Bill Connelly spent five days in England to search for the heart of English soccer, compare football crowds to futbol crowds, and figure out why everybody was telling him not to rent a car.
XIII. You got no fear of the underdog
Soccer and college football are incredibly similar. There are haves and have-nots, and the have-nots have to find inefficiencies.
In college football, you know which 10-12 schools are going to land most of the blue-chip recruits. Coaching and development play a role in ultimate success, obviously, but the sport's blue bloods start a leg or two ahead of the field from a pure talent perspective. In English soccer, it's the same thing. You know where the money is, and you know that most of the time the talent and results are going to correlate strongly with the money. And because Liverpool-Manchester United or Chelsea-Arsenal will always be a bigger television draw than, say, Hull-Southampton, just as Alabama-LSU will usually outdo Missouri-Arkansas, there is no institutional motivation for changing this system.
Still, Missouri, Arkansas, Hull, and Southampton have to go about winning games and moving as far up the standings/table as possible. Sometimes they do well at this; others, not so much.
In college football, some teams have figured out slowing the game down as much as possible, offering as few possessions as possible, shrinks your opponent's margin for error. And if the opponent is a lot more talented than you, shrinking the game offers fewer opportunities for them to pull away from you. The closer you can stay, the more likely it is that one or two breaks can put you in position for an upset.
Call it the Stanford Principle, or the Vanderbilt Principle. Or, in a way, the Stoke principle. In Chris Anderson's and David Sally's The Numbers Game, the duo dedicated a chapter, entitled "The Deflation of the Long Ball," to Stoke's unorthodox, downright anti-social tactics under former manager Tony Pulis.
Stoke are happy not to have the ball. In this age where possession is king, they are devout republicans. For [Tony] Pulis, the Pep of the Potteries, less is more. It is as though Stoke believe they are more likely to score, and less likely to concede, if they don't have the ball. And the only possession they really seem to believe in is when Rory Delap is able to cradle the ball in both hands as he gets ready to throw the ball into the box.
Stoke are perfectly happy to play less soccer than anyone else. Not just in the philosophical sense of not being concerned with getting the ball on the floor and keeping it, but in a very literal way. It's simple: the more the ball is in play, and the more Stoke have the ball, the worse they do.
Soccer is a sport steeped in mistakes. You almost always eventually turn the ball over when you have possession of it, and the best opportunity your opponent is going to have to score is if you turn the ball over to your opponent on your end of the field. In the seconds after turnovers are involved, the sport becomes less like football and more like basketball, with sudden steals and fast breaks leading to easy scoring opportunities. Or, to keep the football theme going, it's like a defender trying to return an interception for a score. The defense isn't settled into formation, there's more chaos, and there's more potential for mistakes and breakthroughs toward the goal.
(Coincidentally, Ed Reed, the NFL's all-time leader in interception return yards, would have been an absolutely hellacious defensive midfielder.)
Tony Pulis is an underdog whisperer who failed at Bristol City and Portsmouth before figuring out an unorthodox way of winning games in a decade at Stoke, then led Crystal Palace to its best ever Premier League finish (11th) last season; call him the Todd Berry of English soccer. He took this "sport of failure" and decided that possessing the ball doesn't necessarily matter if bad possessions lead to opponents' opportunities. If you don't have the talent to possess the ball properly, then don't. It is an incredibly commonsense approach, even if it doesn't pack much in the way of aesthetics.
On our last day in England, we met with Chris Anderson at a restaurant near Stamford Bridge in Fulham. He indulged us in a lovely, lengthy conversation about all things stats and soccer (and English soccer).
In discussing Pulis' teams, Anderson said, "You have to figure out as a team, what is it that my playing personnel can execute? Some teams have the luxury of having guys who can do everything, like Chelsea down the street here. The old Pulis teams were not as good with the ball.
As with both football and futbol, pace can play an alternate role as well.Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino. (Getty Images)
"You have lots of moments where you have complete control of the ball. When you have a goal kick, when the goalie has the ball in his hands, any sort of set piece situation. You can practice those, there are routes players run. And then there's open play. Some teams, like Pulis' teams, are teams that look for moments when you have complete control, when you have the ball out of play, when you can execute something you've practiced. It's like a play in football. Louis Van Gaal's teams do that, too, actually. Then you have teams that have a higher proportion of time in open play -- Arsenal is a good example of a team that tries to keep the ball in play and do stuff with the ball there."
Pulis teams shrink the game by poking the ball out of bounds and taking the time to properly structure their set pieces in the instances where they have complete control. But as with both football and futbol, pace can play an alternate role as well. Teams like Baylor and Texas A&M are drastically pushing the envelope by running as many plays as they possibly can and assuming they can handle the chaos and fatigue better than you can.
Michael Caley is a burgeoning stat head for SB Nation's Tottenham Hotspur site, Cartilage Free Captain. His Spurs hired Mauricio Pochettino away from Southampton in May after Southampton's brilliant run to eighth in the Premier League. As Caley points out, last year Southampton figured out an interesting way of attacking, one that was a bit prettier to the eye. "They focused on pressing, on preventing completion percentages." They also had a good understanding of how quick conversion from defense to offense and getting attackers up the field as quickly as possible can lead to breakdowns in a defense's shape and create scoring opportunities.
One can see how talent identification methods could be tailored to that.
(Pressing is my go-to Football Manager strategy. Is is a no-brainer to me. I tell you these things because I think you need to know them. I told Anderson; his response: "Well, if you can press and win the ball quickly, it's good. Otherwise you open yourself up to all kinds of problems." Well, fine then.)
There are hundreds of examples of inefficiencies like this, of teams realizing that they don't have the talent to play like the big boys, identifying a specific way of compensating, then identifying affordable players who fit their specific vision.
"The key isn't the £30 million players," Colin Trainor of the incredibly useful Statsbomb told me. "It's how to get the five best players you're going to be able to get for £15 million. Somebody valued at £2 million on the market ... some are going to be worthless to you, and some are going to be worth £5-6 million. And, of course, that's where analytics can help. "The little guy who's half-decent but can be had for £2 million -- you can use numbers to figure out who the smart clubs should be picking."
Numbers might also be able to help you to figure out where you should be picking. In soccer, the locals might be a bit overpriced. From Michael Foster at the essential Premier League Owl:
England is a country obsessed with doing things ‘The English Way,’ and that is particularly true of football. How many times must we suffer pundits and ex-players eulogising about how the English game is the best in the world, for no tangible reason given other than ‘because we say it is.’ It’s true the English style is unique in the sport, but if it was the best they would have won more international honours. These pompous, arrogant beliefs, spurred on by a media that loves whipping people into a rabid frenzy, has convinced people that the problems in the English game are the fault of everyone else but theirs.
There appears to be value within England of looking outside of England for more properly-valued talent. In a country in which 'The English Way' is indeed a thing, and where big-money clubs race to land England's soccer savior, there's an in-house premium that might not exist elsewhere. Trainor: "I would certainly look outside of England. The Austrian League, the Mexican League, the Dutch League. Mining the data, looking at players who come up really well in the numbers in those leagues. Everybody likes recruiting English players, and there's certainly risk mitigation involved -- somebody from Belgium might be less likely to settle [in a given area of England] than somebody from Grimsby. But [when gambling,] I tend to make the most money on the smaller leagues because there tends to be less widely known information available on those."
Soccer and college football are nothing alike. Dealing with relegation threat is a whole different type of risk.
"To me, I've always felt that the MLS should be the laboratory for innovation in soccer," Anderson told us. "It's a league that doesn't have relegation. You can try some unusual stuff and see if it works. If not, oh well, we lose some games. But you don't see that. Maybe the quality of players just isn't where there to do creative things. And the league, for a number of years, tried to be as European, as 'authentic' as it could be. So it was played like that as opposed to 'weird' soccer, which might have given the league a bad name.
"The perverse moral of Moneyball in English football," Anderson says in regard to the Oakland Athletics' famous money-conscious, inefficiency-exploiting tactics for building a good baseball team, "is that the biggest teams do the most of it. They have the most money to do it, they probably have the best management talent to see the value in it, they have owners -- sometimes Americans like John Henry, Stan Kroenke, people like that -- who get it and want to do it. So Moneyball's played at the top end, where it's probably the least needed. My 13-year old can pick out the players who Manchester City should sign next year, playing Football Manager or FIFA '14 or whatever. It's a very odd state of affairs."
if the sport adopted a promotion-and-relegation system tomorrow, I would cheer. There's a dramatic downside, though.
We glorify the idea of promotion and relegation in the states, especially as it pertains to college football. And to be sure, it would clean up a lot of college football's problems. There's too much dead weight at the bottom of the power conferences, and teams' lots in life were determined as much by the teams they grouped with 80 years ago as with anything they've done well on the field of late. It's a glorious idea, and if the sport adopted a promotion-and-relegation system tomorrow, I would cheer.
There's a dramatic downside, though. So much of what we love about college football was derived from a lack of fear when it comes to losing. Kentucky happily hired human air raid siren Hal Mumme in the 1990s, in part because the Wildcats were already finishing at or near the bottom of the SEC standings. There was no harm in trying an experimental offensive style when the downside was basically maintaining status quo. But if the Wildcats had to worry about getting dropped to the Sun Belt, they might have elected to play it safe with an endless selection of Bill Currys, hoping simply to finish eighth and stay in the SEC.
"If you have a bad season, you don't get a better draft pick," Anderson says. "You'll go out of business, essentially. The average revenue for a Premier League team is probably something around £100 million per year, and the average revenue for a Championship team is probably something like £10-15 million. There's no comparison. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills probably still made a reasonable amount of money last year.
"It totally affects the level of risk when it comes to acquiring talent and everything you do inside the football club. Outside of those top seven teams, for the bottom 13 it becomes about not losing instead of winning." Instead of trying to beat Chelsea, you're trying to make sure you don't lose to Sunderland. "It also affects how innovative you are more generally. Decision making gets harder when the business is on the line. So while Moneyball is an awesome idea, it doesn't apply in the same way. If you try something unconventional, and it goes south..." then you get fired, and your club makes £85-90 million less next year.
"What happens is that the lower 13 then hire coaches that aren't quite as potentially good, staff that aren't quite as innovative, chairmen who are more risk-averse. And the whole thing kind of conspires to become, not an anti-Moneyball, but very conventional ball."
"There's real conservatism in football culture," Michael Caley summarizes. "The downside is worse than the upside with a promotion-and-relegation system. Innovation isn't necessarily rewarded."
Before meeting with Anderson near Chelsea, we began our last full day in England west of Birmingham, in the suburb of West Bromwich. West Bromwich Albion has begun its fifth consecutive season in the Premier League. The Baggies barely survived relegation last year, finishing 17th after a nice run of results (11th in 2011, 10th in 2012, eighth in 2013). They had a rough go of it through the years, slipping from the first division in 1986 and failing to reappear at the top level until 2002. After some yoyoing (up in 2002, down in 2003, up in 2004, down in 2006, up in 2008), they have stabilized, at least for now.
Fifteen miles northwest, in Wolverhampton, there's no such thing as stability.
Wolves yellow is a different yellow. It's deeper, more vivid. Like a deck with a fresh, light stain, it seems to get richer when it rains. (And really, the goal for almost anything in England is to be pretty when it's cloudy.) And Wolves' history is rather vivid in its own way, for reasons good and bad.
Almost no club has proven as upwardly or downwardly mobile as Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves made the finals of the first UEFA Cup in 1972, won the League Cup in 1974, got relegated in 1976, and got promoted back to Division 1 in 1977. They were relegated in 1982, promoted in 1983, then relegated for three straight seasons from 1984-86. Their re-ascent was almost as quick: they were promoted twice in two years (1988-89), then settled into life in the second tier for a while. They reached the Premier League in 2003 and were sent down in 2004. They reached the Premier League again in 2009, got sent down to Championship in 2012, then got sent down again in 2013. Naturally, they won League One last year, and they won three of their first four games this year in Championship.
there are two different things at play there, though -- relegation itself is not so bad. The fear of relegation can be paralyzing.
Wolves have been either promoted or relegated 13 times in 32 years. That's a lot of drama, enough to perhaps make you a little bit numb to the anxiety of it all. Sky Sports' Adam Bate, a lifelong Wolves follower, told me, "Personally, the hope outweighs the fear.
"There are fans who welcome relegation as the chance to renew. Wolves could've limped on in the second tier, but as it was, they had to completely rebuild with a new young group of players who won the love of the crowd back. The renewal happened far quicker than it would have if the team had not been relegated. I guess there are two different things at play there, though -- relegation itself is not so bad. The fear of relegation can be paralyzing.
"An occasional drop through the trap door provides the chance to win games, and it’s often surprising how little the prospect of playing at a lower level actually impacts on attendances. It helps that there is a rich tradition with maybe 30 to 40 significantly supported teams in England. For example, Wolves enjoyed their biggest crowd in over 30 years while playing in the third tier earlier this year. It’s about local pride whatever the standard."
But even if relegation isn't that bad in the end, it's sometimes difficult to keep your job if you are in charge of a team in danger of falling down a level or, in Wolves' case, three. And fear can lead you to choose safety over upside.