England: Football Has Become Academic And We Have To Embrace It To Progress

Sophisticated footballing philosophies around the world have adapted to include incredibly detailed levels of tactical and statistical analysis, but England remains sceptical. That fear of changing our footballing culture is crippling, and is holding us back.
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Sophisticated footballing philosophies around the world have adapted to include incredibly detailed levels of tactical and statistical analysis, but England remains sceptical. That fear of changing our footballing culture is crippling, and is holding us back.

Football coverage has never been more divided. Never have there been more arguments about the way in which the game should be enjoyed, watched and analysed. Never have we seen so many differing opinions regarding what carries value in football journalism and what doesn’t.

This new faux civil war began perhaps two or three seasons ago, when tactical and statistical analysis of football became more popular, mainstream and widely accepted. Through increased television deals and the ever growing popularity of the Champions League, our knowledge of European and worldwide football had never been any higher, or easier to come by.

Suddenly, columns often marginalised by newspapers became headline stories. As many people were aware of the dates for El Clásico as they were the FA Cup final. But recently, there has been a backlash. Words such as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘meaningless’ have been attributed to fact based analysis. Just as it has done time and time again in this country, change has bred fear, and fear has bred imbeciles.

For example, recently on Twitter, I posted two separate tweets regarding points I was trying to get across. Firstly, using the impressive Squawka comparison matrix, I sent a tweet suggesting that signing Ben Davies from Swansea for a third of the price Manchester United had spent on Luke Shaw would be incredible business by Tottenham, and used their almost identical statistical results for 2013/14 to back up the claim I had made.

Secondly, I wrote a story about the SFR Yugoslavia, and hypothetically discussed the 23 man World Cup squad that would have been available to the country had it still been in existence today. Again, to back up the larger point about how strong that side would be, I used the fantastic online tools at ShareMyTactics to create an extremely basic tactics board for the entirely imaginary outfit.

Unsurprisingly, both of those points were met with a mixed response: half in agreement, and half taking umbrage with the methods used to visualise the points being made. The divide, at least for me, strikes me as a simple one - those who encourage the academisation of football, and those who flatly oppose it. Why those two schools of thought can’t co-exist without having to interact is beyond me, but we live in far from a perfect world.

The main target for those souls who fear, and don’t really understand, football as a wider concept than just a simple game, is the recently dubbed ‘football hipster’. You see, knowledge of the game outside of England, understanding of tactical terms that aren’t just ‘hoof’ and owning a copy of Inverting The Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson apparently make you a figure of fun to some.

You see, when I posted those statistics detailing Davies and Shaw, many accused me of never having seen either play, and basing my entire knowledge of the players on the figures they had posted. Inevitably, someone will tell you that numbers in football are meaningless, and that “this isn’t Football Manager”. Despite those people being the same sort that still think Harry Redknapp should have been made England manager, they couldn’t be anymore wrong.

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An extract from Il Mio Albero di Natale (My Christmas Tree) by Carlo Ancelotti

Football clubs across almost every top division across the continent use statistical analysis to a degree in their own analysis of their players and scouting for new recruits. Some of the largest subscriptions to Sports Data companies such as Opta and Running Ball are the clubs themselves, who place real value in the figures that those companies produce. There are degree level courses available that train people to perform sports science roles that directly feed in to this form of analysis.

Websites powered by that data are impossibly popular, with the likes of the aforementioned Squawka, and the also excellent Who Scored? big favourites with fans, clubs and players alike. There isn’t a week that goes by where a prominent club or player hasn’t retweeted a statistic, graphic or metric of theirs in agreement, or in happiness of having been mentioned.

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With the tactics board I posted recently, the fact that I had utilised the softwares’ tools and given some of the players basic positional arrows became a bone of contention for some. The misconception made was that because they themselves did not have the basic knowledge to know what those arrows showed, meant that they must have actually meant nothing at all. The fact that such revisionary, basic and uneducated attitudes remain widespread in English football directly feed in to how far we are behind in the game as a country.

If you take two current prominent managers and look at their tactical preparation in their most basic form, it quickly becomes clear that the Redknapp school of management is a dying breed, and thankfully so. In his recent book Il Mio Albero di Natale - ‘My Christmas Tree’ to you and me - current Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti detailed how his Milan side beat Manchester United 3-0 in of one the sections explaining his successful signature 4-3-2-1 formation. Shockingly, he uses arrows to illustrate his points. For shame.

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Jürgen Klopp's tactics board during BVBs 2012/13 Champions League campaign.

Furthermore, during their recent run to the Champions League final in 2012/13, Jürgen Klopp had his tactics board photographed and leaked. Handwritten, multi-coloured and carefully drawn, the tactical identity of that fantastic Borussia Dortmund side was shown plain as day in basic arrow form. But you know, some people don’t really understand the value of it, so what’s the point of him even doing it?

Yet, there is an argument that perhaps statistical and tactical analysis may be going too far, and a balance needs to be found. Heat maps, touch maps, and collated percentages flood Twitter timelines and post-match pieces game after game, and the nuances of the game can sometimes become lost if modern analysis is used as a crutch, rather than a tool to support existing points made.

The overriding point is that because you may not fully understand a way in which another person has analysed something does not automatically mean that it holds no value. I don’t know the slightest bit about particle physics, but you don’t see me tweeting Professor Brian Cox telling him that the large hadron collider is a meaningless waste of money. It is better to keep your mouth closed and have everyone think you’re an idiot than to open it and remove all doubt.

As his side narrowly crashed out of the World Cup after capturing the imagination of millions, Jorge Luis Pinto was condescendingly called “just a football academic” by the BBC commentary team, who were keen to point out that this was an especially impressive achievement by “somebody who has never played the game”. Despite the fact it was such an obviously disrespectful thing to say about a man who was currently at the pinnacle of his management career, the dismissive nature of such a comment is reflective of a school of thinking still sadly in existence in this country.

Tournament after tournament we complain as a nation that England have under-performed and underachieved, missing the point that the football culture in this country has yet to move on. If you watch Italian coverage of Serie A, or Dutch coverage of Eredivisie and German coverage of the Bundesliga, they take the tactics and the statistics and they apply them appropriately, and have prolonged discussions among themselves about the intricacies of the game. Away from Gary Neville’s oversized iPad, the level of punditry in this country, especially on terrestrial television, peaks at Adrian Chiles shrugging his shoulders and fluffing a pre-written pun from his script.

Last season in the Premier League was a triumph for modern, tactical based coaching. Teams such as Tottenham struggled, with Tim Sherwood approaching the game in such a basic, pig-headed manner, they finished lower than they had for years. While in the same league Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez - who both believe in tactical coaching and analysis - saw their sides flourish due to having much better preparation than their counterparts.

Look at Manchester United as a case in point, they’ve sacked a manager from the proverbial “old school” after a calamitous time in charge and hired one who is a celebrated tactician with an identifiable footballing philosophy. The last decade of the Champions League has been dominated by three men - Ancelotti, Guardiola and Mourinho, probably three of the most famous ‘football academics’ working in the game today.

As soon as this country becomes comfortable with marrying both the academic aspects of football and the philosophical, we will be much better off for it. A culture of denial and stubbornness has held us back for far too long, and has gone beyond the realms of being counterproductive. We have to embrace our inner-Bielsa instead of fearing change, and take a proactive stance to progression rather than sitting around waiting for something to happen out of thin air. Only when our attitude towards football falls in line with the rest of the world will we finally start to see end product like they have. Until then, we’ll be a second rate nation playing second rate football getting second rate results. Joga bonito.

You can follow Raj on Twitter - @BainsXIII