Analyzing the analysis, aka “When smart can be dumb”

For all of its data and analysis, football is kinda dumb in how it evaluates itself.

On Wednesday, for 77 minutes of an enthralling match of football, Bayern Munich had it right. Then things fell apart. The match is, therefore, judged by those 13 minutes rather than the previous 77, something akin to a man declaring his life a failure because he did everything right, then was struck by lightning.

“Bayern should have been down by at least 3 goals,” scream people, but not really. If every excellent chance was converted, Suarez and Neymar would have scored, as would have Lewandowski. The match would have been 2-1 and Guardiola would have been a genius instead of an exceptional coach whose whole everything is being called into question because of 13 minutes. And no, not the Alves “chance.” Neuer isn’t some Segunda keeper. That one didn’t have a chance of being converted.

Recall the ending of the Super Bowl in American football, and the Seattle Seahawks going for a pass at the goal line, needing less than a yard to seal the game. A defensive player jumped the route to make the interception and in less than a second, that team’s coach went from genius to idiot. “You have the best running back in the game, you dummy!”

But the reason that – and not only in both footballs – analysis fails is because of humans. Players make plays. Pete Carroll called a play that works 99 times out of 100. Hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch, and what if he fumbles? What if a defender puts his helmet right on the ball and forces it loose? A probability isn’t a certainty. So rolling into the 78th minute of a tight encounter in which it had found its sea legs as a team, Bayern had every expectation that the last 13 minutes would proceed as the previous 77 did. There was no indication of anything otherwise. Messi was being wonderful, but he had been wonderful the whole match so far and the score was still 0-0.

Humans destroy analysis because players make plays. That Patriots defensive back isn’t some all-Universe player. He just had a moment. What makes a successful play a “careless turnover” is quite often a human, performing at a suddenly higher (or lower) level. We see it in tennis, where one player raises his or her game to demand a response from an opponent. We see great goals, great saves, moments in which a player’s performance curve suddenly ascends to the stratosphere. Nobody knows why, but it’s that lack of knowledge that renders so much analysis pointless.

In the hindsight of 20/20, Guardiola was a fool, a doomed fool for trying a back 3 for the first 15 minutes of the match. But it worked. We know that it worked because of the result, right? Bayern didn’t concede. Less intelligent folks like me said that Bayern can play a back 3 because the keeper, Neuer, functions as a CB, complete with playing a high line. But he’s a CB who can use his hands. Does this mean that Bayern in function had 4 at the back, and those stupefying saves made by Neuer were in fact normal byproducts of a system working as it was meant? If you rely on a forward to score goals, why wouldn’t you rely on a keeper to do what he does, and make that part of your game plan? Good question.

The answer is of course “No” because of the result, and the fact that Guardiola switched to a more conventional 4-man back line. That is proof! People will debate forever whether it was a planned tactic or a concession to marauding Sprites, but it happened. Is it an example of data and analysis that react to a result rather than the reality of what happened? But what IS reality except a result? How to analyze what happened? Did Messi win the match, as the prevailing worldview goes, or did he take advantage of conditions to make a difference? The match had to be there to be won, which makes it more of a team effort than you might deduce from breathless commentary in the wake of the event.

Lionel Messi ran less than everybody on the pitch except for the two keepers, statistics show. Coaches, studio analysts and pundits point to how much a player ran as a measure of his goodness. More equals better, a higher work rate that puts someone in the pantheon of the gods. And yet, how to analyze the Messi distance covered stat in the face of a player whose actions helped to decide the match and possibly the tie, converting things from balanced on a knife edge to done and dusted.

We always discuss running Messi vs Taxicab Messi, as he decides to rest his legs during matches, to take breaks. But in the Bayern match Messi was tracking attackers, tackling and making defensive plays. Could he have been running less because of the pressing and high lines that both teams employed? You don’t have to track an attacker very far if your back line is playing at midfield, nor do you have very far to travel if you are part of a midfield press that makes every possession a gauntlet of kicking boots.

The statistic of distance covered stands by itself, even if it needs context to make sense. Where football gets dumb is when it applies data in an effort to quantify the unquantifiable.

The late, unlamented Castrol Index began life as The Answer, an objective way to punch in a bunch of data and determine which player was playing the best at any given time. It didn’t work, because players make plays. It couldn’t work, because a match could be 0-0 for 77 minutes, then suddenly a few players could decide to raise their game to a level that makes their actions decisive.

So much analysis is partisan nattering, or a conclusion in search of supporting data. Football making objective efforts to quantify it is like pumping laughing gas into a mathematicians conference. At the end of it all, a bunch of really smart people are laying on the floor, laughing and saying “Wheeee!” You can’t account for Messi doing what he did.

In his Friday presser, Luis Enrique said that the Anoeta loss was just part of the stuff that happens in a season. He might have added that Barça dropping points at Anoeta in the first match after an international break is as likely as a sunrise, but that should have gone without saying. But it was another moment in which analysis failed and is still failing as the Paul Bunyanesque qualities of that match continue to grow. It is the crisis that birthed a football team, the negative result that sparked a call for elections, etc, etc. It doesn’t matter what kind of logic anyone attempts to bring to the proceedings. It comes down to the result, which defines everything. Enrique was a dummy for not starting Messi, etc. To make him that way, you have to ignore their ineffectiveness in the second half against a defense that should have been more tired, and more vulnerable. You have to ignore that the defense made an error that resulted in the La Real goal. It is crucial that you ignore so much to make the analysis match the expectation and outcome.

Another example is the Sevilla draw that could have been a win. The result changed the reality, which was that Barça had that match in control. Two moments, just two, changed everything including subsequent analysis. If the match was in less control, Pique probably doesn’t even try that pass. A lesser team probably makes a bad decision that bails out Pique. Maybe a fresher Busquets gets to Reyes just in time. Maybe a lot of stuff. But what happened was players made plays and those plays changed the outcome, and thus the narrative.

The reason that I so enjoy reading Sid Lowe match reports and blog posts is because they are always, unfailingly, human. Even his match reports brim with humanity. He stays clear of tactics, analysis and the kind of stuff that is complex and fraught, easily skewed by the tyranny of results.

Predictably in the wake of the Bayern match, the debate that is always present in football these days, like a bass continuo of subjectivity, resumed: Messi vs Ronaldo, and who is better. The Messi camp is on one side, the Ronaldo camp is on the other. Each side has “proof” that their player is the “better” one, and lord knows why those idiots on the other side can’t see logic.

You might as well debate a sunrise vs a moonrise. If you were to put it down to a single word, Messi is magical while Ronaldo is effective. There is the Messi goal that reduced Jerome Boateng to an Internet meme, vs the Ronaldo header across the goal vs Sevilla. Both goals were physical feats. Messi was delicate and incisive. Ronaldo was physical and dominant. Yet you would swap the modifiers and still be correct. Which players is better? Depends on who you support, and it is impossible to resolve. Go outside and bang your head against a brick wall. It will be more effective.

Each side has analysis and statistics that say why their player is better. It’s goals, you see. No, it’s dribbles and passes. No, he helps his team win. No, HE helps his team win and makes his teammates better. More physical vs smarter, blablablabla, ad infinitum. And it gets worse when grownups in the form of some media outlets try to get involved. Because it is then that partisan bickering becomes … analysis. Incomplete and flawed to be certain, but analysis nonetheless.

Football has to raise its game when thinking of, and analyzing itself. The easy answer screams at us. Boateng had been having a really good match until Messi made him look foolish. The players made to look foolish by Messi would comprise a Who’s Who of world-class defenders. But what of Boateng’s match? More interestingly, who was MOTM for Barça, Messi or Alves?

Messi. Duh. He accounted for the goals. But it’s another way in which football fails, in accounting for things that did NOT happen. Neuer made the Ballon d’Or finalists list, but nobody in their right mind suggested that the keeper had a chance in hell, because it’s the goals that go IN, rather than the goals that don’t. You can’t really tally what a keeper does in the same way that you can tally what an attacker does. “Look. X number of goals.” History and analysis doesn’t care about tap-ins vs solo runs or brilliant golazos. And yet a keeper is mostly as good as his defense. Put Thibaut Courtois or Neuer at Granada and is anyone talking about them as the best keepers in the world?

When someone suggests that Dani Alves might warrant a consideration for MOTM, you might as well suggest that they put a roman candle up their butt and light it. But he was everywhere. Passes, interceptions, steals, play after play. He made the interception that led to the first goal, He almost scored himself. Time after time he was magnificent, and could subjectively said to have had a greater effect on the match than Messi. But it isn’t until you watch this video that you realize how phenomenal his match was.

Football fails in that it can’t quantify negative effect. Everything that Bayern tried around Alves, didn’t work. He outdueled Muller for headers, dispossessed Bernat and undressed Thiago. His key play on the goal took into account an opponent tendency. 99 out of 100 times, the player walks that ball out of the back and passes to a teammate to start an attack. That time Alves planned, and pounced. It was an astonishing play made all the more amazing by the fact that he didn’t foul. He just faced his man up and took the ball.

Analysis can be wonderful. Michael Cox, aka Zonal Marking, does a brilliant job of making the game make sense. When ex-players turn their eye to the game and just look at it, bereft of any preconceived notions or results-based tyranny, wonderful things happen. An ESPN studio analyst, Stuart Holden, said that Barça had a 75% chance of winning that first leg. His fellow analysts argued, but couldn’t really pin down why they weren’t as confident. Guardiola? That’s part of it. A statement made during the match broadcast as simple as “Barça is less perfect, but better” makes so much sense. Where things get messy is when analysis tries to be truly objective, or where analysis has its roots in the result rather than what actually happened. And like a great player, you hope that football can collectively raise its game in that regard.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

86 Comments

  1. Cyclops
    May 9, 2015

    Diego Alves; No weapon formed against yo shall prosper, all your loftiest dreams shall be granted, every missus your heart desire shall automatically be yours, you shall own dozens of lamborgini( or do yo prefer passati ? ferrari ?) whichever one, its all yours, the lord grant yo a long long life…
    and oh, here’s some granola bars for yo paddy …….

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