Football. It’s unpredictable and its the reason we love it. Anything can happen even things that could seem so out of reach, like scoring 2 goals in less than 90 seconds at the death vs a team that dominated most of the play over 180 minutes. History is unforgiving though. History only remembers the winner not how they won it or how the other team lost it.
History is also a reflection of public opinion and public opinion is driven by narratives. Nothing is more radical and ever changing than football narratives and there’s a good reason for it. Its from people about people. It is the single greatest aspect that gets forgotten about this sport when building narratives, football players are human beings — which is laughable because when you want to criticize them over high profile incidents you attack their character more than than their talent. It’s all contradictory.
Too often recently, narratives are outcome-based, which is a very reductionist way of judging teams and players. It is absolutely ridiculous as well given the nature of the sport. A sport that is multivariate with endless possibilities, which introduces an element of randomness. This randomness is what elite level managers refer to when they are talking about ‘controlling’ the game. Unfortunately, no matter how much managers try to control the fine margins of the game, it is nigh impossible to fully control football. If so, the team that achieves full control would never lose.
Why though? The reason is emotions. How can the manager control the psychological state of the players at every moment of the match? How can you control human nature? Managers can only provide the best possible platform for the players to succeed and the coaches can prepare them physically, psychologically, technically. The individuals go out there and deal with it on their own and try to carry out the agreed upon plan but then football happens.
Someone said this earlier and I fully agree: “Goals will always affect states and results, but not on the overall processes”
This is what Real Madrid has been relying on in the champions league. They have been relying on a goal to change the state and the momentum and then feed off it while the opposition team’s emotions get distorted and lose sight of their original plan.
This is also a reflection on why Real Madrid never dominated their league in the last 14 years but dominated the Champions League. The CL is all high pressure emotional ties, while the league is long and tedious work over the course of 8 months. Real Madrid had many charismatic managers who controlled dressing rooms brilliantly but other than Jose Mourinho, they didn’t have a manager that focused on their in possession principles and their tactics. Regardless, their brilliant recruitment and man-managers overshadowed their shortcomings in the tactics department.
Let’s get back to goals and game states…
This change in game state is called loss aversion. It is natural human behaviour to want to avoid losing what you have. So team’s behaviour change depending on the state of the game to avoid risks and losses, yet it can often be sub-optimal for the teams to behave in such a way. If you are interested in the math and statistics of how teams’ behaviour change based on the state of the game, you can read here. Game state is defined as when there’s a difference in the score of +1,+2,+3 goals up or down for the team. The behaviour changes not drastically but enough to make a difference. This is not a manager influenced phenomenon but just natural human behaviour to going 1 up, or 2 down, etc. Take a look at this graph to understand what happens in different game states:
This graph is a representation of how teams behave in 5 different game states. You’ll notice that teams slightly under perform when they go +1 game state and stay in it for long period and over perform when they go -1 game state for a long period. This is because both teams’ view of loss aversion is different; the team that has +1game state is being more risk averse due not wanting to lose what they have and also due to the team in -1 game state being more risk tolerant because they are in a losing position. PDO is the mean distribution of the other two metrics which in lame terms describes the team’s ‘luck’. It basically says that a team’s performance will always revert to the mean sooner or later.
For example, when Arsenal lost 3 games on the bounce, they were underachieving their metrics (shots and saves) and their oppositions were overachieving. That was later corrected by their overachievement vs Chelsea and Man Utd. Arsenal almost scored with every shot on target vs those 2 teams, which is an overachievement on the conversion metrics. No team converts at such a rate but that was them reverting to their mean from their earlier underachievement.
This whole game state study ties in well with the randomness of football and its dependency on emotions. Obviously this study isn’t an explanation to players’ emotions but an observation to the resulting behaviour in different emotional states, if you will.
Guardiola summed it perfectly in his press conference:
Guardiola lambasted the idea that they lost because of “lack of character”. In a sense, he is right because Man City conceded two goals in less than 90 seconds. There was no time for heads to drop and be complacent or behave as though they have already lost. He also mentioned “momentum and periods where a team is hot” which we said earlier in the form of game state. City score that chance with Grealish and gain further momentum as they were ‘hot’ in that game state and the game ends 2–0 or 3–0. They would have been hailed as the team that crushed Real Madrid and lyrics would be waxed about their mentality. However, it was Madrid that scored a few seconds later which ignited Madrid momentum and ‘cooled’ down City; resulting in City’s character and mentality being criticized.
This sums up outcome-based analysis unfortunately. This is no way to analyze games since it omits large section of the full picture. But again, we go back to the point of how can a manager control emotions when the game gets flipped in less than 90 seconds?
The only part where I could argue against Pep here is, you had 30 minutes of extra time to revitalize the morale, what did you do with it? City seemed to concede pressure to Madrid far easier than they should have and his argument to that would be, Did you factor Madrid’s momentum into the equation? In his defense, he did try to raise the morale and brought Sterling because he believed City could score one or two more to secure qualifications. However, the emotions, the momentum, the stadium, everything was in Real Madrid's favor.
Guardiola didn’t do anything tactically wrong in that game, the Mahrez to Fernandinho change was a very logical substitution that any manager in a +2 game state would make because, in general, teams in a +2 up state ease off in the last 5 minutes as they conclude the game is won. City naturally eased off towards the 85–86th minute so Guardiola wanted to shore up the midfield further with Fernandinho and gain control of possession. Nevertheless…Football happened.
Football cannot be fully controlled and it cannot be predicted and that’s by nature not design, fundamentally. It is played by human beings and they are fallible and susceptible to fluctuations of emotions both positive and negative. As such, you can only make inferences and educated guesses but that’s that. They are just guesses.
This whole ordeal sheds light though on the most important aspect of management, which is man management. The art of handling humans. This is not to say that Guardiola is bad at handling his players but it just sheds more light on that aspect. Despite your processes and tactics, you will face many moments where things don’t go according to plan and those moments could be in vital knockout competition ties. How you handle the situation and players’ emotions can sway the outcome against you or in your favor.
In the long run, the sustainable and stable process of Man City will triumph despite what outcome-based analysts say. Nonetheless, what happened in that Madrid vs City underlines the vital importance of the human element and how it is the victim of the randomness in football.
Thank you. Hope you enjoyed it.