, pass it to the nearest team mate and then move. Keep it simple - pass and move, pass and move. In theory, the 4-3-3 optimises spacing of players in order to help the players follow the short passing philosophy. In practice, the players became masters of this style after many years learning it in the academy. Over time, merely passing the ball in order to create chances to score goals became pointless in a way. It became too easy. If we can keep the ball, why must we give it away so easily. The concept of passing started as an idea to score goals but it has since morphed into a total theory of football - of attack, defence and control. The cause of this metamorphosis is the talent of the current generation of players. No other team are as adept at rondos than Barcelona. No other team has the best player in the world of the last four years. How can a philosophy of simplicity be justified when simplicity is the enemy of extraordinary minds? Messi's skills are too elaborate for such a dimwitted system of play and Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets are too smart. It is in fact the very simplicity of the system that has allowed the foundation for layers of complexity to be added. 

What started as simply another way of playing the game has grown and grown. Today it has become the philosophy of a whole club and is becoming it in many others. Who would have thought that the arrival of Cruyff to Barcelona as a player would mark the beginning of something special. The supporters saw a glimpse of a whole team in one player. Years later, that one man gave his insight to a whole team. The reason why Cruyff has been such an influential and celebrated figure in the game was that he was different. He gave the world something new and unique. No matter your opinion of the actual style of play, it is undeniable that it has left a legacy to football.

                                     "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
                                                                                                     Leonardo da Vinci

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

My Top 5 International Matches in the Past Twelve Months

1. Argentina vs Brazil (4-3) Friendly 9 June 2012

The most entertaining and pure game of football I have watched in the past twelve months without a doubt.  Brazil played with typical flair and samba, while Messi scored an absolutely ridiculous hat-trick. Not being a competitive match allowed both sets of players to play with freedom - resulting in spectacular football in front of a huge crowd at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.


2. Spain vs Italy (4-0) European Championship Final 1 July 2012

This game confirmed the status of Spain being the best national team ever. Having been met with a stubborn Italian side in the group stage, Spain simply demolished Italy in the final and blew away critics of their "boring" style of play by playing mesmerising football. Pirlo, Italy's best player, was left helpless as the world watched Spain's pass masters put on a show in spectacular fashion.


3. Germany vs Sweden (4-4) World Cup Qualifier 16 October 2012

A game that will be remembered by the result more so than the actual football. Germany went 3-0 up at half-time and also scored a fourth shortly after the break after cutting open a poor Swedish defence. When the winner of the match seemed settled, up stepped Zlatan Ibrahimovic to inspire Sweden to a miraculous comeback, culminating in a 93rd minute equaliser leaving Angela Merkel stunned as well as the whole stadium.


4. Argentina vs Uruguay (3-0) World Cup Qualifier 12 October 2012

Argentina in 2012 have been fabulous to watch as Alejandro Sabella figured out how best to use Messi in the national team. Perhaps their best game was a WC qualifier against enemies Uruguay who featured the attcking trio of Suarez, Cavani and Forlan. Simply put, Argentina completely dominated this game, putting on a masterclass of fluid attacking play while easily defending against Uruguay's star forwards. Messi was brilliant in this game, providing viewers with a satisfied feeling when the match was over.


5. Zambia vs Cote d'Ivoire (0-0) Africa Cup of Nations Final 12 February 2012

The worst game on this list in terms of quality, but the best story without doubt. Zambia were heavy underdogs against the golden generation of Africa's best national team and no-one expected them to beat the Elephants. After a tense scoreless draw after 120 minutes, the match was to be decided on penalties. After a marathon shootout, Gervinho's miss allowed Stophira Sunzu to score the winning goal which sparked memorable scenes of celebration including Zambia coach Herve Renard carrying the injured Joseph Musonda to celebrate with his team mates.