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Monday, June 23, 2008

UEFA 2008 opinions

Soccer stereotypes win through, as UEFA 2008 hits the semi-final stage

About a week ago, I promised that we'd eventually cast an eye over the UEFA 2008 tournament taking place in Austria and Switzerland. True, soccer is not something we've covered (at all) in our year and three month existence to date, but outside of the Olympic Games, this is one of the big showpiece events of the year, and so we felt it important to have a brief look at the tournament.

Those who've followed it will by now know that we're into the semi-final stage of the tournament, and the line up consists of:

  • Germany vs. Turkey
  • Russia vs. Spain
While it's hardly a huge surprise to see Germany and Spain there, the presence of Turkey and Russia is a little more unusual, particularly given the teams they knocked out to make it there. But most of all, it's the absence of Holland, Italy, France and Portugal that is a little more of a turn up. At the outset of the tournament, you'd surely have put money on at least two of those teams making the last four, and to be in a situation where not one has progressed is typical of a championships that has thrown up some surprises, including Denmark and Greece as two of its recent winners!

The stereotypes of football and a lack of supportive data

But last night, as I was torturing myself by watching Spain against Italy, it occurred to me that with the exception of surprise teams like Russia, soccer tournaments like this are often almost scripted long before the first ball is kicked, as a result of stereotypes that tend to persist in the complete lack of evidence to support them (and herewith the science part of this post!).

For example, consider the following teams, and the associations you automatically make in terms of their playing style. Germany will be efficient, workman-like, ruthless, effective under pressure, and disciplined. Portugal, on the other hand, are skillful, but unable to deliver when the pressure is greatest, and tend to be temperamental and volatile. Holland meanwhile, play "total football", with a focus on the skill level of every player, emphasizing a passing game which is often entertaining to watch, but lack a hard edge. So, in a tournament like this, expect Germany to find a way to win, expect Portugal and Holland to promise much, but fail to deliver...

Note that these three generalizations come from BEFORE the tournament began, but you could just as well write them now that the semi-final lineup has been decided. In other words, Germany were disciplined, efficient, ruthless and effective when under pressure, as they knocked out Portugal, who did falter under pressure with some careless errors.

Holland meanwhile, did play the most attractive football in the tournament, scoring nine goals in three matches, and eventually got dumped out the tournament by Russia! The stereotypes don't stop there - Italy are known for grinding out results, playing dull football and adopting negative tactics which are often effective in these tournaments (they certainly enhanced this reputation last night against Spain, barring a penalty shoot-out loss!).

Point is, the stereotypes that the teams enter the tournament with often end up proving to be self-fulfilling prophecies in terms of the eventual result! But if one thinks analytically about it, there's very little data (at least, none that I can see) that proves these stereotypes to even be accurate. For example, it's not as though Holland do pass the ball more than any other team - the only statistic that has been shown on the TV coverage of the tournament is a passing stat, and the Dutch team are similar to any other in this regard - the same number of attempted passes, and the same completion rate. And how does one quantify the efficiency of the Germans? Is it in fewer mistakes? Well, first we must define mistakes. Missed passes? Missed tackles? Allowing opposition time on the ball? We haven't seen these stats, though I'd love to know what "hard" proof there is to suggest that the German way of playing is different.

The point is, there is a lack of evidence on which to base an outsider opinion of the game. And all this reminds me of the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he talks of a concept called "Thin slicing", where an expert in a topic is often able to make extremely accurate judgements on very little hard information. I suspect a similar thing happens for soccer. Both Jonathan and I played soccer, albeit to a relatively low level, and so we would not consider ourselves experts. However, the experts tend to line up and predict the patterns of play and strategies that will be adopted by teams, and these predictions often turn out to be quite accurate.

The scientist in me would however love to get hold of information that "proves" (or at the very least suggests) that this instictive, "thin-slicing" opinion is correct. Or is it a case where informed insight is based on "intangible" science and information? Any data would be most welcome - an exercise in clever data interpretation to prove what experts and performances suggest to be the case...

Back to the soccer

But, back to the actual on-field action. The biggest pity in the tournament is that Russia played The Netherlands in a quarterfinal matchup, which means that one of the two most entertaining teams was eliminated. Having watched the 3-1 extra time thriller between Russia and The Netherlands, followed by the drab and painful Italy-Spain matchup, it's indeed a pity that the Dutch are no longer involved.

Italy-Spain was a war of attrition. To modify the old saying: "It's a shame somebody had to WIN the match", and for the neutral, the most pleasing result would have been to eliminate both teams and let The Netherlands play Russia again in the semi-final! Italy were dreadful - I've never seen a team drop all 11 players back behind the ball instantly when the opposition win it! It was more like watching a rugby match, where the two teams were completely separated, so defensive were the Italians. So from a neutral, it's Ciao to Italy, with a smile and fond farewell, and let's hope Spain have more attacking flair than they showed last night.

Team of the tournament though is Russia, who have, apart from their opening game against Spain, been spectacular. They have "no name" players who play with freedom, pace and a sense of adventure that is rare and thrilling to watch. It comes back to preconceived ideas and stereotypes about countries, but if the Russian Number 10 (a guy called Arshivin) was playing in a red jersey of Portugal, he'd be praised as one the world's great players right now, the most skillful and the most exciting, because he's been absolutely spectacular. Instead, he plays for Russia, not a glamour team, and those titles are given instead to Ronaldo, who was completely neutralized against Germany in their 3-2 defeat. If Arshivin can even play half as well for a season as he did last night, then Real Madrid would quickly forget their pursuit of Ronaldo and spend that money on the Russian instead!

As for Holland, unlucky again, though outplayed by Russia, who thoroughly deserved to win. The Russians now meet Spain, who will carry more confidence into that game than they did against Italy, and therefore should attack a little more (please let them attack more!). I hope Russia win the game, because I think they'll be invigorating for the final, where I'd pick them to play Germany.

Germany have been patchy, losing to Croatia and grinding out a win against Austria. But against Portugal, they were anything but efficient and workman-like, they were actually exciting and aggressive, and I expect they'll have too much for Turkey, for whom just overcoming Croatia may prove to be a high point. So Germany-Russia for the final, and then who knows - we need an expert to "thin-slice" the possible result for us!


P.S. Before I hear from people for criticising their teams (soccer fever tends to run high!), let me admit right now that my own nation, South Africa, played against the Mighty Sierra Leone, ranked number 163 in the world, in NOT ONE, BUT TWO MATCHES, and couldn't score a single goal. That's right, 180 minutes against a team ranked 163rd , and we couldn't score a goal...

Bring on the 2010 World Cup and the best in the world. We'll be ready....


Julie said...

"Spectactular" is the appropriate word to describe the Russian team. They've been enormously exciting to watch. Who knew?

I've a feeling you'll see a few of those Russian players turn up in the English Premier League (or other Euro teams) in short order.

Unknown said...

'Guus Hiddink' explains everything you need to know about Russia. As an international coach his worst performance has been taking Australia 'only' to the final 16 of the last World Cup (a team that had only once before qualified for the World Cup finals, and never won a game there) where they went within a soft penalty and diving Italian of making the quarter finals.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Candyman

No doubt, you're right. Great coach. There was a time, about 2 years ago, that he was touted as the next coach of South Africa, seeing as how we're going to be hosting the 2010 World Cup. Doubtless he would have been a great acquisition! And if he could have succeeded here, then he'd succeed anywhere!

But on Saturday night, it was Russia playing the "total football", and that's thanks to him!

And to Julie, I saw today that Arshivin of Russia is being "hunted" by some big clubs, so you're right, the checkbooks and agents are out in force!


runner said...

Thanks for the nice post on soccer.
I go with your final (GER-RUS) and hope the Germans will continue the way the played the first 30mins against Portugal.
About statistics: On the official website of the EURO there are a lot of data about every game and every player. You can even see how many kilometers every player covered during the game. Just go to http://en.euro2008.uefa.com/tournament/matches/index.html
and then click on the match (result) you want to have the stats for.


Anonymous said...

Football (not soccer!) is a game of styles and unlike the other football codes it allows for more creativity. I would disagree that the Italy v Spain match was not worth watching. Football enthusiats appreciate the game on all levels including the tactical battle that goes on between the coaches while the game is going on. In this case, the counter-attacking play of the Spanish was halted by the well known "catinaccio" by the Italians who by the way invented the sweeper in order to stop teams from scoring. A purisit would find just as much excitment in a 0-0 outcome as a silly 4 - 1 win which is obviously one-sided!

Also, those of us who know our football history would be aware that the Russians (Soviet Union) have the best record (after Germany)in this tournament reaching the Final no less than four times. This is a bit like saying that the US has no chance at winning the world cup; but few people know that the US has reached a semi-final and have knocked out England in doing so. And by the way it was the US that invented the 4-4-2 formation which is played everywhere to this day. They should be credited with inventing the defensive style of play not the Italians!

I suppose that's enough from me!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous and Runner

Thanks for the comments. Anonymous, you make good points, clouded by the contempt in your tone, but otherwise, all valid.

I do apologize if I offended the "purist" in your football enthusiasm. Just a note - if some people wish to call it soccer, and enjoy it purely for the entertainment, then let them, for just as you watch it with an eye biased towards the tactics and strategy, others enjoy the game for other reasons. To dismiss them as not being "enthusiasts" is somewhat arrogant.

Further, I'd love to know the source of the data based on which you make many of the claims. For it confirms what I was saying in the post. Many people involved with football are no doubt correct (I suspect you are correct), but often without justification.

For example, your assessment of the negativity of the Italian game is interesting. I suspect that if we watched a game played out to 0-0 between say, South Africa and Sierra Leone, and another between Italy and Spain, there'd be no "MEASURABLE" statistic that showed the tactical supremacy that you suggest. That's not to say it isn't there, but just that there is little data behind it. That was the point of the post, not that football/soccer should be all about goals. My point is that the stereotypes that about (that Italy are tactically superior because the prevent goals being scored) are false!


a person said...


Holland stopped playing 'total football' more than 10 years ago :)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Nick

Touche! Though some fans in orange might disagree...! Was there a hint of it when they pulled apart France and Italy 7-1 on "aggregate" in the first round, though! It's a shame they couldn't carry it through, they were good to watch!


Anonymous said...

No follow-up post on Spain's win? I am disappointed.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Geremy

Me too, for what it's worth. Just not enough time to write all the posts, I'm afraid, in between the "real" work that has to be done. I'd have loved to post on it, it was an impressive end to the tournament by its best team.

In fact, barring the first 20 minutes or so of that final, I don't recall such a one-sided final of a major championships in many years - France-Brazil in 1998 was similar. So the best team of the tournament won, no doubt.

Apologies for not posting fully on it, but the last week was difficult at work...!