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Defending/Attacking - The Curious Case of JFH (And Many Other Managers)

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  • Defending/Attacking - The Curious Case of JFH (And Many Other Managers)

    *A note: This post comes primarily from what I've learnt over a long period of time being a stats guy as well as from my reading of "The Numbers Game" by Chris Anderson and David Sally; a truly phenomenal read for anyone interested in the details of the game. Thus a lot of what I write will be paraphrased from a particular section of the book.*

    Going into University today, I decided to go back into my old habits of reading a football book on the short 12 minute tube journey to the Campus. Having gone through Soccernomics; The Nowhere Men; The Making of The Greatest Team Ever: Barca; The Secret Footballer: Guide to the Modern Game, I only had a few options left but decided to continue The Numbers Game, a book I started reading just prior to my exam period last year.

    Early on in the book, Chapter 4: "Light and Dark" in particular drew my attention given our current situation. The chapter talks about two perspectives on football: The Left Wing view and the Right Wing view. This discussion was originally brought about by Cesar Luis Menotti, manager of the 1978 World Cup winning Argentina side. Menotti - A lifelong communist - somehow was able to lead the country to success despite the country being run by the extremely right-wing military junta. When it came to football, Menotti was a purist, believing simply in the fact that if you try and score as many goals as you can, your chances of winning shoot up. While nowadays, we're aware of the grey zone here (I hope we are, at least), Menotti didn't think there was a grey zone. You either attacked and looked amazing doing it, or you defended and looked boring. Sounds familiar right?

    He believed that this attacking ideology was a hallmark of Left-wing football, where creativity and positive play was encouraged. Right-wing football on the other hand was dull, boring, negative, defensive and purely focused on the result. A direct quote from the man himself states:

    Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method... obey and function, that's what those with power want from the players. That's how they create re**rds, useful idiots that go with the system.
    Very strong opinions there, but the concept isn't far from what fans want, and you can see that by reading this forum alone. Attacking gets the fans off their feet, defending is a "last resort". Again, almost directly like this book was made for us on this forum, here's a quote by British Scientist Thomas Huxley:

    The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact
    So, does Menotti's hypothesis stand up to the facts? If we have to ignore the blatant grey area, which will bring more success? Beautiful attacking, or staunch defending?

    Well, thankfully, it's fairly simple to test this theory in multiple ways. What was done is that 20 years of data was collected from the top 4 leagues in Europe (Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga). So they first asked "does the team that scores the most always win the league?"

    The answer is no. They won about half the time (51%). What about the team that conceded least? Well again, it was around half the time that they won (46%). And if we wanted to consider the team that scored the most and conceded the least? Well, only 16 of the 80 teams managed that. So there is no perfect solution one way or the other, but what if we looked at more than just the winner of the league? What if we looked at how goal scoring and avoiding conceding affects your league position overall?

    Well thankfully, that test was done as well. And it showed that you get roughly the same amount of points by scoring more as you do by conceding fewer. Doesn't really prove much does it? But then again, we're aware that football is a grey area. The issue with the technique is that we don't know how the team won the points. Because of the points system (3 for a win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss), over 3 matches, you get the same amount of points by winning 1 and losing 2 as you do by drawing 3. So we can now ask: Is it better to win, or not to lose? We're once again stepping into very familiar territory here.

    Well, thanks to regression analysis, the authors managed to actually test this theory. I'm not going to bore you with the full explanation of how they did it, but the results showed what happened when you score 10 more goals or when you concede 10 more in a particular league season, all else being equal.

    So, how many more wins are you expected to get by scoring 10 more goals? 2.30 wins more. And if you concede 10 fewer goals? 2.16 wins more. So again, extremely close. But... this is where things change. Now lets look at how many fewer losses you get by scoring 10 more goals and how many more losses you get by conceding 10 fewer goals?

    Scoring 10 more got you 1.76 fewer defeats per season. But conceding 10 fewer goals got you 2.35 fewer defeats per season. This is all in the premier league in the last 10 years. This particular result is not close, it's very clear, that success (when put down to black and white) is more likely when playing more defensively. Conceding fewer goals is 33% more valuable than scoring more.

    But this isn't a black and white sport. This is a sport of grey zones in every sense. Menotti was wrong, but that doesn't make the right wing correct. As per usual, the middle zone is where you want to be. It's just that it makes more sense to succeed by defence. And this is what JFH is trying to accomplish. He's staying on the right, but trying to get closer to the middle. A man who understands how success is brought about and a man who has used this tactic to succeed before with Burton, and who wants to use it to succeed now with QPR.

    But fans hate the idea of playing defensively, with less attacking flair and more hard work. Just as fans are more appreciative of attacking talent than they are of defensive talent. On here for example, I saw a few days ago someone posting how Taarabt single handedly won us the league a few years ago with the goals he scored and set up. But, would those goals have mattered if it weren't for the defence that managed 25 clean sheets? (if I recall correctly)

    Very simply, not at all. Hence why Paddy Kenny won the club player of the year. But fans still hold Adel to a higher regard because he was an attacking player. Now, this is down to psychological reasons which I won't get into now, but if people like this post, I'll definitely make another about the psychology of attack minded fans.

    In any case, hope you did enjoy reading this.
    "What stats allow you to do is not take things at face value. The idea that I trust my eyes more than the stats, I just don't buy that because I've seen magicians pull rabbits out of hats and I know I just know that rabbit's not in there." - Billy Beane

  • #2
    You know how to enjoy life Nas, I'll give you that.


    • #3
      Originally posted by brightonr View Post
      You know how to enjoy life Nas, I'll give you that.
      Haha if I can make the most boring things to others interesting to myself, I'm never gonna be upset in my life. Fool proof tactic
      "What stats allow you to do is not take things at face value. The idea that I trust my eyes more than the stats, I just don't buy that because I've seen magicians pull rabbits out of hats and I know I just know that rabbit's not in there." - Billy Beane