There are three factors that determine victory in a soccer game. 95% of the time, a team needs to have at least two of these factors going for them to secure victory over its opponents.
Let’s get to the definitions.
Strategy is a function of organization. How well do the players know their positions? How well do they understand their roles in the team? How visible are the patterns of play to an untrained eye?
Strategy is not really about formations; it is about identity. Simeone’s team has an obvious defensive strategy. Setien’s Real Betis are a well drilled modern attacking side.
A good test of strategy is systematization of play and repetition of playing patterns. A team with a solid strategy will score the same type of goal, time and time again. Most of the time, they will commit the same kinds of fouls and defend similar threats in the exact same ways. Manchester City is a very good example of this. About 80% of their goals look like the following:
- Snuff out the attacking play of an opposing team with an aggressive press and play a defensive line splitting pass to put an attacker through on goal.
- Fullbacks/Wingers overlap/underlap on the flanks and play a cut back pass towards the center of the box for a forward or overlapping midfielder to finish.
Quality here refers to how good the players are. It encompasses:
technical quality – striking a ball cleanly, turning under pressure, dribbling out of danger and so on.
physical quality – speed, low center of gravity, height, acceleration, endurance and so on.
mental quality – forgetting mistakes, ignoring taunts from opposition fans and players, courage to go into a 50-50 tackle and so on.
At the extremes, quality will always beat strategy. A team of outstanding quality without any strategy will 9 times out of 10 beat a team of superior strategy but without good players.
Picture in your mind how a game between FC Barcelona (without a coach) and your local Sunday league team (coached by Pep Guardiola) will play out. Give Guardiola 3 years with the same Sunday League team and they still will not beat a completely disorganized and uncoached Barcelona team. Again, quality ALWAYS beats strategy at the extremes.
A quick caveat before we move on to the role of chance in the game of soccer. Like the title states – this is a mental exercise and only interesting enough as a thought experiment. The big assumption here is that you can separate strategy from quality. In real life, it is almost impossible.
Why? Because a coach buys and picks his players so he is in many ways responsible for the overall quality of the team. On the flip side, the players available to a coach at any moment inform and influence the strategy he/she will employ in a particular game. In this article, we separate strategy from quality. In real life, they are almost inseparable.
On to Lady Luck.
The role of chance is often minuscule in soccer games so we will only make passing comments about it.
Chance, in my mind, refers to anything outside the direct control of the players and the coach. Fans, referees, weather conditions, betting agencies, state of the pitch, politician who’s bought the referee etc . All these factors can be placed into the “Chance” bucket.
Again, chance plays almost no role except in the minority of soccer games.
Having defined our terms, we now move on to their implications
Chance plays a huge role in games where both teams are evenly matched in strategy and quality. Think about the majority of games in the semis and finals of the Champions League and World Cup. There is a reason these games are given to the biggest names in the referee profession. There is a reason why coaches make side comments about the referees in the build up to big games. There is a reason why you hardly hear the managers of clubs outside of the Champions League pushing for VAR.
In a game between Manchester City and Liverpool, the cost of a bad referee could be as huge as the Premier League title. In a game between Liverpool and Fulham, the cost of a bad referee will never be more than a single digit goal difference. In uneven games, the gains the underdog makes from favorable referee decisions will eventually be wiped out by the gains from the superior quality/strategy of the opposing team. Another example of this is home advantage, if two teams are almost equally matched in both strategy and quality, you should always bet on the home team to win. Think about why finals and championship games are played on neutral ground.
On a Coach’s Job
The ultimate job of a coach is to identify, groom, and play quality players. Formations, scouting the opposing team, back breaking training sessions etc are all secondary concerns. People give coaches way too much credit. Maybe it’s our fascination with the idea of the great man. It’s often easier to ascribe the success of a venture to one man rather than a team. Success suddenly feels less glamorous when we find out that a lot of hands helped in stirring the pot. We love the pensive, brooding face of the coach on the bench. He flinches, looks up, says something under his breath, then he writes in his notepad. What will he do next? What formation will he try at half time? Who will he bring on from the bench?
This is all very romantic but has little to do with reality. It’s not hard to see why on average, strategy is usually inferior to quality. Think about the number of steps needed to go from strategy to securing a victory. With the most iron tight strategy in the world, think Guardiola, Cruyff, Mourinho, Bielsa sitting in a room for 3 months devising impeccable attack/defense patterns, formations, weekly training sessions, the bottle neck to winning still remains execution. Regardless of how superior this strategy is in the most objective sense, they would still need quality players to execute it.
From the perspective of “quality”, there is no such bottle neck. A quality player does not need his coach there on the pitch for him/her to execute his quality. All things being equal, a pacy full back will show his speed to beat his opponent in a foot race on the pitch. A striker with a bullet header will show his quality on the pitch. There is no intermediary step. It is always 2 steps from strategy to winning. It is one from quality to winning.
This is a very important point so I will explain it from a different perspective. This is what I like to call the “visibility – explainability” factor. Trick question – who is easier to stop? The best coach in the world or the best player in the world? Coach is the answer (in case you were still thinking). The thing about strategy is that it is visible. Very visible. It is also explainable. Even the most esoteric of attacking formations can still be observed and reacted to. Any decent coach can see that the defensive midfielder goes to the far post on every corner. He can easily instruct his own player to go man mark that midfielder on the far post. It is all very visible. Even the average pundit that knows nothing can see a certain strategy and think of a few ways to stop it. But it is one thing to prepare a plan to counter and it is another thing to actually counter such strategy.
The conversion of idea to execution is ultimately the work of quality and quality has an unexplainable vagueness about it. It has this hidden thing about it. This is why asking Eden Hazard “how he does it” is dumb.
Quality is knowing that Arjen Robben will almost always cut inside with his left foot and take a shot at goal but being completely incapable of stopping him. Quality is why every goalkeeper knows where Lionel Messi’s free kick will go but remain helpless at saving them. Quality is why I will watch “How to play like Ronaldo” videos, follow his diet and workout plan but will never play like Ronaldo.
Strategy is explainable, quality is not.
Here is my rule:
“The easier it is to explain how you do what you do, the easier it is for you to be stopped or replaced”.Scrappio Africanus
Conversation for another day but this might be why the very best players often make horrible coaches (Thierry Henry 👀). They literally cannot explain what made them so good because of the implicit vagueness of talent.
Knowing these things, a coach should spend more time trying to recruit great players/ improve the ones he has and less time on obsessively scouting the opposition and reinventing the 4-4-2.
Side Note – Careful thinkers will mention that there is an implicit factor of quality in strategy, and they will be right. That is why this is just a mental exercise.
To be continued…