The Trouble with Tactical Analysis

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The Trouble with Tactical Analysis

When I first read that Pep Guardiola—Manchester City’s tactical wunderkind and football rock god to chalkboard fanatics the world round—believes formations like 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 etc are “meaningless,” “nothing but telephone numbers,” I was surprised at my sense of relief.

For years, I politely read “tactics pieces” and listened to TV pundits debate about how 3-5-2 “lines up” against 4-4-1-1, discussing in painstaking detail where the ‘overloads’ and ‘2 v1s’ and ‘3 v 2s’ would crop up to give one side an advantage over the other. All the while I suppressed the mental image of two managers standing astride a giant foosball table, furiously twisting and turning three bands of rigid, plastic players impaled along metal bars.

I long thought my skepticism of tactical analysis was the result of ignorance. Maybe I didn’t watch enough football, or I didn’t watch it the right way, or I didn’t watch enough live matches, or I didn’t read enough UEFA coaching manuals.

This wonderful world of Xs and Os and arrows seemed so convincing. Who was I to question it? Maybe what looked to me like faintly organized human chaos—the rapid moving in and out of space, the brief appearance and immediate dissipation of triangles, the surprise crossfield passes and mosh pit corner kicks—really could be understood simply by overlaying two patterns of unmoving dots like transparencies on an overhead projector and noting where the spaces appeared.

I don’t know exactly when the spell was broken, but it may have been shortly after the introduction of screencaps and gifs to the genre. Instead of colored dots on a white background with pitch lines, here we could see players in the flesh in the middle of an actual game, either in freeze frame or in ten second animations. Sometimes the authors added in helpful arrows and circles. These images/gifs were sandwiched between paragraphs describing some tactical pattern or another, a team or player’s “failure to close down,” or “failure to cover,” or a “gratuitous license to roam.”

Except it didn’t take long to discover that, unless the scope of the writer’s topic was limited to a single play in a single game, one could easily capture a gif or screenshot of the same club and the same group of players “revealing” precisely the opposite pattern to the one described. Maybe my own screencap or gif was the exception to the rule…but then how would one know unless one literally ‘added up’ these ever-changing instances and compared totals?

Ditto for these so-called “overloads.” What exactly is the boundary of a ‘2 v 1’ pattern? Does the missing other ‘1’ have to be more than five yards away? Does the overload still exist if the RCB manages to join the party a mere split second later, before the player in possession can decide his next move? Do these chalkboard concepts really capture a sport as fluid and ever-changing as football?

Despite the old Lineker joke about football being a simple game (“22 guys run around for 90 minutes and Germany wins”), he is fundamentally correct. In fact, for all the mythos that surrounds Guardiola, for all the need we have for him to think like a football scientist who views the pitch as a series of complex patterns under his direct control, the system he tends to employ at the clubs he manages, while rigorous, is also elegantly simple.

Pep carves up the pitch into a series of vertical and horizontal zones, and maintains a set of rules: “no more than three players in any horizontal zone; no more than two players in any vertical zone,” writes Andy Murray. The reason for this is to stretch the opposition defense to give space to his best players on the inside ‘channels’ of the pitch, so they have more time and room to make incisive, attacking passes, preferably to the deadly forward players. It also gives players the confidence to know they have the option to “switch” play to the opposite side of the field to try and catch the defense out. But when the ball does end up in the final third of the pitch, players are free to do what they want, so long as it involves scoring.

While mastering this system requires a significant level of self-awareness, it is, in itself, not particularly complicated. Yet out of these rules emerges the beautiful, passing patterns and intricate build up play known as tiki-taka (a term Guardiola despises). As roboticist and animal expert Nicolas Perony explains of understanding complex systems, “It’s all about finding the simple rules from which complexity emerges.”

In football, that complexity can also involve a lot of random variation, individual creativity, and tactical discipline. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to convincingly mark the boundary lines between all three, and often they all blend into a seamless, impermanent whole. This is why it takes some cojones to point to a formation or a tactic to explain away a match result.

This is not to dismiss all tactical analysis. There are many tactical writers who know the limits of their art in explaining the world. Others have begun to look to advances in match data to help bridge the gap between concept and reality.

It’s ironic that some football conservatives—those who believe the manager is all powerful and that tactics play a definitive role in outcomes—dismiss the relevance of data analytics because it cannot capture a sport as ‘complex’ as soccer. Yet analytics may be the tactician’s best ally. You need look no further than Paul Riley’s masterful use of tactical knowledge, simple data and common sense in understanding Distin’s influence at Everton to see why.

Part of the problem too is the fact that managers are reticent to discuss their art with the media, and all we have to go on is our canned definitions of formations and player roles to fill in the knowledge gaps. There is no obvious solution to this, except to point it out, to say, “We don’t know.” Too much punditry today relies on maintaining an air of absolute certainty at all times, but if already know everything about football including the why, what’s the point of watching?