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Sports

Why Tactical Analysis in Soccer Is Dumb

The boom in tactical analysis of soccer has produced a world of worthless, myopic writing that ignores the realities of the game.
March 5, 2015, 3:33pm

The invasion of Normandy was the largest and most carefully planned military operation in history, and it was a total goddamn mess. The plan called for more than 13,000 paratroopers to drop into Normandy early in the morning on June 5, 1944, when the moon and tides would be just right. At 6 a.m., 156,000 troops—more than the present-day population of Alexandria, Virginia—would storm a beachhead 50 miles long, or roughly the distance from Santa Monica to Laguna Beach.

This didn't happen. The invasion was postponed 24 hours due to a massive storm. Now, history knows June 6, 1944 as D-Day. The post-storm winds scattered American and British paratroopers all over the Normandy region, sometimes several miles away from their objectives. Many of the paratroopers spent much of the day in mixed units simply figuring out where they were.

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Four of the five planned beach landing sites went much better. The one that didn't, Omaha Beach, went horribly awry. The harsh currents from the previous day's storm pushed the invasion off course, directly into a German fortification. The soldiers weren't prepared for bullets the second the ramps lowered.

Books about D-Day depict the landings so simply, with straight arrows pointing towards the French coast, belying the intricacies of the carefully planned day. But after four years of mapping every detail down to the tides and moonlight, thousands of Americans died that morning because they landed a mile away from where they intended. The Americans did gain a foothold at Omaha Beach, albeit at tremendous cost, because the soldiers on the beach improvised.

Image via Robert F. Johnson, WikiMedia Commons

Oddly enough, I think about this when I'm reading about soccer. Not because soccer is war (it's not) or as intricate and detailed as the Normandy invasion (it's not) or as important (again, not). I think about it when I read a subgenre of soccer writing that has exploded in the past decade called tactical analysis. Mainstream media outlets regularly publish tactical analysis, including the Guardian and ESPN, not to mention the countless blogs and websites covering the topic.

Tactical analysis imagines a soccer game a bit like a battlefield, with each side coming into the game with their plans, accounting for how each team adjusts according to the events that unfold. They have pictures, arrows, circles, more arrows, drawings, bonus circles, formation details, and, with any luck, cute dogs.

Jonathan Wilson, author of the field's seminal work, Inverting the Pyramid, described tactics as "a combination of formation and style" and that "the whole history of tactics describes the struggle to achieve the best possible balance of defensive solidity with attacking fluidity." It's not meant to be a description of how a game unfolded, or why one team played better than another, because that is often a result of factors that have nothing to do with tactics, like athleticism, individual moments of genius, luck, randomness, and so on. Tactics will try to take these into account, of course, but that's pretty hard to do.

At it's best, tactical analysis describes longer periods of time. This is what Wilson does in Inverting the Pyramid, picking games to help the reader understand the evolution of soccer strategy over its 150 year history. Mike Goodman, one of the best soccer analysts in the business and a writer for Grantland, told me "the key is finding the individual moments that accurately represent larger trends. They're surprisingly few and far between."

This is the good side of tactical analysis. The bad side, which we see more of nowadays, is a screenshot with circles, lines, and arrows futilely attempting to make a broader point about why a game unfolded the way it did. Too often, tactical analysis turns into those D-Day maps with giant arrows pointing towards the beaches.

Although it has little to do with technological advancement, tactical analysis is part of the modern quest to understand sports better than ever, abandoning cliches and motivational slogans for testable knowledge. The problem with tactical analysis is that it all too often falls closer to the cliches of previous eras than actual science, replacing "grit" and "hustle" with "4-2-3-1" and "4-4-2", shorthand formation descriptions which can mean vastly different things to different managers and teams. It assumes more knowledge than it has and dismisses important elements for which it cannot account.

For instance, we rarely know what the coaches actually tell their players to do, a vastly important consideration when dissecting what players actually do. It's like analyzing the beachheads on D-Day without knowing what the plan was to begin with. All of a sudden, Omaha Beach would seem like a massive tactical failure, not a stroke of bad luck.

This isn't to say having a good plan is useless. However, it's neither necessary nor sufficient for winning. This whole genre of analysis is a symptom of the fetishization of the brain behind the brawn, the genius behind the sidelines, which has also led to the glorification of general managers and back-room statisticians. Some sports fans derive more joy believing their team outsmarted their opponent, as if that is some higher form of victory than scoring a beautiful goal. Maybe it's something ingrained in human nature, since our intellect is what differentiates us from bigger, stronger, faster, and cuter species. Or maybe it's simply the common error of seeking understanding from the wrong places.

Occasionally, I'll come across a tactical piece analyzing a recent game. Each team with be arranged in their formation, arrows pointed to depict movement like the paths of those table top hockey games. The game will be explained as the result of players moving forward to create a numerical advantage and it all makes sense to a degree. But then I think about those big arrows on the D-Day maps. That probably made sense, too. That is, until the battle actually started.

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