Wednesday, 16 June 2010

"There's more than one way to win"

The Spain-Switzerland result today underlined a number of the things I've been trying to say: the 'best' teams don't always win; keeping possession of the ball isn't necessary to succeed . As Mick McCarthy grudgingly conceded in the BBC commentary, "there's more than one way to win." Possession: Spain 63%, Switzerland 37%. This wasn't a matter of blind chance or good luck. The truth is, Switzerland had a game plan to snuff out Spain's strengths, which they executed flawlessly. Spain had no answer to the superbly organised display that the Swiss defence put on today, reminiscent of Italy at their miserly best. Villa looked ineffective; only when Torres came on did the Spanish team briefly muster a sustained threat. But as the game wore on, it looked unlikely that Spain would find the key - indeed, by the final minutes, it almost seemed that Switzerland had an extra player, so successfully were they intercepting and blocking Spain's attacks.



  2. Hitzfeld is a legend.

  3. Hi Mark, I'm enjoying the posts - and finding them infuriating, as I'm sure you'll be glad to learn. It's partly the relish you apear to be taking in the triumph of the obdurate. But it's also because you're attacking straw men. Really, haven't we always known there is more than one way to win, in precisely the way you're describing? For me, that lesson was learned, in a way from which I've never quite recovered, with Wimbledon's horrible win over Liverpool in the 1988 Cup Final. More recently, and pertinently, there was Greece's equally undesirable victory at Euro 2004.

    You raised this issue as a way of countering myths about why England fall short: the idea that a team needs to play free-flowing football to win the World Cup and so on. Straw men again. Breaking down silly theories as to why England don't win isn't the same as demonstrating that they can. Of course they have a chance; it's just that it's an extremely small one. In your earlier post about England, you sail as close as can be to arguing that England haven't failed in major tournaments because of their inferior footballing ability. But in the end, that is of course exactly why they've fallen short. They are an amazingly consistent team. As Kuper and Symanski have shown, they won 67% of their fixtures from 1981 to 2007 (Brazil won 80%), and they reach a satifyingly exact 66% of major tournament finals: 6 out of the last nine World Cups, 6 out of the last nine Euros. They have consistently been 8th to 10th in the win percentage rankings. The quarter finals are their level: they've performed to expectations when they reach them. Whereas Brazil, Germany, Argentina, for example, have performed to their level when they reach the semis or the final.

    You say they're rarely beaten in open play; that it takes penalties or a sending off. But that's naughty of you. You're only talking about the games in which they go out. And of course you're not accounting for their failure actually to win those games, not just not get beaten. It's hard to believe you're talking up the abject failure of 1982, as if those draws could have been wins if it weren't for ... what? Wouldn't it be more salient to talk about the chances they would have had in games against the (even better) teams they would have had to play later in those tournaments? Or about how lucky they were to get to the stage they did in the first place (1990 the glaring example; the game against Germany was their only good performance)? Or that they have only once - once - beaten another World Cup winner in the World Cup finals (Argentina in 2002)? Even if they managed to beat, say, France in this year's quarters, the chances of them repeating the feat against the other high-achievers in the semis and the final are, if only by the laws of multiplicative probability, very very low. To win, they have to beat the odds, again and again. Their hopes are built on contingencies; the likelihood they won't win is built on their insufficiency as a football team.

  4. @ Paul - I don't think Mark is trying to demolish one monolithic theory on the England team. Broadly you get two extreme poles: the blind patriotic cheerleader vs the smugonaut naysayer, who usually takes a masochistic pleasure in implying some kind of genetic inability in the England team to match the skills of the teams they, the holier-than-thou, adore (Spain, previously France). But among the punditocracy you get all kinds of weird shards of received wisdom, gnomic folk insights about what you must have to win a tournament (despite the glaring flaws in unfancied teams like Denmark or Greece). Talking about these inevitably sets up straw men because they form a cloud of collective stupidity - it would be fairly exhausting to track and cite them whenever they drop from the lips of Tyldesley, Townsend or whoever.

    Your discussion of odds is a little off. If England are remarkably consistent, and consistently in the Top 8 or Top 10, they should always be qualifying for tournaments, whether of 16 or 32 teams. That they haven't suggests there should be some compensating overperformance - perhaps more than the record shows?

    The thing is that the odds are against any one team winning a cup. Look at Spain: they're massively tipped to win, yet their odds are only 5:1. In other words, the likelihood of the winner being Not Spain is overwhelmingly greater than it is of being Spain.

    The reality is that given their ranking and the number of tournaments since 66, England might reasonably have been expected to have won one more cup in the intervening years. But it is hardly a massive statistical upset that they haven't. Yet this translates into a huge neurosis about repeated, inevitable, fated failure. The English are deeply insecure about that one cup, yet Portugal have won none, and Spain have only just claimed their second (another Euro win). Spain's WC record is poor. Look at Holland's: 7 failures to qualify since 1958, in three of the 7 they did reach they went out before the QFs.

  5. Hi Paul
    I'm not trying to infuriate people - in fact these posts come out of my feeling infuriated. You talk about 'straw men', but a straw man argument is one that no-one actually makes, whereas the positions I've been attacking are held by very many people, as the coverage of the World Cup has made clear. The smugonaut 'England won't win until they can keep possession' position is endlessly repeated. Just because an argument is stupid and baseless doesn't mean it is a straw man.
    Switzerland's performance yesterday was not really like Wimbledon's in 88 - it was a fine display of disciplined defending.
    What 'even better' teams would England would have to beat in 1982? We know who they would have played in the semi-final: France, who they had already beaten, handsomely, in the first round. They couldn't very well play 'even better' opponents than West Germany in 1990, Argentina in 86 or Brazil in 02 because these were the eventual winners.

  6. Also, you can't leap from 'England only tend to reach the quarter finals' to the conclusion 'because of their inferior footballing ability' ... the record is a given, the issue is why the record is like it is. Statistics will only establish when England went out, not why.
    As for the 'England have only beaten a World Cup winner once' chestnut ...
    1) since 82, they've not played that many: West Germany in 82 (draw); Argentina 86 (defeat), West Germany 90 (defeat on pens), Argentina 98 (defeat on pens), Argentina 02 (victory), Brazil 02 (defeat). So that's two defeats in open play to previous World Cup winners, to opponents who went to go on to win those particular tournaments.
    2) again, though, the issue is - why is this the case? I think a comparison of West/Germany with England is instructive here. Germany's record is of course substantially better than England's, but it would be difficult to make the case that the German sides were better in pure footballing terms. The Germans had something else, but it wasn't football ability.

  7. Apologies - I'm feeling an compulsion to comment on every post in a way no other blog has made me.

    With regard to:

    "As Mick McCarthy grudgingly conceded in the BBC commentary, "there's more than one way to win."

    - I think this is a little harsh on McCarthy in this instance because I think the 'grudgingly' you talk about comes from the desire to seem a team that plays possession football win - similar to Barcelona and in previous tournaments Holland/Argentina - simply because its more pleasing to watch, and harder to do (therefore a greater achievement when done). Also his exact words were "There's more than one way to skin a cat" - which was a nice turn of phrase for football commentary.

    On Spain in wider context, several of the players said before the tournament that because of the way they play they have to be at their best to win, and if they play badly almost anyone can get a result against them (particularly came from the Barca boys) which shows a wide acceptence of your point about possession in football - even if the pundits miss it.

    The thing about possession football is it knackers your opponents and puts pressure on them to make their possession effective - when it works that is.

    If Spain actually did win this world cup it would be incredibly, much like Barcelona in Champions League last year, precisely because of the way they play.

    Good column on pundits here:

    It seems absurd the lack of research that is done into other countries, and it has always infuriated me that they don't watch football from other leagues even the Spanish, German & Italian leagues when its their job to know players and their attributes - a new signing is frequently greeted as an unknown quantity in the premiership even if they come from Weder Bremen, Athletico Madrid or Napoli.