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Moving Off the Chessboard

Currently a large part of soccer culture is heavily biased towards numbers and tactics. Fans and pundits alike love debating and arguing over stats and there is a proliferation of self-styled tacticos who focus on shapes, structures and numbers to understand the game.

The sheer amount of numbers is dizzying, the stats increasingly complex. Between the rigid tactical structures, data-driven analysis of both teams and individual players, there is more information than ever before. This has lead to new styles of playing and ways of thinking about the game in recent years. In many ways this perspective has become a dominant lens of viewing the game. Analytics and results are prioritized over aesthetics and creativity.

Among the tactically inclined, the game is often viewed through the framework of chess. The players serve as pieces fulfilling assigned roles with a limited set of possible moves as played by the chess-master coach. Automated movements and specific patterns of play are rigorously coached, from the professional to the youth level. Players are often given very detailed coaching on specific actions to take in a given moment on the pitch. There is a so-called correct place for the player to position themselves on the field. There are clear instructions for which actions to take in a given situation, allowing players to focus on technique and lessening the decision-making.

In the world of soccer, the highly organized, technologically advanced approach has been a successful model, particularly for well-financed clubs. Sports science and data-based analysis have been integrated into football clubs worldwide. European football, often seen as the top-level of the sport prizes this sort of positional play. These models have been incredibly successful and I am not in any way arguing against these methods. Rather I want to argue for an expanded viewpoint, a dynamic balance that doesn't try to resolve the tension between result-based analytics and a more aesthetic, creative perspective.

Something is lost when we transfer so much of our understanding of the game into data points, tables and comparisons. I don't want to watch automated soccer. I'm not interested in safe, boring and predictable styles of play. A player who completes all their passes, stays in the coach chosen correct position and does what is expected of them is quite frankly boring. The game is most exciting when the unexpected occurs and a player does something that makes me reflexively say "Wow!" That excitement occurs when the unexpected unfolds. When players find moments of creative brilliance or bend the limits of possibility.

There are so many intangibles that impact how a game unfolds. Much of that is not captured when viewed through a position-based tactical or data-driven lens. By focusing too much on data and rigid tactics, it is easy to lose sight of the less tangible aspects of the game.

Negotiated, dynamic and fluid relationships can't be quantified or calculated neatly. These relationships occur between teammates and are also expressed between opposing teams, the referees and the audience. Why some games are angry and out of rhythm while others can be described as relaxed and flowing is something not easily predicted nor particularly well described using only numbers or tactics as a mode of analysis. While most of the attention goes rightly towards the players, the event itself is a collaboration between a large group of people, sharing in creating the whole experience together.

During COVID lockdowns, soccer was played without fans at the stadiums and it felt as if an element of the game was missing. The crowd's involvement in the creative act that is a match is often ignored, except to acknowledge a home advantage. And yet the rhythm and energy of a team is often dictated or at least influenced by the participation of the fans. A professional game is a collaboration between two teams, a set of referees, and the spectators. A collective collaboration unfolding spontaneously is a creative act that we then reduce to a result or a scoreline, at best a highlight reel. The numbers can help tell a story, or uncover something that is hard to see by a more generalized viewing but ultimately they are a reduction, secondary to the event itself.

Everyone loves a derby or rivalry match because of the atmosphere of the game. How the players interact with that atmosphere can have a major influence on the outcome of the game. But it will only receive a passing line in the match report at best, and won't show up on any statistical scoresheets. The coach can construct a specific game plan but once the game has started its the multitude of decisions by the players that creates the action. Even the best, most well-drilled team makes mistakes, both technical and strategic. Individual concentration can break down at crucial moments. A flash of anger, or a word of encouragement can suddenly and radically change the outcome of a game. How can you measure for that?

Broadening our scope, complicating the picture, and focusing on the messy, ever-changing human elements of the game helps highlight the beauty, joy and creativity in the game and opens up new possibilities to how soccer is played, expressed and celebrated.


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