Nelsen’s shape and the need to drop a striker

As any Toronto FC fan will tell you, the team has a lack of quality strikers. Robert Earnshaw scored a few goals to start, went on a cold streak, then finally scored yesterday before (after?) injuring himself. That leaves the newly acquired and unproven Bright Dike and the consistently underwhelming duo of Andrew Wiedeman and Justin Braun as the only fit strikers at the club following the departures of Jeremy Brockie and Maxi Urruti and the injury to Danny Koevermans. With that in mind we need to ask ourselves, why does Ryan Nelsen insist on playing with two strikers?

Dropping one of the two strikers for a midfielder is an obvious solution on so many levels, starting with the lack of talent. TFC currently don’t have a single fit MLS quality striker, let alone two. Even Earnshaw when he was healthy showed he doesn’t have the ability to be an every week starter on a competitive team. The other problem with these strikers is their lack of versatility. Brockie may not have had a good scoring record, but of all the strikers contracted by Toronto this year he is arguably the only one who could competently link up with midfielders and his other strike partner. The rest are mainly poachers. This is the big criticism with two striker systems these days. Teams are packing the midfield so much that playing with three central midfielders has almost become a necessity to compete in that area. Playing two strikers is a luxury stronger teams or teams with extremely versatile forwards can do; TFC is neither.

One could argue that Ryan Nelsen and the Toronto brass have made it clear that they want to spend big DP money on a class striker (or two), so why change the shape now if in the future the 4-4-2 is what they’ll be running? If this site has taught you anything it’s that you cannot look at players and shapes in a vacuum. The answer to this lies not in the new striker(s) coming in but in Toronto’s two young players who have been the brightest spots in an otherwise dull season: Jonathan Osorio and Matias Laba.

Osorio was initially played in a wide role before being shifted inside to partner Laba before the Argentinian injured his ankle. The idea was that Toronto needed more creativity centrally as the duo of Laba and Jeremy Hall were too negative to add any thrust. While it did give Toronto an extra creator it’s not necessarily true there was any net gain in attack. It gave Osorio an added defensive responsibility as he and Laba were the sole holders, and if he did go forward to join the attack it left Laba alone in the middle, and as good as the young DP is and has been his biggest weakness is probably his mobility — a key attribute for the more defensive midfielder in a midfield two.

On paper the pairing of Laba and Osorio makes a lot of sense: a forward thrusting creator and a positionally sound destroyer who both can and like to keep the ball, but the more one plays to his personal style the more he exposes the other. That’s why a third midfielder would help maximize their abilities. Playing Osorio ahead of the two holders in a 4-2-3-1 allows him less defensive responsibility. He is also a better attacker closer to goal. Although he’s probably Toronto’s best passer from deeper positions that’s more an indictment on the rest of the squad. He’s at his best when he can arrive in the box from deep positions and combine with the forward. Defensively he’d now either be pressing a center back if the opposition were in a 4-4-2 or their deepest midfielder if they played a midfield three, which is ideal since Osorio is better as a presser than as a tackler.

It also helps Laba, too. His aforementioned (relative) lack of mobility would be less of an issue with him having to cover less lateral space. He would be free to anticipate passes higher up the pitch or to go win the ball with the knowledge that he had another sitter beside him.

Since one of my points is that TFC should drop a striker due to lack of able personnel in that position it is a fair question to ask: Do they have the right personnel to play a system with three central midfielders? I have already outlined why I think Osorio’s and Laba’s  talents are maximized in a 4-2-3-1 shape but the question is who is appropriate for that other midfield spot, and do Toronto have him? Frankly, the answer is probably not, but I still think they’d be better off switching to such a shape. So who does fill in? Again, vacuums. It depends on the style Nelsen would want to play. Want to use that extra man to sit back in a deep line before hitting on the counter? Might be a good idea to play the defensive minded Hall and free up Laba a bit to play ambitious forward passes. You’d leave Osorio high up with little defensive responsiblity and so would need two dedicated holders to form two narrow banks of four. If you want to use that extra man to dominate possession and press high up the pitch then the underused Kyle Bekker may be a better choice. He values the ball and is not afraid to pick up the ball deep as a first function midfielder and play forward passes in central zones, leaving Laba to be the more patient possession keeper.

Looking at Toronto’s squad it’s probably best if they went with the former strategy. Although I think a midfield trio of Osorio-Bekker-Laba could actually do a good job of keeping the ball, especially when you add Bobby Convey into the mix, the problem lies in the back line. Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry have grown in recent weeks but they’re both adept at defending a deep line while full backs Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan are relatively poor passers in their positions. This is not even mentioning Joe Bendik whose two biggest flaws — agility and distribution — are the two most important attributes for a keeper in a press-and-possess system.

While Toronto don’t necessarily have the current players to play a certain system perfectly, the truth is the current squad probably doesn’t have the ability to play any system very well. But Nelsen can build around his current core of players and help maximize their abilities which is not being done in his current 4-4-2 system. The other criticism of Nelsen is his lack of creativity, he remains stubborn in his shape and style and reluctant to make substitutions until late in matches. He needs to get more creative and now is the perfect time of the season to do it. Play Bekker in a midfield three, push Osorio up behind the striker, heck maybe even try Convey behind the lone striker as a central winger to help overload the flanks. All these ideas have the potential to improve TFC and maximize the potential of their best players. And really, at this point Nelsen has nothing to lose.


Is the Future Centerbackless?

When I told my friend about the title of my blog he said to me “So is the future centerbackless?” Seems silly to say but it follows my assertion. I suppose if I had to answer then I would say yes, it is; but in the same way that the future is strikerless which is a statement I should expand upon.

When I say that in the future there won’t be strikers I don’t mean that no one will nominally fill that position. Really what I’m getting at is the idea that there won’t be room for luxury players, and those types of players are usually the most further forward player (or right behind the the strikers). My view of who is a luxury player probably differs from most others’ view. If I asked people to name one a popular name might be Dimitar Berbatov. He fits the classic archetype: languid, brilliant on the ball, seemingly apathetic, slow, not big on tracking back etc. The idea is if you have a player like that in your squad you need to insulate him. Many people look at the opposite type, someone who works supremely hard without the ball, as the antithesis of a luxury player. But do you have to play this hard worker with the lazy talent, or do you have to play the supreme talent with the untalented dynamo? It’s a matter of perception. You can’t create consistent chances through hard work alone, so since you have to insulate your hard workers with skill can’t they be viewed as luxury players?

This brings me back to the future being strikerless. It all inevitably comes back to the idea of universality. I define a luxury player as someone who is so one dimensional that they need someone on the other end of the spectrum to make the team work (and that person often ends up being deficient at other things). It’s the specialist versus universal debate all over again.

To bring the discussion back to Barcelona, their team certainly has some players who are naturally great at some things (Xavi’s vision, Alves’ stamina/pressing, Busquets’ positioning, Messi’s everything) but they are trained to be all great at the same thing: pressing, passing, offering. From Victor Valdes at one end to Leo Messi at the other, every single player is fantastic at these parts of the game. This means that if you have one player who lacks first touch or one who lacks the ability to press they already have you beat in that sense. The other thing that Barcelona beat you at is having numbers in the active playing area. This means that they almost always have an open option for the possessor of the ball to pass to. They do this with constant off the ball movement and by stretching the defense. It also helps that every single player is confident on the ball so anyone can move anywhere to offer a legitimate option.

So when I say the future is strikerless I mean that optimally you can’t have luxury players. And I define a luxury player as someone who is deficient in any area that has to be compensated by another player who is deficient in a converse area. That seems a harsh statement considering every team, including Barcelona a lot of the time, have luxury players. I think the future is about minimizing this which is what Barcelona are the best in the world at currently, and possibly ever. Theoretically if a team is so much more universal than another that no player is wasted in any facet of the game they will win nine times out of ten, and the only way to consistently match them is to get just as good. Sure, you could shut up shop and rely on counters and set pieces, but that won’t work over half the time.

So what does this all have to do with centerbacks? Well, they’re going to have to be good on the ball in this world, too. And strong. And quick. Basically they’ll have to be more than great in the air and strong defensively, those types are too one dimensional. So when I assert that the future is strikerless I mean it is also centerbackless (and wingerless, and fullbackless). I don’t mean the positions will be gone, just the one dimensionality of it.

Of course there will always be room somewhere for a speed demon with less than adequate ball skills, just as there will be room for a plodding but powerful defender or a slight but skilled midfielder. Humans aren’t all magically going to become the same size overnight. But at the highest levels, where you can groom players as pre-teens and spend as much money as the owner wants, you could very well put together a successful and totally universal squad. I mean in the future, at some point

On the analysis of defensive corner kick strategies in football

When Canada lost to Panama two-nil in a September World Cup qualifier, many fans and journalists bemoaned how the first goal went in. It came off a Panama corner kick as Rolando Blackburn headed the cross in just inside the far post. People could not understand why Canada did not station a man to mark the far post – in that situation it would surely have saved the goal.

There is, of course, a massive problem with this line of reasoning. It is the king of the small sample size error in logic. That was literally one event to help support the idea that you should have a man on the far post. There is a reason why such a point gets brought up, however, and that’s because it is a very salient event. It is obvious what could have prevented a goal on that corner – a man on the far post. Not only that, but putting a man on the far post is common place, so people are quick to criticize when going against tradition so obviously leads to the undesired event.

The question then becomes, why not have a man on the far post? Perhaps the answer is, why stop there? Why not have a man on both posts, and one in the middle of the net who can go across and guard the net behind the keeper? Say the opposition sends five guys forward to attack a corner, why not man mark everyone the opposition sends forward then use the other five to guard the line?

Clearly the final scenario is ridiculous and no one does it. Why they don’t do it gives the possible answer as to why not have a man on the far post. When you think about it, guarding the posts is pretty arbitrary. The idea is surely that those are the areas where a keeper is least likely to get to so you try and protect them, but do you really need a guy on each post each time? What if the other team has a guy unmarked and you have both posts marked? What’s more dangerous, leaving him open or leaving the post free?

I play keeper, albeit at a pretty recreational level, but I have a set up I always use for corners. I put a man on each post and a man in the space ahead of the near post, about five metres closer to the corner and three metres out from the line. If they have an open man I will tell the far post marker to take him, and if there’s still another one I’ll peel off the near post man. I never move the zonal marker beyond the near post. Is it successful? I have no idea, I don’t have the data. The reason I do it is from facing hundreds of corner kicks and realizing what gives me the most trouble, how most of the deliveries come in, and how chances are created and goals are scored from corners. But I’m just a rec league player, I’m not expected to have the data. You would think that corner kicks, one of the few discrete events in football, would be rife with data and analysis on defensive corner kick strategies.

Suprisingly, there isn’t that much out there when it comes to meaningful analysis of raw data, possibly because the data isn’t really that great. In 2005 there was a study published in Science and Football V titled ‘Notational analysis of corner kicks in English Premier League soccer.’ The researchers collected and defined their own data of 217 corner kicks over the course of a Premier League season. It is a fairly short paper and probably the most key finding was that the type of ball that had the most success was an in-swinger across the front of the six yard box.

This helps explain why many teams line up four or so defenders marking zonally across the six yard box (in fact it’s what Canada did on the goal conceded to Panama). Does it mean that it’s smart? Well, the intuition seems sound: if most goals scored in area x then defend area x. That’s not enough though, as researchers understand logic yields to practice. We need real world data to show that such a system is better, not just the inductions. Of course, there are a litany of research method issues to take into consideration, the biggest one I think being a type of selection bias that doesn’t allow us for a proper control group. We could do a between groups comparison between teams that mark zonally and teams that mark man to man. Controlling for number of corners faced would be pretty straight forward, and as long as we operationalize what zonal marking on a corner is (we could even have multiple groups) then what set up goes in what group should be easy. We just need the grunt work done. But what teams practice zonal marking on corners? Is it possible it is the teams that have players with less aerial ability than other teams are more inclined to such a system? Do managers view it as something that is advantageous with a short side, and had they a bigger team they’d do strict man to man marking?

Imagine this scenario. In a twenty team league ten teams mark zonally and the other ten mark man to man. At the end of the season we find that these two groups (zonal vs. marking) concede corners at the exact same rate. We can conclude that the type of marking system has zero effect, right? Well, what if the ten teams that mark zonally do so because they are shorter and think it gives them an advantage? If the ten teams that mark zonally are also the ten shortest teams, would it be fair to say that zonal marking is a better strategy than man marking? You could imagine a bunch of scenarios where the system and aerial ability interaction could present a headache for statistical analysis. That’s without even mentioning how leaving players up the pitch effects the game. Do you leave one guy up to corral a clearance? Does that save you more goals in the long run? What about two guys? How much does it depend on how the other team sets up? There are too many variables to consider, just like all statistics, so we’ll never get the perfect model, but we can at least start controlling for some.

The point here is that analysis of defensive corner strategies as practiced by fans and (often) journalists is naïve and lazy. We rely on salient events that conform to our traditional views of defensive strategies – not at all unlike why humans make errors in reasoning in every walk of life. Sadly, even controlling for obvious factors like number of corner kicks faced seems to not be part of much of the popular discussion, let alone other possible variables. The tape is there, it is up to clubs and researchers to analyse, define, and interpret the data in a meaningful way for us to have any sort of definitive answer on what system is the best for each team. But would that time, money, and effort even be worth the advantage gained? Would a team save enough goals to justify putting those resources into that aspect of research? That’s the other big question for the analysis of corner kicks.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 12th, 2013: In this article I didn’t mention the idea that attacking teams would devise certain types of corner kick strategies depending on the system the defending team is using. Certainly if I was managing I would give my team different instructions depending on the defending teams set up, and if teams did do this it would make for a muddier picture of the stats involved in analyzing success rates of defensive strategies and corner kick behaviour. This could potentially be another fruitful avenue for research on the subject.


More Defenders Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better Defense

Against Liverpool, Roberto Mancini decided to use three central defenders and two wing backs as opposed to a flat back four. It was a curious decision considering Manchester City were going up against a team playing a 4-3-3 and that City have rarely played with a three man back line. One supposes that if Mancini wants to make this formation a viable option he will have to use it sooner or later, and perhaps he chose to use it against Liverpool because they were are a stronger side compared to Southampton. After all, since he is playing five defenders his defense must be more solid, right?

When Rinus Michels was talking about his concept of Total Football he wasn’t just talking about players being able to interchange positions. While that is the main take away people have from his system it was about much more than one player staying back if another bombed forward. Total Football was about how one aspect of a team’s tactics effected the rest of the team. It was erroneous to alter one part of the squad and assume that nothing else was effected.

In Manchester City’s case the switch to three centre backs and two wing backs didn’t necessarily mean that their defense was now more solid. What one needs to consider is how this change in formation effects the other players — the ones higher up the pitch. James Milner and Alexander Kolarov were the two wide players for City. It stands to reason that since there is an extra centre back covering for them that they have more license to go forward than if they were playing as full backs in a back four. While this was true, neither wing back had anyone naturally ahead of them to provide support. Milner and Kolarov were expected to patrol their wings against Liverpool’s 4-3-3. This meant Liverpool had a full back and a winger coming up against City’s wing back and they were outnumbered in that zone. Raheem Sterling, for example, did well tracking Milner. In the end he didn’t always have to since Glen Johnson was there in support. This meant the youngster could at times stay high up the pitch and run at Kolo Toure.

The key areas on the pitch: Liverpool were 2v1 in these zones while having their wingers going directly at City’s centre backs.

This was another downside of Mancini’s back three against Liverpool’s front three. When the home team’s wingers stayed high up they were 1v1 City’s central defenders, and wingers generally have the advantage in individual battles with lots of space, especially against central defenders compared to full backs. Sterling’s direct runs caused Toure no end of problems and it’s a wonder that Mancini didn’t ask him to switch with Pablo Zabaleta. The Argentine utility man was playing as the left sided centre back and was up against either Luis Suarez or Fabio Borini, two more natural forwards. It would have made sense to stick Zabaleta, a more natural full back, on the side of the winger while putting the centre back on the side of the striker. It is but another example of how a decision on one part of the pitch can effect another, unexpected area.

Of course we would remiss not to talk about the other side of the field. Mancini effectively traded two wingers for one central defender in this formation. That leaves him with a surplus player. Where did he go? In this case he became an extra forward. Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli started up front with Samir Nasri in behind them. Theoretically this meant that both Liverpool centre backs were occupied and that the Reds had no spare man at the back to cover. But we must go back to the mantra of this article — no tactical area of the pitch can be looked at in a vacuum. Yes, both Skrtel and Coates had a man to mark in his immediate area, but Liverpool had a numerical advantage on the flanks. Thus, if a Liverpool winger tracked back to mark a Man City wing back that left one of Liverpool’s full backs free. It also meant that Liverpool had more joy in those areas in general meaning less meaningful attacks from City in those zones; it was harder for the visitors to supply Tevez and Balotelli in the first place. And it’s not as if Zabaleta could step up and provide an extra man to dominate the midfield for Manchester City, he had to contend with one of Liverpool’s front three exploiting the space in behind him.

In the end City got a point at Anfield, not a bad result especially considering how the game played out. Mancini’s side relied on two errors from Liverpool’s defense to draw level and the Italian manager can be accused of over managing in this match. However, his flaw was not necessarily trying something new. It was not recognizing that his new tactic’s theoretical advantages in one part were overshadowed by it’s deficiencies in other areas. Perhaps he wants a more pragmatic formation, thus the extra defender, but simply throwing an extra defender into your side doesn’t necessarily mean you now have a better defense. Conceding as few goals as possible isn’t simply achieved by stacking your back line with players although that is a natural thought. It is about dominating possession, territory, and different zones on the pitch. Of course, it is entirely possible Mancini simply chose this match to experiment. He could have known that a change to a back four was ideal (and he did just that, after the introduction of David Silva for Milner). However, even if it was an experiment for introducing a new tactic for tougher matches it definitely needs some work.

The Withdrawn Target Man

In Everton’s 1-0 victory against Manchester United, Marouane Fellaini put in a man of the match performance in an advanced midfield position. While his goal came from a set piece it was his dominance in open play that really stood out – the Belgian constantly beat United players for headers, flick ons, and aerial balls played into his chest. His first touch was sublime and his play back to goal really helped Everton relieve the visitors’ pressing.


It is interesting to note that Fellaini played a typical target man role about 15 yards deeper than where a target man usually plays. He was the nominal 10 while Nikica Jelavic played highest up the pitch. This is not unlike when Robert Lewandowski was deployed as an attacking midfielder by Jurgen Klopp a couple of years ago. He would play behind Lucas Barrios and offer much of the same that Fellaini did. He was an aerial and physical presence in deeper parts of the pitch.

Why is this interesting? Why don’t we see this phenomenon happen more often if it can be used so effectively? Tactical trends in football cannot be analyzed in a vacuum; often by looking at past trends can we arrive at meaningful conclusions about today’s styles.

In the past a number 10 was a traditional playmaker. He was clever, a good passer, and creative. He thrived with the ball at his feet between the lines and often found pockets of space between the opposition defense and midfield. Eventually teams began employing dedicated holding midfielders more often to specifically man mark this danger man. These players were strong physically and defensive minded, the ideal to most fans being Claude Makelele. As a result this made a classical playmaker less effective and his style was pushed into deeper or wider roles. You now have players like Andres Iniesta who might fit the mould of a classic 10 but he often plays wide or deep. Fifteen years ago a player like Luka Modric might have been seen as an attacking midfielder who would be played right behind the striker, but today he is seen as one of the world’s best deep lying midfielders. Andrea Pirlo is a player who started out much higher up the pitch in his early career but has since thrived playing in front of the defense.

As football gradually evolved into more emphasis on this fourth band, that is between the lines of midfield (both ahead of and behind the midfield line) new types of players emerged. As the destroyer phased out the central, high creator, he himself got phased out. Why would you need one if there was no one in that space to mark? This development led to smaller, more technical players to play the deep midfield positions. Players like Pirlo, Xavi, and Modric are some world class examples, but it would have been unheard of to see a diminutive player like Leon Britton flourish as a deep lying midfielder in the robust Premier League not long ago.

But once in a while you get a player who has many of the technical abilities to play in an attacking midfield position but who also has the physical characteristics to make you assume he would best be positioned elsewhere. Fellaini is such a player. He came up as a defensive midfielder but David Moyes has used him in a more advanced position at times. Against Manchester United it worked brilliantly. Alex Ferguson’s United are a good example of the evolution of the deep lying midfielder. Before he had a destroyer like Roy Keane in his side but against Everton he went with Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverly, two smaller ball playing midfielders. They helped keep possession, and often this type of midfield arrangement can help one dominate a game. Against Everton, however, they were left exposed by having to deal with Fellaini. Since there was no one in that space to offer a physical presence, Fellaini often easily won aerial duels and helped Everton reset their attack high up the pitch.

It is important to note that you cannot simply install a physical bruiser playing in the hole and expect good things. Fellaini’s first touch is arguably his best attribute and he is very adept at playing in tight midfield spaces, no doubt his career as a  deeper central midfielder helping him in this regard. Compare him to Lewandowski, a previously mentioned withdrawn target man. Lewandowski is a complete striker, very clever with combination play and a player with a high work rate. He was well suited to play in midfield because he has the requisite technical ability and footballing intelligence to play such a role. The other thing these players offer, that other strikers turned attacking midfielders might not, is defensive acumen. Fellaini did a good job on both Scholes and Cleverly while Lewandowski used his work rate and physicality to good effort, most notably against Bastian Schweinsteiger in Dortmund’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich two years ago – and with many sides employing their most creative passer as their deepest midfielder such a player can be a great asset.

Other teams have tried such a tactic at times, from Stoke with Kenwyne Jones to Toronto FC with Maicon Santos. They have delivered mixed results. It is not a role that is beneficial to all styles. A more direct, fast paced team would probably be more adept at playing this way. You remove a quick attacker but you add an aerial threat to direct balls, and as he is not your furthest forward player the target man has someone to flick the ball on to.

There are some players who seem like they would thrive in such a role, Dimitar Berbatov and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are a couple of players who might fit the bill. Both are big, strong on the ball and creative with a fantastic first touch. Yaya Toure is an example of a defensive midfielder who has played effectively in an attacking midfield role by using his athleticism coupled with his technical ability. It seems like there might be many players, like Fellaini and Lewandowski, who are played in a position their bodies are stereotyped to but can prosper in an unfamiliar role.

Rebuttal: Do footballers know what they’re doing?

In a recent article by Jonathan Wilson the author asked the question of whether or not footballers know what they are doing, or more accurately, to what extent are they conscious of what they are doing. The article starts off with Rooney explaining his overhead kick goal against Manchester City a couple of years ago. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Winner asked him about his overhead kick against Manchester City last season. “When a cross comes into a box,” Rooney said, “there’s so many things that go through your mind in a split second, like five or six different things you can do with the ball. You’re asking yourself six questions in a split second. Maybe you’ve got time to bring it down on the chest and shoot, or you have to head it first-time. If the defender is there, you’ve obviously got to try and hit it first-time.

“If he’s farther back, you’ve got space to take a touch. You get the decision made. Then it’s obviously about the execution.”

Much of the rest of the article is predicated on the premise stated by Rooney, that is that he is making multiple calculations in his head in a split second. Wilson looks at neurological findings and experiments to show that it is basically impossible to make that many calculations in that little amount of time. This I won’t argue, although it should be noted that athletes do seem to have higher processing speeds than non-athletes.

Wilson then goes into a large philosophical debate about whether Rooney actually is making the decision to make the overhead kick, arguing that since it is impossible to calculate whether he should head it, control it, or bicycle it in a split second and also make the necessary physical calculations then he is not actually conscious of his decision. This opens up a can of worms regarding free will and whether a footballer’s explanation of an action is true or whether he is making some post-hoc argument that fits with his personal narrative.

That’s all fine and good, but I really have to challenge the first premise. Not the one made by Wilson, that Rooney can’t answer that many questions in his head in a split second, but Rooney’s premise: that he is making multiple decisions in a short amount of time.

When Rooney says he has a split second to ask himself five or six questions he is wrong. He has a lot more time than that. Footballers don’t simply react, especially the best ones. They plan ahead and when a teammate has the ball on the right wing ready to cross then Rooney has already made those decisions in his head – he’s just waiting for the ball to come in. It’s not the split second where he makes those calculations, he’s first of all got the flight of the ball to make those decisions, not to mention the fact that before the cross even comes in he’s taken into account his own position relative to the goal and how tight his marker is on him. Those five or six decisions have been calculated already and a certain type of ball in will ‘activate’ one of his modules to react. Yes, the overhead kick itself isn’t Rooney thinking “The ball is this high above my head, now I’m upside down and I need to angle my right foot like this and hit it with this much power with this part of my foot.” At that point he is reacting, albeit not completely without preparation as he’s done a similar move a countless amount of times. The key point is that Rooney doesn’t have to make half a dozen calculations in a split second, he just has to pick the one action that he’s already calculated. If he picks the right one then there’s a chance of a good outcome.

If you watch any decent level football you’ll be able to see a similar phenomenon if you watch the central midfielders. It doesn’t even have to be a professional match, just a decent level intramural or men’s league game. When a central midfielder drops deep facing his own defender or goalkeeper who has the ball, he will swivel his head before calling for the ball. When he does this he’s assessing the pitch, seeing if he’s being pressed, what man is open, which way he can turn, etc. He’s evaluating multiple decisions and when the ball is played to him he knows exactly what to do. No one is saying the midfielder is making an innumerable amount of physical calculations consciously, just that before he even has to play the ball he’s made a few assessments that will lead him to making his final physical action.

The other issue I have with the article is that it seems to paint our actions as being guided by algorithms. Humans don’t really take all the options, calculate them in a specific, discrete way, and then act. We act mainly on heuristics – shortcuts based on experience. When the ball came into Rooney he had already decided what to do based on where the ball was coming in. If it came low, he has faced that type of cross numerous times and so knew how to react. When it came in at that height and that angle he knew that an overhead was the best option based on countless crosses in training and games. He had a myriad of trials throughout his time playing football and had built up a heuristic to dealing with it. Combine that with athletic skill, luck, and Rooney’s probable higher processing speed than the average person, and you have yourself a goal. There may have been numerous factors but Rooney surely meant to do it, and there’s no reason to think he didn’t appraise multiple ideas before settling on that bicycle.

Poland Euro 2012 Preview

When Franciszek Smuda first took over the Polish national team he seemed to have a large amount of naïve optimism surrounding the team. Starting with a 4-3-3 formation early in his tenure, Smuda wanted Poland to play ‘like Barcelona, to have his players know exactly where each teammate was by instinct.’ However, many players from the real Barcelona taught Smuda and a young Polish team, including names such as Kamil Glik and Marcin Sadlok in defense, a lesson in his first match in charge: you have to be damn good to be able to play like that.

Since that early promise of beautiful football Smuda has taken a more pragmatic approach. It would be simple to analyze the squad as two banks of four who only attack on the break and rely on Lewandowski, but Smuda has options in attack and what combination he chooses might depend on the opposition as much as it depends on form and ability.

The defense

It’s no secret that Poland’s back four has been a question mark during Smuda’s reign, much like it has been since the departure of stalwarts such as Tomasz Waldoch, Tomasz Hajto, and Jacek Bak. He has finally seemingly decided on a central pairing that would have come as a shock to followers not long ago – French born defender Damien Perquis and Anderlecht hard man Marcin Wasilewski. Perquis is recovering from an arm injury and should be good to go from the start of the tournament. He is more of the reader of the game between the two of them, good in the air despite lacking some of the physical tools of Wasilewski. Meanwhile the Belgian based defender loves to attack the ball and though he may get caught out of position sometimes, if you ask him to defend the box he is as good as anyone.

The right side of defense will be patrolled by Lukasz Piszczek, the Dortmund regular who forced his name into the discussion of the best right backs in Europe. A forward who was converted to wing, then finally converted to full back, he has an endless motor that will push the opposition winger back, deliver a cross, then race back to break up a counter. The other side is a bit of a question mark. Sebastien Boenisch is Smuda’s first choice but he is just coming back from a serious injury and is suffering from a lack of match fitness. He recently went 90 solid minutes against Andorra but if he is deemed not ready his spot will be filled by the unspectacular Jakub Wawrzyniak, a possession keeping full back who won’t exactly dominate the flank.

Probable Polish starting XI for Euro 2012.


The middle

Here Smuda has a number of solid, if uninteresting, names to pick from. Dariusz Dudka, Eugen Polanski, Rafal Murawski, and Adam Matuszczyk are all decent players, but no combination of them is going to dominate possession at Euro. Whatever two the Polish coach picks will most likely be asked to sit in front of the defense and provide a shield to the backline. When they get the ball look for them to spray quick passes wide into the channels; keeping the ball in the opposition half would be nice but not the mandate of these players.

Murawski and Polanski seem like the likely choices to start for Poland with Dudka as their chief back up. Murawski seems to have beaten Dudka for the starting job beside Polanski. The diminutive midfielder has been good since his return to Lech and he is probably the best passer of the bunch.

The attackers

This is where Smuda’s selection gets interesting. Right now the probable set up seems to be Maciej Rybus on the left, captain Jakub ‘Kuba’ Blaszczykowski on the right, with Ludovic Obraniak supporting star man Robert Lewandowski. Both Rybus and Blaszczykowski are fit and disciplined players who are willing to track back, create a bank of four with the central midfielders, before making direct forward runs and delivering service to Lewandowski. Rybus replaces Slawomir Peszko, a similar type of player who is good on the counter but was kicked of the team for a drinking mishap involving the police.

The two main subs out wide will be the Turkish based duo of Kamil Grosicki and Adrian Mierzejewski. Both players offer something different to the attack. Grosicki is a speed merchant who likes to stay high up the pitch and exploit the space in behind the opposition full back. He is just as likely to cut in and have an attempt on goal himself as he is to create for others. A useful player later in the game to take advantage of a weary backline when in need of a goal, the Sivasspor player is not disciplined enough to be trusted by Smuda from the start.

Trabzonspor’s Mierzejewski, on the other hand, is a player who thrives with the ball at his feet. He loves to try through balls, crosses, tricks and one-twos and is Poland’s most creative player. Unfortunately he can be quite inconsistent but even if he is not producing offensively he can still be counted on to work hard without the ball.

The other French born player in the squad, Bordeaux’s Obraniak, is also expected to be a starter for Poland. He doesn’t possess the athleticism or pressing ability of the other players but he is Poland’s most cultured midfielder, capable of providing a pin point pass or cross and creating a chance out of nothing. Look for him and Mierzejewski to battle for the spot behind Lewandowski. Both can also play on the wing and it’s possible there will be a time where neither will play if Poland go with a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 set up.

Up front not much needs to be said. Lewandowski is the starter and will be relied upon heavily to provide goals. His back ups are Pawel Brozek and Artur Sobiech though neither had a strong season. The latter looks to have the inside track to be Poland’s second striker but neither is close to usurping Lewandowski. It is possible one might be subbed in to partner Lewandowski if Poland are in need of a goal.

The style

Like mentioned earlier Poland will not be expected to dominate possession at the tournament. They simply don’t have the quality to do so and will thus rely on quick attacks to score. There are two avenues Smuda takes to creating quality chances – 1) By countering quickly, getting the ball into the channels right away so his direct and fast attackers can exploit space vacated by the opposition and 2) By taking turns throughout the match pressing the opposition near half and in their own end to win the ball near the opposition box when their defensive shape is compromised.

The first tactic is nothing special or interesting, it is the way many reactive sides who have less talent approach matches, but the second approach is something that Poland have done to decent effect in their friendlies. In their 3-1 win against the Ivory Coast the Poles scored twice after winning the ball in the Ivory Coast’s half while they created numerous chances against quality opposition such as Portugal and Germany by surprising them with their pressing when the backline had the ball near the half way line.

Poland’s pressing isn’t perfect, however, with cultured midfielders such as Andrea Pirlo able to break the press and then attack a slightly out of shape Polish team, as he did in Italy’s 2-0 win over the Eastern Europeans. Poland will need to press at times, however, because their defense is simply incapable of lasting 90 minutes with mistake free football and because their lack of quality passers in the back and midfield means creating decent chances starting in their own half will be very difficult.

The conclusion

Poland are not favourites by any stretch despite being hosts. They will need to do what many weaker sides need to do to be successful: play reactive, defensive football, counter efficiently, get big performances from individuals (such as Lewandowski, Blasczykowski, and Szczesny) and nip a set piece goal here and there.

What they can do to relieve some of the pressure from both their defense and offense is press the opposition at times when they are being lackadaisical and in areas where winning the ball would start an instant attack, and with numerous athletic attackers, including the Dortmund trio who are used to a high octane pressing game, Smuda’s pattern of pressing will be interesting to watch.