Football tacticians upset by quick fix data risk being knocked down for six | soccer tactics


EEngland won the second Test against South Africa comfortably enough, but there was a frustrating spell before tea on the first day as Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje added 35 for the ninth wicket. After playing relatively full earlier in the day, England switched to a short-throw attack to little effect. Notably, it was a full ball from Ollie Robinson after tea that provided the breakthrough when Nortje was lbw.

So why had England changed its approach? Perhaps they had been swayed by the test against India at Lord’s when they successfully bounced the cue, or perhaps it was a reaction to the nature of this season’s Dukes cricket balls which lost their threat faster than usual, demanding something different from the bowler. But there was also, apparently, data that South Africa’s cue was sensitive to short-pitch bowling. The problem is that if every ball is short-pitch, hitters expect it and can settle for it; far more dangerous is the short-pitch surprise bullet.

As CricViz analyst Ben Jones said: “You can’t just watch the layoffs” – Jimmy Anderson’s inswinger is all the more dangerous as he follows a string 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 this was one of the areas where the use of data in sport needs to improve.

Or take the yorker, which no one doubts is the most effective ball in day cricket. The problem is that there is a tiny margin of error: too full and it’s a low full-toss, too short and it’s a half-volley, both very hittable. A batter anticipating a yorker can move forward or backward to change the length.

As Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde point out in Cricket 2.0is that, combined with the suspicion that Ben Stokes would try to get him to hit the longest limit on the side of the leg, it allowed Carlos Brathwaite to hit those four successive sixes to win the World Cup final T20 2016. The Chris Jordan to Jimmy Neesham who went for 23 at the 2021 tournament, likewise, was the result of the yorker’s prediction.

Similar issues have plagued data analysis in football almost from the start. Charles Hughes, the technical director of the FA whose 1990 book The winning formula upheld direct football as official doctrine, drew conclusions from evidence of 109 matches involving “winning teams” – Liverpool, England Under-16s and Under-21s, and World Cup or Championship matches of Europe involving Argentina, Brazil, England, the Netherlands, Italy and West Germany – between 1966 and 1986. He focused almost entirely on the 202 goals scored during of those games – just as cricket analysis tends to focus on dismissals – and 87% came from moves of five assists or less. Therefore, he concluded, teams should try to limit movement to five passes or less.

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

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

Neither he nor Charles Reep, the amateur statistician whose ideas Hughes developed, considered that direct bullets could be more effective if used sparingly. Just as a batter can prepare for a persistent short-pitch bowl or prepare for a series of yorkers, a defense can dive deep and prepare for an aerial bombardment.

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

Just as the danger of the occasional bouncer can be increased by the surprise factor, by a batter trying to advance having to adapt, the threat of a long ball can be greater if a defense has been taken out by a team in possession . (And because almost nothing in sport is absolute, there are times when a batter is so scared of the short pitch or a defense so shaken by a series of long balls, when the most effective tactic is pressure. suffocating from a sustained barrage.)

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

A manager of a Premier League team told me the story of his manager being convinced by his data service to operate a high line against a team with a particularly quick striker, despite the fact that a premier centre-back pick was to be replaced by a veteran who had just returned from injury and hadn’t been quick around the corner even in his pump.

They conceded three in 30 minutes and lost 3-0, but the analysts justified their advice by pointing out that their team had won the xG. But that was because, as the coach responded angrily, having scored with three first chances, the other team didn’t need to attack. They sat back, conserved their energy and weren’t too bothered if they conceded a few half chances: the game was over with an hour remaining. That’s not to say that xG isn’t a very useful tool – it is – just that it doesn’t always give the big picture.

Jones of CricViz is clear that data analysis is not enough; it only makes sense when used alongside 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 partly determined by its relationship to everything else. Context is vital; players are human. Sport is not an algorithm.

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