‘Hello, my name is Tactics, do not be afraid’

The Rio Report

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You’re alone in a small town. You’ve missed the last bus home, and that means you’ve got to walk back to your rented cottage where you’re staying on holiday. For the past few nights, you’ve heard a couple of creaks around the house, at night, but you put it down to old floorboards, the wind, or your imagination. You walk home, slightly worse for wear after a few drinks, and you notice just how oddly quiet it is. A city-dweller, the calm unsettles you, and you start to work yourself up about the house. You imagine all kinds of things those noises could be. Burglers, ghosts, maybe even a deranged killer.

You get to the cottage and quickly unlock the door and shut it. Slightly embarrassingly, you go up the flight of stairs a bit quicker than you should, feeling an unnatural presence behind you. You think you're just imagining it, but then you turn on the light in the bedroom, and in the reflection of the mirror in front of you, you see a tall, long-haired figure standing behind you.

He says, menacingly, ‘My name is Tactics.’

You freeze. Terrified.

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He continues, ‘Don’t worry.’ He starts grinning, and it looks ungodly. Until, that is, you realise. His smile might have looked terrifying, but it is a genuine attempt to make a friend. He’s just lonely.

And suddenly - it all makes sense. You don’t need to fear Tactics, you just need to understand them. Let’s get learning.

GOALS ARE OVERRATED

The World Cup has just got better with each stage. Obviously the group stages were a washout, but the knockouts have been tactically fascinating. There were, in the early stages, thrills of late goals, high scorelines and upsets galore. There was even a biting. It was a terrible, arduous mess to get through, a real disappointment. Thankfully, the next stage, and the quarter finals, were a delight. There were hardly any upsets, as the best-funded sides eventually found their way through, and the number of goals scored in an average match dramatically reduced.

Goals, as has been established for many years now, are overrated, and the perfect match is a 0-0 stalemate. So far the knockouts have started to approach that highest level, with the best game - France 0-1 Germany - a particular triumph.

If you examine the diagram below, you can track the inverse correlation between the number of goals, and how tactically interesting the World Cup has become. We can only pray that the final is 0-0 at full time, 0-0 at the end of extra time, and an infinite number of penalty saves for the rest of our lives as the conclusion.

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GOAL CHALKBOARDS

However, despite that ideal, it is not yet practical for football to be played infinitely. For now we have to use humans on the pitch, rather than watch it all take place on computer simulations. That means that at least one goal is needed eventually to settle matches. Last night, Holland won with a penalty shootout - the least bad variety of victory possible, as it is the most efficient use of resources. This can be broken down into an easily understandable diagram, showing the number of goals scored by one side and the number scored by the other. It turns out that the more goals scored by one side make it almost certain that that team goes through. Take a look at the goal chalkboard below, and you will see an uncanny similarity with other chalkboards showing goals. Roughly 100% of the time, the team that has more goals on the chalkboard wins the match. Something for managers to consider, certainly.

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NEYMAR HOLDING BRAZIL BACK

Brazil have an advantage now in that they have lost Neymar through injury. The rest of the side is dull, functional and tactically disciplined, which is what makes them favourites, and potentially worthy champions. So far Neymar had been holding Brazil back by failing to adhere to that plan from Felipe Luiz Scolari, with his invention, creativity and star quality. How did Scolari fix this tactical weakness? Well, if you have a look at the ragemap below, which includes all the fouls on James Rodriguez that should have received a booking but went unpunished, you can see that Scolari - with the help of a terrible ref - provoked Colombia relentlessly, which ultimately led to Juan Zuniga’s blistering foul on Neymar’s spine.

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It was superb, subtle management from Scolari, and his just desserts are a Brazilian strikeforce of Jo and Fred. This flair-free, focused strike duo will no doubt compliment one another, and the rest of the team, making Brazil strong favourites. Unpredictability, and world class ability, is too tactically toxic to tolerate.

TACTICAL ADVANTAGE OF GOOD GOALKEEPERS HINTS AT WIDER TRUTH

There have been some heroic performances from some of the underdog nations - Costa Rica and Keylor Navas, Mexico and Guillermo Ochoa, and USA and Tim Howard. They have held on longer than anyone could predict, and pulled off some superhuman saves only to see their sides eventually crash out.
This is an interesting tactical lesson. It appears that if goalkeepers play well, it makes it harder for the opposition to score against them. And this is where the smaller nations have made a mistake compared to the other, better sides. What the better sides have worked out, however, is more important: is if more of your players, and not just the goalkeeper, plays well and better, then you have more chance of scoring goals and also not conceding goals. By failing to play as many good players as the better sides, the underdogs have been asking for defeat. Perhaps in the next World Cup they will use better players to reverse this mistake - but it’s unlikely. They’ve been failing to do so since the very first World Cup, and as a result should be treated with contempt.

Alex Netherton (on Twitter: @lxndrnthrtn)

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