Theory of Soccer Pt. 1: The Prevailing Orthodox Theories of Soccer
John Maynard Keynes begins his magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by explaining why he has titled the book the “General” theory. His intuition was that the prevailing “orthodox” or classical views of the economy (meant to be understood to be natural laws or general rules) were in fact not general rules at all, but actually very specific rules that applied to very specific scenarios — scenarios which were emblematic of the recent past, the times in which these theories were crystalized and christened so to speak. To contrast with these orthodox or classical theories of economics relating to very specific conditions, his general theory was meant to apply instead to all scenarios, and his intuition was that the then current moment (1935) was in the process of revealing that the old specific patterns upon which the classical or orthodox theory was based, were no longer holding.
I’ve been working on a sort of.. “general theory” about soccer.
So far here at Absolute Unit we’ve mostly not theorized about soccer itself and instead assumed away these theories as having already been decided by the sporting directors and other decision makers at clubs. We’d instead focused on how to build up a coherent recruitment process where all decisions are denominated in that one key unit all soccer people care about (goal difference), and where all of the various philosophies and game models and insights being generated out of the technical staff are captured and distilled down into a solid decision making process anchored around this absolute unit.
But this “general theory” of soccer to which I want to turn my focus now isn’t really about the front office side of things, nor is it a theory about soccer tactics or soccer analytics either. This is something at the metaphysical level to stitch all that together: how players’ raw abilities and the design and execution of tactical ideas (and the fickle bounce of the ball) all combine together (with other factors) to determine the results of matches, and to make the sport what it is and what it isn’t.
Anyway, back to Keynes. In Chapter 2, to foil his General Theory against the prevailing themes, Keynes starts out by summarizing and clarifying what he saw as the two “fundamental postulates” of the classic theory of economics which had captured the imagination of world leaders and academics at the time and which he was about to challenge and refute in the chapters to follow. We are NOT going to talk about those. We’re going to talk about soccer instead. Before we get into exploring and articulating a “General Theory of Soccer,” one which I hope will in equal parts resonate comfortably and challenge/frustrate, we’ll focus this first chapter today on attempting to articulate some of the prevailing “fundamental postulates” of soccer swirling around today in the mainstream, often in conflict with one another. I wished it were cleaner to distill mainstream soccer beliefs down into like one rule that I could then subvert while cackling maniacally, but it just isn’t. It’s a beautiful mess, and it allows us to tease out some of the key existing arguments to target for resolution.
But first, here’s a sort of brief table of contents outlining this mini-series of “Theory of Soccer” chapters I’ll publish shortly. The intention is after we cover the prevailing theories in today’s post, and after summarizing the new theory in the next post, we’ll build it up over the course of several chapters, gradually accumulating the theoretical elements I’ve foraged from various sources of modern (online) “soccer thought” to form a “general” Theory of Soccer, and then put these back together in the end and hint at a couple real life takeaways and connect it back into the overall Absolute Unit recruitment cycle. I have to admit I’m enjoying it, so it’s possible you might also.
Journey toward a Theory of Soccer
Chapter 1: [You are here!] Trying to put a finger on the prevailing orthodox theories of soccer
Chapter 2: The abstract: a summary or preview of where I’ve landed, a reframed “General Theory of Soccer”
Chapter 3: The journey begins: why the analytics movement and xG captured the imagination of soccer analysts, where it contributed to soccer theory, and where it fell discouragingly short.
Chapter 4: Why early mainstream Soccer Tactics writing (and later the more detailed theory-laden stuff) also captured the imagination of soccer analysts, but why ultimately it too fell discouragingly short in terms of building a theory of soccer
Chapter 5: The method, themes and aesthetics of chess(!?) tactical analysis as a foil to those often found in soccer tactics analysis and what angles soccer tactics analysis might consider borrowing
Chapter 6: A symptomatic reading of soccer analytics’ primary focus on recruitment above all else (I’m culpable), in the context of the players vs coaching debate
Chapter 7: Exploring an analogy of “controlling good squares” in chess to help paint a picture of controlling “valuable space” in soccer, with an emphasis on the phases of chess (opening, mid-game, end-game) as a crucial parable to the phases of possessions in soccer (buildup / progression / turnover / transition / finishing etc), leading us to…
Chapter 8: A reconciliation of the [player skill vs coaching] and [analytics vs tactics] conflicts via this “General Theory,” where I try to pinpoint how manager effectiveness and player skill interact, and where each impacts a team’s performance on the field of play.
Chapter 9: A reflection on what these reframed theories of soccer tell us about how to to build a team and how we might rethink player and manager recruitment and rebuild our analysis and how we think about player values, roster construction etc.
Chapter 1: Prevailing Orthodox Theories of Soccer
When I’m talking about prevailing orthodox theories of soccer, I’m trying to get at something like “what are the underlying assumptions or impulses that appear to guide how most mainstream pundits, journalists, coaches, and players think about how the game works and/or how they think about what makes a team or a player succeed or fail?” And the thing is.. there’s not really a single prevailing orthodox theory of soccer in this way. It’s more a grab bag of ideas and clichés. When mixed together into a wintery cocktail, they conflict in many ways, but on the whole they probably offer some glimmer of truth. Here’s my attempt to draw these out:
First, we know that succeeding at soccer is about scoring goals and not conceding them and that when a goal is scored, it fundamentally alters the landscape of the rest of the game. People seem to recognize that teams often play differently when the scoreboard and time remaining reads differently. But, how does one go about scoring goals and not conceding them, or to start what does doing so this look like?
Having the ball and not having it
The answer to this question is not without its own conflicts. I think if you polled the audience on what a soccer match looks like between a great team and a bad team (hopefully this is a helpful mental model), you’d mostly hear variations on a common theme. Generally speaking, the better team is often thought of as wanting (and having) the ball (with exceptions), and the lesser team is thought of as wanting to “bunker” or “defend deep in a low block” (with exceptions). This vague picture that most people see in their mind’s eye - is less a definitive take on what good and bad teams are or set out to do, and more a recognition that teams that are not of even strength have the ability to and typically do play asymmetrically from one another, with the weaker team sometimes happy to “defend deep” as a way to marginally increase their chances of a positive result by trying to clog up the gaps or the “space” that the superior side needs in which to work and create danger. Jonathan Wilson called this “the right of the weak” — this additional privilege that the nature of the game grants the weaker side so that they don’t have to accept the inevitability of a mauling from playing “straight up” against a superior side. So, from a prevailing theory perspective, possession seems to be important (except when it isn’t). In tension with this consensus picture of what a dominant team looks like is one of the most common clichés you’ll hear around these types of matches: that possession stats don’t matter really or that “possession without purpose is meaningless.” These are coherent ideas. That said it’s hard to ignore the very stark possession disparities on the field and the direction in which they normally align in relation to team strength. That picture in your head isn’t nothing and it’s worth probing.
Perhaps as a direct consequence of this conventional wisdom, regardless of the actual tactical dynamics unfolding in a match, if a strong team is having trouble scoring against a theoretically weaker team, it is quite often automatically assumed that this is because the weaker team is in fact bunkering and muddying up the game (even if they’re not). But in my experience, teams who are just getting outplayed in midfield by a stronger team are forced to retreat as the ball enters their defensive third as any common sense defensive scheme would require. Often times they have to do this after their first line of confrontation has been beaten (i.e. they’re not defending in a low block but rather they’re pressing higher, just just getting beaten back) and this just gets picked up optically by observers as “bunkering.” However if a weaker team is actually bunkering by design (which is common), there does not appear to be a consensus view on what the expectation of the stronger team is in these moments, or what the stronger team should do in this scenario. Some pundits will say that when facing these compact lines of defense (where the space is taken away in the center), the stronger team needs to get more width and put in more crosses. Other pundits will say that aimless crossing is a waste of a possession, and that they should instead choose to play through the middle— just like that I guess, like it’s that easy. I’ve seen coaches of stronger teams at halftime tell on-field reporters “we just need to move the ball a bit faster to open up the defense.” So, I guess if you’re trying to imagine a consensus theory of soccer, one thing you might want to do is picture this very common scenario of what it looks like when a strong team plays a weak team, and think through why it look this way and consider these conflicting ideas of what that strong team is supposed to do with the ball to try to unlock the defense. But again, the basic framing here, which leads us into our next overall orthodox soccer theoretical tension, is that one team is “stronger” or “better” and so if the two teams play symmetrically the winner would be clear. Instead the weaker team subverts this by creating an asymmetric game, using tactics (executing on detailed instructions which support the manager’s high level idea of how to play) to thwart what is imagined to be some otherwise “natural result” of the team with the better players winning.
What impacts games more, players or managers/tactics?
Conversely, if a “strong” team easily disposes of a weaker team, most of the time you just hear about how their players were better, less about how the weaker team posed some tactical problems that might have levelled the playing field (only for these tactical challenges to have been successfully refuted by the stronger team, restoring the upper hand or something like this). Instead you hear about how their better players “took care of business” or some such. And this isn’t so surprising. If there’s anything at all approaching a consensus theory of soccer it’s that players are ultimately the difference makers, not the manager — that while the coach’s influence is important at the margins, and football sometimes comes down to marginal differences, on the whole it’s about the quality of the players and/or the mentality and ambition of the players, or somewhere in between. Pep Guardiola voices this pretty clearly here:
The manager just [chooses] the way we want to live on and off the pitch. The caddie for Tiger Woods can be important but Tiger Woods is more important. So the most important thing is the quality of the talent of the players. Without that, you can have good ideas, but you cannot compete or win titles against the best teams in the world. It’s impossible. Of course I am the manager, of course I am the boss, but at 3 o’clock, my influence on the game is nothing.
Unsurprisingly, he’s not alone. There are tons of examples of pundits and coaches and players saying this. To grab another example, Manuel Pellegrini speaking to the Coach’s Voice remembering a goal his Manchester City side scored in the derby match says, “For me the tactical side is very important but the decider is the technical part. A bad cross from Kolarov wouldn’t have allowed Aguero to score the goal. A good cross from Kolarov and poor technical execution from Aguero and maybe the volley would have gone off target.” I’ve also heard some say that “a good coach can make their team 10% better at most, but a bad coach can make them 90% worse.”
And these sorts of views (at least directionally) largely find agreement in the more analytical “soccer literature.” Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski were the first (to my knowledge) to support this theorem with some statistics in Soccernomics (2009) where they found that 92% of the variation in league position of Premier League teams could be explained by player wages, with the upshot that if better players generally demand higher wages then this suggested most of what matters in soccer is the players, not something else. In 2013’s The Numbers Game, Chris Anderson and David Sally use some updated data and apply a slightly different perspective but still found that something like roughly 60% of the variation in results is due to players, 20% the manager, and 20% chance. Recently following the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solkjaer at Manchester United, John Muller used similar techniques at The Athletic to go so far as to ask (somewhat tongue in cheek) “Do Machester United Even Need A Manager?”
This player-dominant framework is not the only way it is ever described though. Obviously many people think that tactics matter a great deal. Take Jurgen Klopp for instance, someone who frequently espouses the importance of players and of putting his players in the best positions to give 100% and express themselves fully:
We watched this very boring video, 500 times, of Sacchi doing defensive drills, using sticks and without the ball…. We used to think that if the other players are better, you have to lose. After that we learned anything is possible; you can beat better teams by using tactics. (Michael Cox’s Zonal Marking)
Klopp seems to allude to the historical progression of what tactics are imagined to be, that a once overly dominant “player-centric” philosophy (think “win your 1v1 battles”) has been challenged in modern times and problematized by the benefits of collective coordinated action. The well-travelled former USMNT coach Bob Bradley (recently signed to Toronto FC) spoke to John Muller this past year at Space Space Space and his reflection along these same lines is worth quoting at length:
The influences in the U.S. when I was a player were German. There was a big focus on the individual duel. You played man-to-man and teams were almost mirror images. The basis of the game was the individual duel. If your team could win more individual duels, you would have the advantage on the day. But if you played a team that was better than you were, then out of ten individual duels, they win eight, and your chances of winning the game probably aren’t so good….
When I was coming up, you did a lot of things in tight space. You would play these tight possessions, often two-touch. So you had to know, before you get the ball, what am I going to do? I just felt that in those kind of things, everybody wanted the ball. They all gravitated to the ball. But how are we going to make a Xavi if all of our tight games look like this? And that way of thinking also meant that defensively, your first focus was more towards a guy.
When you start to open up from those tight possessions, other things happen. If there’s a player near me and he’s moving back for the ball, do I just follow him, or do I see that there’s another guy who’s making a run from deep into the space I’m leaving? You might want to be able to say, he’s just pulling me out of this space—nope, I’m not going.
Bob alludes to a gradual evolution of tactical thought at the player level. Even still, perhaps a mainstream compromise for how people think about players and coaching is that above all the manager’s job is to pick the right team and put the right players in the right positions to allow them to play their best football, that sure maybe there are some tactical or motivational margins around the edges, but on the whole it’s the players that determine the outcome.
Generally speaking this players vs tactics dialectic is subsumed in the journalistic space by a frequent return to this framing of “putting the right players in the right places” by a frequent description of key players as fitting into hallmark tactical roles: inverted wingers, line leading #9s, deep-lying playmakers, shuttling midfielders, trequartistas, overlapping fullbacks, sweepers. When we tell stories about soccer, overwhelmingly, it is narrated (at its most poetic and descriptive) with this player-centric (role centric) way with our favorite players fitting into heroic archetypes.
Not to say that conceptions of coordinated tactical schemes are abandoned entirely in the mainstream analysis of matches and of teams, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s this sort of unspoken consensus out there that to a large extent soccer basically works by letting players operate autonomously in roles for which they “fit” and in areas that are sensible for those roles, and that a manager that just lets all their players operate in the positions they feel comfortable in is doing the job well enough. The scene in The Damned United comes to mind where Brian Clough is walking around the locker room giving individual, simple, brief (and sometimes unsavory) instructions to each of his Derby County players. Again, this intuition that the lion’s share is down to the players is backed up by evidence, but more pertinent to a reframed theory of soccer, it is rarely articulated fully how this basic interaction between players and tactics works specifically to drive differences in the results of games. Klopp again:
All in the right shape, and in the right position and we try to help 11 players to do the right things in the right moments.
To put it another way, most everyone agrees that players are what matters, not coaches… until they decide to focus on the opposite of that in certain circumstances. Returning briefly to our vague idea of a strong team dominating the ball, probing the weak spots of an organized but weaker side defending deep, what are we to think when the stronger team fails to break through? Who is to be blamed and who is to be credited? The players? The tactics? What should we make of this? What is it about “bunkering” or alternatively “high pressure systems” that seem to momentarily turn the consensus view from a theory of player quality to some other theory about tactics? How exactly does it work? And why? And how does this difference in “quality of players” manifest itself mechanically in how the game plays out in relation to the differences in team tactics, and how do each interact to drive differences in results? These are some of the unresolved tensions underlying the orthodox theories of soccer which I’m hoping to reconcile by exploring and articulating a new “Theory of Soccer” with these next several chapters.
On tactical theories
On the topic of tactics themselves, many imagine that prevailing theories of how soccer works are visibly on display in how teams set up to play and articulated in the nuggets of wisdom that have influenced tactical plans and game models over the years. There are many broad guiding tactical principles and soundbites articulated by the legendary managers over the years. Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels spoke of the importance of making the pitch as wide as possible when you have the ball and as narrow or compact as possible when you don’t have the ball (conflicts over the valuable resource of “space”). Similarly, in defence Arrigo Sacchi wanted to keep the field compact with a high offside line and no more than 25 meters between his defensive and attacking lines. He wanted to constrict the space. Is “space” an end in and of itself or a means to an end though?
Pep Guardiola talks a lot about wanting to have the ball all the time, expressing that if you have the ball you have a higher probability of scoring. Similarly, Xavi Hernandez, the spiritual successor to Guardiola at Barcelona says “I suffer without the ball.” The two hallmarks of Guardiola’s style, “Positional Play” and focusing on recovering possession immediately after losing, it are aligned toward this priority to having the ball. Guardiola is clear that the ball is a means to the end of scoring (and not conceding), but we also might interpret him as imagining “space” as a a means to the end of “keeping the ball.” I’m sure some would contest that, and perhaps we can argue about it some other day. Moreover, more directly in conflict with this framing is Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho speaks provocatively about not wanting the ball because (paraphrasing) if you have the ball you can make an error and you have fear, and that the team who makes the fewest errors and plays without fear wins. When he talks about having the ball, he insists that you should continue to think about what you’ll do when you ultimately lose it. If for Pep not having the ball inevitably evolves into having the ball (or dying), for Jose, having the ball is just a temporary state of being that ultimately devolves into not having it. In contrast to Guardiola, we might say Mourinho prioritizes not having the ball as a means to an end of constricting your opponent’s space while your own remains adequate I suppose.
Like Guardiola, Ralph Rangnick and Jurgen Klopp want their teams to actively pursue the ball too, but here the ball appears to be more directly a means to an end. Their tactics are focused on pressing immediately after a turnover with this focus of counter-pressing less about (to paraphrase) ‘having the ball because with the ball you can score and your opponent can’t’ (Guardiola and possession), but more because ‘getting the ball high up the pitch puts you in an immediate potential scoring situation’ (Klopp’s “gegenpress as the best playmaker” adage).
More different still, Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy has been in part to fully man-mark across the pitch and constantly run and pressure the ball and your opponents on defense, so as to create chaos for the opponent at all times: to make it so a turnover is always looming (if all possible passes are to marked teammates), and in doing so to make it so a goal scoring opportunity is similarly always looming in the other direction. He sort of turns the chaos up to 11 and says (negligently paraphrasing now) “my guys are trained to handle this better, try to keep the ball if you want but you are always at risk of giving us the ball for an immediate transition chance”.
These foundational differences in how the most famous managers view their teams’ objectives and how they identify and define the different problems they’re trying to solve makes for very interesting problems for us to solve. They help us to think through theories of soccer, but they are not individually theories of soccer. They are preferences, philosophical or aesthetic choices about as Guardiola says “the way we want to live on the pitch.” If we’re going to come up with a good “Theory of Soccer,” whatever it is should be able to express these “conflicting” tactical ideas within a common framework or mechanic, and of course this same framework needs to be able to reconcile not only these different tactical approaches but the “players vs tactics” debate already outlined above.
Saving mathematical theories for later
I’m leaving out something important here, which is the slow adoption in mainstream soccer discourse of certain soccer analytics insights like those stemming from the “expected goals” revolution. That’s mostly because I’m dedicating plenty of words to this in an upcoming chapter, and as I started to type parts of it out here, I just got frustrated. And it’s partly because the “xG” revolution’s direct contributions to mainstream theories of how soccer works are limited. The most obvious direct findings from this first wave of xG analyses were (on my read) either already in the mainstream (just articulated in a new and different way) or they’re the kind of insights that are very helpful for improving the betting lines at the bookmakers or for pouring cold water on hot takes (or for front offices to check themselves before making rash decisions) but less helpful in actually looking under the hood of soccer itself and trying to figure out why and how it actually works. As you’ll read later, as I see it some of the most critically beneficial contributions of the xG revolution to soccer theory or to a practice of soccer theorizing were byproducts it left in its wake: units of account, aesthetics, therapeutic elements, modes of analysis, and even some ontological insights about what makes soccer different than other sports.
Having laid out this grab-bag of conventional prevailing soccer nuggets of wisdom, together a sort of high level but not exhaustive (and admittedly conflicting) mainstream theory of soccer, where I wanted to go from here was to build my own “general” theory of soccer that tries its best to reconcile many of these conflicts under one framework or set of mechanics. I gave this a shot! In the very next post (this is already written), I’ll summarize the results of my journey: a stab at a “general” theory of soccer, comprising a “macro” theory (how might player skill and tactics interact to determine success at the team level) and a “micro” theory (what makes a player good at soccer?). Then in the weeks to come, in chapter format, we’ll explore the fun part. Piece by piece and brick by brick, we’ll tackle the various bodies of soccer thought to glean whatever inherent wisdom we can grab from each. This journey will focus not entirely (but mostly) on learning from and challenging the stuff I’ve been reading online in blog form (or in book form by writers I’d read online) for many years, and in my opinion at least, I think there are some surprising (and hopefully novel) angles to play around with. I hope you’ll stick around.
Next post: A new reframed “general” theory of soccer.
Pictures are from wombo.art, generated based on the prompt The Prevailing Mainstream Theories of Soccer