Caution: media assumptions that only tactics win games

Caution: media assumptions that only tactics win games

The discussion of tactics in football, which began in the Western media, has spread globally in recent decades. It is an interesting phenomenon that has provided insight into the minds of football managers and enlightened football fans but the enthronement of tactics creates certain inaccuracies about the game and how wins emerge.

There is little doubt that tactical decisions impact football results. However, it is not the only factor in the determination of how a game is won and lost even though post-match analyses tend to that conclusion.

The difficulty of affirming such analyses emerges when a perceived great manager, with a great team, loses to a less-endowed manager of a team with less talented players.

So what happened in such a scenario? Did the less-endowed manager suddenly hit the lottery in his brain to win the game? Did the great manager decide to take the night off or did he ask his boys to lose the game?

In such situations, post-match analyses still attempt to fit the result into some sort of tactical explanation. What is lost is a moment to provide a deeper insight to the game, a realization that there are possibly other explanations beyond tactics. Yet, analysts take the easy route – a tactical explanation that is shrouded in mystery.

To understand the game requires understanding human agency and activity.

Fundamentally, human energy and activity is hardly consistent because it is affected by several contexts which human beings encounter. Although the individual has a range of talent that he or she may exhibit, the ability to exhibit those are affected by contexts.

For instance, a player who suddenly becomes aware of the death of a loved one is unlikely to perform at a level that he or she did in the past. Think about a recent report in the Daily Express of London alleging that Barcelona’s star Lionel Messi blamed Samuel Umtiti for lacking focus in a crucial European Champions League game because the latter was considering leaving Barcelona for Manchester United. Such concentration lapses, indeed, can be responsible for losses.

An injured individual may also be significantly impaired and so also a player who is booed and/or verbally assaulted at every turn. While individuals may react differently to each of those contexts, the idea is that those contexts (classified as psychological and physical) are important factors in performance and productivity on the field.

In a game played by at least 11 different individuals on a team increases the variable effect on the team’s output multiplied by that number of individuals and the degree of intensity of the contexts each individual encounters. Even the coach, whose commands from the sideline, is variably affected by differing conditions of his/her mind, is affected by variations of his behaviour.

Yet, post-match analyses ignore these possible variant effects on the result of a game!

To add yet another layer of doubt, is it not possible that the manager and team may have the appropriate tactics (at least in theory) but yet lose a game? Here is a plausible scenario:

A home team designs tactics to repeatedly get behind the opponent’s defense and it works as planned but the forwards mysteriously miss series of goal scoring opportunities. Yet, the opponent gets one opportunity and earns a free kick around the corner flag.

The free kick is floated across the goal and some how the wind diverts it into goal to the surprised goalkeeper. The game is won. Was it tactics that determined the result? I leave that to your imagination. But I promise you that post match analysis will report that the opponent was tactical better.

The above scenarios are just few areas where the current state of post-match analysis can be critiqued. Post-match analysis, which focuses on tactics, is a welcome departure in the last few decades after years when post-match reports were focused on simple description of games.

However, the emergence of big data and analytics provide a great opportunity for a more holistic and insightful analysis beyond the now mundane focus on tactics as the only match result determinant. The challenge, however, is to move to the next level.

It is a level that introduces more complexity and creates more realistic analysis. Here, one supposes that such a level includes acquisition of more information on probable psychological status of players, among others. It is a stage where the big data, currently generated, may help to deeply examine a team that wins the tactical battle in significantly more statistically areas but loses the game.

Such deep examination may show that the loss was not based on tactical decision but better explained by looking elsewhere.