Soccer strategists dazzled by fast data risk being eliminated by six | football tactics

meEngland won the second test against South Africa fairly comfortably, but there was a frustrating spell before tea on day one as Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje added 35 for ninth wicket. Having played relatively full bowls earlier in the day, England switched to a short-pitch attack to little effect. In particular, it was a full-throw ball from Ollie Robinson after tea that gave the breakthrough when Nortje was lbw.

So why had England changed focus? Perhaps they were influenced by the Test against India at Lord’s when they successfully bounced off the queue, or perhaps it was a reaction to the nature of the Dukes’ cricket balls this season who have been losing threat more quickly than usual, demanding something different from the bowler But there was also, apparently, data that the South African tail was susceptible to short-pitch bowling. The problem is that if every ball is a short pitch, hitters expect it and can set it up; much more dangerous is the short throw surprise ball.

As CricViz analyst Ben Jones put it: “You can’t just look at the layoffs”: Jimmy Anderson’s inswinger is even more dangerous for following a series of outswingers. CricViz’s expected wickets model shows that good balls tend to take wickets regardless, but Jones acknowledges that context matters and sees that as one of the areas where the use of data in the sport needs to improve.

Or take the yorker, which no one doubts is the most effective ball in one-day cricket. The problem is that there is a small margin for error: too full and it’s a low full shot, too short and it’s a half volley, both very easy to hit. A batsman anticipating a yorker may step forward or backward to change the length.

As Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde point out in cricket 2.0it was that, coupled with the suspicion that Ben Stokes would try to get him to hit at the far limit of the leg side, that allowed Carlos Brathwaite to hit those four straight sixes to win the 2016 T20 World Cup Final. The Chris Jordan on Jimmy Neesham going for 23 in the 2021 tournament, likewise, was the result of the New Yorker’s prediction.

Similar problems have dogged data analysis in soccer almost from the beginning. Charles Hughes, the FA technical director whose 1990 book The winning formula confirmed direct football as official doctrine, drew its conclusions from the evidence of 109 matches involving “successful teams”: Liverpool, England Under-16s and Under-21s, and World Cup or European Championship matches in which Argentina, Brazil, England, the Netherlands, Italy and West Germany participated, between 1966 and 1986. It focused almost entirely on the 202 goals scored in those games, much as cricket analysis tends to focus on dismissals, and the 87 % came from movements of five passes or less. Therefore, he concluded, teams should try to limit moves to five or fewer passes.

Even setting aside the surprisingly low sample size and the selective nature of the data, there is an absence of nuance. Could it be that what works for England Under-16s in a friendly in the mud and cold of a British winter is not necessarily appropriate for Brazil in the heat and height of a World Cup in Mexico?

Hughes even noted that Brazil were the team most likely to score after a long series of passes, with 32% of their goals coming from moves of six or more passes, followed by West Germany at 25%. Given that they had won six of the 13 World Cups played, the obvious conclusion seems to be that possession football is good for you, but Hughes didn’t go after it.

Neither he nor Charles Reep, the amateur statistician whose ideas Hughes developed, considered that straight balls can be more effective if used sparingly. Just as a batsman can set up for a persistent game of short-pitch bowling, or set up for a series of yorkers, a defense can drop deep and set up for an aerial blitz.

Brentford manager Thomas Frank with his tactics board during their game against Manchester United earlier this season.
Brentford manager Thomas Frank with his tactics board during their game against Manchester United earlier this season. Photograph: Mark Greenwood/IPS/Rex/Shutterstock

Just as the danger of an occasional dribbler can be increased by the element of surprise, when a batsman trying to get ahead has to adjust, the threat of a long ball can be greater if a team in possession has provoked a defense. (And because almost nothing in the sport is absolute, there are times when a hitter is so frightened by short bowling or a defense so shaken by a series of long balls, when the most effective tactic is the stifling pressure of a volley.) sustained. .)

Hughes and Reep were, to use the most polite term possible, pioneers and have as much to do with modern data analysis as Pliny the Elder has with modern medicine. But the problem of context is one that statistics continue to struggle with.

A manager of a Premier League team told me a story where his manager was convinced by his data department to run a high line against a team with a remarkably quick striker, even though a first-choice centre-back had to be replaced by a veteran who had just returned from injury and hadn’t been quick on the turn, even in his pomp.

He conceded three in 30 minutes and lost 3-0, but the analysts justified their advice by pointing out that his team had won xG. But that was because, as the coach responded angrily, having scored with three early chances, the other team had no need to attack. They sat down, conserved energy, and didn’t mind too much if they gave up a couple of half chances: the game was over with an hour to go. That’s not to say that xG isn’t a very useful tool, it is, just that it doesn’t always give the full picture.

CricViz’s Jones is clear that data analysis is not enough; It only makes sense when used in conjunction with video analytics by those who understand the limits of what statistics can tell you. There are few absolute rights and few absolute wrongs, and the meaning of everything is determined in part by its relationship to everything else. Context is vital; players are human. Sport is not an algorithm.

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