Understanding the impact of Tactical Fouls

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By Karthik (@thinktankkv)

When Sergio Ramos brought down Yannick Ferreira Carrasco in the Champions League final this year to put an end to a promising Atletico Madrid counter attack, a lot must have been going through his head. Carrasco was playing out of his skin trying to get Atletico back into the game and with two deft touches he managed to motor past Modric and Casemiro to leave Real Madrid’s defense in total disarray. Things looked good for Atletico at that instant; Carrasco had only one defender separating him from the goal and two of his teammates were quick to flank him on either side to create a numerical advantage. Ramos surveyed the situation and in a matter of seconds came up with solutions and assessed the risk involved in all possible courses of action. He could track back as fast as possible banking on Atletico to commit a mistake somewhere or he could take matters into his own hands and tactical foul Carrasco to put a permanent end to the counter. Ramos chose the latter and got a yellow card for it. It was a tradeoff he was more than happy to make.

Tactical fouls have always been an integral part of football. Central Midfielders and Defenders frequently resort to fouling opponents to get out of sticky situations. Like Ramos, Mikel Arteta was among the major proponents of the tactical foul and he used it to great effect throughout his Arsenal career in a Defensive Midfield role. He lacked the pace to recover from difficult situations and was clever in his use of fouls as a damage control option. Fouling opponents is an underrated action from a defensive point of view. It destroys the opponents’ rhythm and momentum, which is extremely important in constructing attacks, and also allows the defending team time to recover. The opponent is reduced to taking set pieces, which are widely accepted to not be an optimal mode of attack. With all these advantages, it is easy to see why players tend to indulge in low risk fouls to stall opponents as long as they are not on a yellow card.

When judging the defensive contribution of players, the value of tactical fouls they commit is often overlooked. Unlike interceptions and tackles, the impact of tactical fouls in match is difficult to compute and can be a complex process. To understand the difference a tactical foul makes, a method to quantify the impact of a foul is needed. One metric that can be employed to estimate the value of fouls is the Foul Impact Quantifier. This is a statistical tool that computes the impact of fouls from a defensive point of view. Below is a table containing Foul Impact Quantifier values for the major fouls in Arsenal’s 3-2 preseason win against Manchester City. It was a game where the referee was quite reluctant to give away fouls but Fernando, Fernandinho and Nacho Monreal made important defensive contributions through tactical fouls.

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A major advantage of this metric is that it helps in better analyzing the impact of players whose game is built around breaking play and winning the ball back. Arsenal’s recent acquisition of Granit Xhaka can be a good buy in this regard. He averages a whopping 2.6 fouls a game and this employing the Foul Impact Quantifier to further dissect the value of these fouls only helps in understanding the player’s contribution in defense. Players like Aaron Ramsey, Fernandinho, Arturo Vidal and Gabi contribute significantly this way. To understand their impact in greater detail will be of immense value.

A tactical foul can be described as a deliberate foul on an opponent during a position of disadvantage, after which the defending team has a better chance of not conceding. Distance and numerical superiority of defenders can be employed to determine how good a position is for the attacking team. In chess, there are various software tools available to verify how strong and what the likelihood of winning from such a position is. These tools compute the number of times matches have been won in the past with similar positions. Although a similar system for football would be great, distance to goal and numerical advantage experienced by the attacking team is an effective indicator of how good a specific position is. Going by this definition, tactical fouls generally end up making it easier for the defending team and in many cases the player doing the foul makes a sacrifice by getting a yellow card.

The other kind of tactical foul for which impact is relatively hard to measure is the one that is done high up the field in order to break up play and nip counters in the bud. Players like Alexis Sanchez and Luis Suarez press relentlessly and commit fouls such as these. Fouls committed high up the field usually have low impact but their defensive worth could be underrated and hard to accurately compute. A good tactical foul has a Foul Impact Quantifier value that lies between 20 and 50, but for the above mentioned reasons, to specifically pinpoint a type as the ideal tactical foul is difficult; any foul that provides an improved chance of defending a goal is a foul that is worth the effort.

Sergio Ramos’ foul on Yannick Carrasco had a very Foul Impact Quantifier value (it scored 50) and although the foul sparked a debate on whether Ramos should’ve been sent off or not, the importance of the foul in keeping Real Madrid in the game was largely forgotten. A clever footballer employs tactical fouls to good use and the using Foul Impact Quantifier to evaluate the impact of fouls can be extremely beneficial in understanding defensive contributions made by players.

Formula: This metric is takes into account the distance from the goal and the numerical advantage the opponent has at the time of being fouled. The formula for the Foul Impact Quantifier is (K/(D*N)), where D is the distance from goal, N is the number of players between the fouled player and the goal and K is a constant.

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Sergio Busquets: Re-inventing the midfield pivot role

Karthik Venkatesh (KV) argues why Sergio Busquets is one of this generation’s most important players. Oh, and why that also makes him the perfect foil to the the sitcom character, Barney Stinson.

Sergio Busquets is the ultimate ‘Bro’ on the pitch. His game is so astonishingly altruistic that he can be fittingly compared to the perfect ‘wingman’ who will do his all to set you up with that girl of your wildest fantasies. Once he gets the ball, it seems like all he does is greet the ball and say; “Hello! Have you met my genius friend, Xavi?” Here are three good reasons why Sergio Busquets is an extremely vital cog in the Barca team and the foremost ‘team player’ in the world today.

Passing Efficiency

The prime reason for Sergio Busquets’ near perfect passing success rate is that he knows where to pass to even before he receives the ball. His awareness of the players around him is extraordinary, enabling him to complete the process of choosing and executing in a matter of seconds. In the game against Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey, Busquets took an average of 1.6(!) seconds to complete a pass. In some cases, he dispatched the ball within a heart attack causing 0.4 seconds. His game is mostly about releasing the ball quickly and it is fair to say that he has more than achieved the goal. In the recently concluded La Liga season, Busquets completed 91.9% of his passes successfully.

Personifying efficiency, Busquets is technically compact, finding solutions in jet speed to pick out a free team mate. He uses the ‘fake’ to a great deal of impact to open up space in a passing lane and also ensures that he hits the ball with minimal rotation, so his team mate can play another one touch pass. Xavi Hernández, quite possibly the greatest midfielder of this generation, describes Sergio Busquets as “fundamental”. He says: “Busi sees you quickly, he always takes the simple option. He reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches a possible.” Here is the graph showing the relation between his passes and the time it took to complete them:

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Tactical Intelligence

Sergio Busquets performs a key role as the “pivote” of the team, playing in between defence and attack. This role involves carrying out a number of tasks. In the defensive phase, Busquets crucially moves into space to cut off passing lanes for the opponent, forcing him to play the least dangerous pass. He uses his sharp anticipation skills to win the ball back by intercepting it in midfield and immediately transfer it to a well positioned teammate. His primary function is to ‘receive and release’ and he performs this task flawlessly due to his astute reading of the game and tactical intelligence.

He plays an extremely crucial role in attack also. The basic foundation of Barcelona’s tiki-taka style of play is creating triangles. Busquets, being an imperative component in midfield, moves into space when his teammate has the ball to form triangles and increase passing options. The spontaneity with which he carries out this task is critical to the circulation of the ball and a ‘destroyer’ in midfield would retard the flow of circulation, unlike Busquets. Also, when in possession of the ball, Barcelona morph into several formations ranging from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, and Busquets dropping deep in between the center backs is the trigger which changes the structure. When he drops in between the center backs, they are allowed to move laterally and cover space out wide. This in turn pushes Daniel Alves higher up the pitch, meaning the right winger cuts inside to make use of space vacated by Messi dropping deep, increasing the number possibilities of attack. Watch how Sergio’s off the ball movement from CDM to CB causes a chain reaction which eventually leads to a goal. “Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets,” says Javier Mascherano, who is highly regarded to have a keen eye on the beautiful game. “He has the talent to play for any team anywhere in the world, but he’s made to play for this team. Literally, he’s the perfect guy. He robs the ball, he has superb technical skills and brings tactical order. I watch him and try to learn from him.”

Selfless Playing Style

Barcelona, a team obsessed with attacking football and scoring goals, scored a whopping 114 goals in the league last season. Only one of the 114 goals was scored by Sergio Busquets (1goal and 1 assist), a stat which belies the fact the he is a major force in the Barca midfield. Of his one goal, Sergio Busquets jokes that that is an error on his part: “I made a mistake once.” Always preferring to not hog the limelight, Busquets is the ultimate team man, focusing on plugging gaps and covering space, instead of venturing forward and having fun with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas. Statistics show, for example, that Dani Alves, nominally Barcelona’s full-back, spends more time in the opposition half than his own. “The coach knows that I am an obedient player who likes to help out and if I have to run to the wing to cover someone’s position, great,” he says. “I genuinely enjoy watching the full-back run up the pitch and going across to fill in. I spend the game calculating: how many on the left? How many on the right?”

Standing 189cm tall, Sergio Busquets standing between his Barcelona teammates looks like Gulliver amidst a bunch of Lilliputians. As comfortable in a scrap as with the ball at his feet, Sergio is ever ready to leap to the defense of his teammates, putting himself in the dangerous situation of getting carded. The perfect amalgam of intelligence and the ability to do the dirty work for others sets him apart from his more famous and celebrated teammates. When questioned about the style of his game, Busquets says: “My only obsession is not to lose the ball and to give my all, make sure I leave it all on the pitch. I am here to help. I have to be intense.” Del Bosque agrees: “He is an example of generosity, always thinking of the needs of the team rather than himself.”

Conclusion

If Barney Stinson, the serial womaniser in the television series “How I Met Your Mother”, ever notices Sergio Busquets doing his job for either Barcelona or Spain, he would at once convince/beg Sergio Busquets to accept the coveted position of being Barney Stinson’s wingman. Even if he has to only utter the lines, “Hi! Have you met my friend Barney?” and leave, Sergio will do it so perfectly that Barney’s efficiency, just like Busquets’ passing efficiency, will touch the ninety percent mark. Such is the effectiveness and impact of Sergio Busquets, the unheralded hero of modern day football.

Arsenal can pressure more efficiently by emulating Barcelona

Karthik (KV) explains why and how Arsenal pressing game is to improve if they are to better guard themselves when possession is lost.
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In an interesting article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of how Vivek Ranadive coached a team of twelve year olds into the US nationals , this despite being a Basketball novice. Upon undertaking the role, he set about changing the way his girls played, because as he understood it was all very tentative playing a game where essentially both sides took turns to attack and this he felt, invited the opposition to attack. So using his tactical knowledge of football, Vivek encouraged his team to use a full-court press in order to get the ball back as quick as possible which helped elevate the team despite perceived limitations in their skills.

This season Arsenal has replicated the formation of the treble winning Barcelona side by shaping up in the 4-3-3. Playing stylish yet effective football seems to be the mantra of both these clubs but recent results against Manchester United and Chelsea show that imitating the formation has not led to similar successes for Arsenal. These encounters exposed the chinks in the armour and Arsenal’s Achilles heel seemed to be leaving space for the opponents to exploit when possession was lost. Since these defeats, fans have clamoured for the return of the early season team ethic where the side implemented high-intensity pressing to get the ball back and ward off the counter. Seemingly, the work-ethic hasn’t been there despite covering more or less similar distances to the opponents. What exactly has changed since?

In this article we will detail Arsenal’s pressing system and how they can more effectively compress space.

Why?

As Chelsea have displayed this season, they are a wonderful passing side and have shot to the top of the Premier League table playing attractive football but up against Arsenal, they were willing to forget all that happened before. They knew that battling for possession would be pointless – one will always be better than the other which would inevitably turn the game into one of thrust and counter-thrust – so they sacrificed some of the initiative and made sure they were better equipped in moments of transition. The result was that with Arsenal choosing to play an expansive style, Chelsea was able to exploit the Gunners on the break as shown in the second goal, with Didier Drogba taking full advantage of uncertainties with a powerful run and finish.

For Arsenal the problem comes in playing such an expansive style which often exerts a massive strain on the defense. The idea in the 4-3-3 is to stretch play therefore creating more angles in the pass but the flip side is that if Arsenal loses the ball they will be left unorganised and disoriented in the defensive phase making it easy for teams to take advantage of the space. So therefore, when they lose possession, they need to find a way to maintain the shape. This is the fundamental aim of pressing. Let us see why we need to press teams.

1. If you pressurize an opponent near his goal, the chances of him losing it in a compromising position are high and may result in a goal.
2. And the above helps in an attacking sense as the more you have the ball, the more you can create and score.
3. Our system leaves only 3-4 at the back and pressing helps counter potential counter attacks.
4. It allows for the side to remain compact so even if players are out of position, the space is closed up quickly.

It is widely known that for a team to press from the front, they need to push up from the back. Ball pressure is all about the space and options the opponent has. Reduce those two things and ball pressure becomes more effective. Therefore, compressing space and advancing high up the pitch results in a compact midfield which can play efficient passes and also less space for an opponent to start an attack. Even if they do so, the midfielders and the attackers are in a good position to retrieve the ball. To put it in better words, the team is in a position to play an attacking defence.

How to press effectively?

Due to the nature of stretching in the 4-3-3 system, there are huge packets of space left in between the wings and near the wingers. In the past few matches, Arsenal have let in counter attacking goals due to mistakes in defending, marking and not covering space. Let us analyse the different options we have to deal with counter attacking scenarios and how we can nullify it through intelligent pressing (below, the key zones as highlighted by the red areas). Remember that the main aim here is to slow down the opponents and force them to play a misplaced pass. The principal condition is that regardless of where the ball is lost the man closest to it will pressure.

The Wing

Trapping the opponent by driving him towards the touchline is an effective tactic. This uses the touchline as an extra defender and it will lead to the opponent passing back or misplacing the pass. Two defenders take part in this and the third can join if feasible. To further add to the trapped attacker’s misery, Arsenal can overload to that side to further take away the opponent’s options. What does this mean? The whole team shifts slightly to that side to take away the player with the ball’s options. One midfield marks their midfielder closest to the trapped player while the forwards roam across their backline. This gives the feeling of asphyxiation to the trapped player, increasing the chance that he will make a bad choice and give away the ball in a bad (good for us) spot. This also helps in the sense that if the trapped player does manage to pass to one of his teammates, there will be an Arsenal player close by to fall on him quickly. However, the risk of executing this strategy is that one cross field ball to the other flank will almost automatically result in a goal. But not everyone has the vision of Cesc to do that sort of a thing! Anyway, the defenders should move into a position to intercept the ball.

Through the centre

Things are tougher now as the centre provides a 360 degrees field view as opposed to a 180 degrees view on the wings. This is why the likes of Arshavin cut in as they have wider options. How does Arsenal press in this situation? It depends on where the players are with reference to the ball. As soon as the side lose the ball in the centre, the advanced midfielders, attackers must press aggressively and isolate the opponent quickly, to slow them down. This will give the much needed time for the defenders to get back into shape and intercept the loose balls by their expert reading of the game. The central defenders’ role is interesting – push up too much and there is the threat of the opponent taking advantage of the space behind. Barcelona is essentially a freak case because as they are so good at keeping possession and movement, they force more players backwards therefore the threat is minimised. However, the most successful teams have shown, and recently USA against Spain, that keeping one up or even two, gives a greater chance of scoring and indeed such is the case of the direct nature of the Premier League.

What are we doing now? How to proceed?

The above tactics are basic pressing techniques used by teams to press effectively. Teams like Barcelona have numerous pressing techniques and they are the masters of compressing space. “Without the ball,” said Pep Guardiola, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.” What they do is they push back the opponents to let the defence read the game and push forward. The midfielders are quick to get on to any loose balls and the full backs get tight on the wingers. One of Guardiola’s newest ploys to perfect the perfect side of last season is in the defensive phase, push the defensive midfielder back into central defence thereby making it a 3-4-3, allowing greater organisation and the ability shift left and right more easily.

The 1-0 win over Liverpool displayed such improvements – Clichy and Eboue were quick to impose themselves on the wide men while the double pivot in front of the back four gave both a lateral and longitude organisation.

Our expansive game exposes huge spaces in between and the Gunners are probably the most vulnerable side in the transition. What Arsenal cannot do is reverse the previous results. But what they can is learn from their mistakes, compress space quickly and pressing efficiently will help concede lesser goals.

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Denilson can rekindle the lost art of midfield tackling

Arsene Wenger may have bemoaned the lack of good tacklers these days but what are the reasons for the demise and does he have one right under his nose?
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denilson

“I see very few good tacklers nowadays,” said Arsene Wenger most probably reminiscing of the horrendous moment that ended Eduardo’ season and also Arsenal’s title aspirations at the same time last season. Tackling has been the talk of the Premier League in recent games with cards being dished out like confetti  for challenges where one must side with the Frenchman. Indeed a player Wenger identified as one of the lost breed of clever tacklers was involved in what was probably the worst tackle ever and one which even had his own team mate Michel Platini proclaim that he thought he was dead, because “he had no pulse and looked pale”.

Along with Patrick Battiston, Wenger bracketed Frenchmen André Chorda and Christian Lopez in the same category. “A good tackle is beautiful to watch because in the tackle the player is already making a pass, not just clearing the ball. Most of the tackles nowadays they go in blindly. When you do a good tackle you are relaxed because you master every movement.”

His description may seem fanciful and indeed looking at the profile of some  defenders, can fit quite a few in. Rio Ferdinand, Carvalho, Cannavaro (in the 2006 World Cup) and Pepe; in fact the trend nowadays is for central defenders to be mobile and technically secure. Even the arguably less aesthetically pleasing defenders such as Vidic and Terry are very adept at passing the ball. It is maybe not enough from these defenders that Wenger sees as they are not sweepers; the position the manager himself played but one which has since disappeared.

However the bulk of these rash tackles have featured midfielders with Wenger suggesting improved pitches are the reason for the lack of good tacklers. Players are able to control and turn more freely while it allows for better passing and movement. The greater technical emphasis has probably made having a specialised tackler more difficult because while they may be stronger at winning the ball back, hinder the teams passing momentum. Currently most teams play with deep lying playmakers in defensive midfield, able to initiate attacks and break down play just as the sweeper used to and with second strikers or playmakers.

Players in between channels are seen as the key to unlocking defences and one of the reasons for the demise of the box-to-box midfielder. “There are trends in football,” says former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone. “This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.”

“Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists,” says former AC Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi.  ”The individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.”

“For example, we knew that Zidane, Raul and Figo didn’t track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend,” he said when talking about his stint as Real Madrid’s director of football . “But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players’ abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them with y amount of specialists?”

But such defensive midfielder’s can’t have everything. They must be able to pass, be tactically aware and strong in the tackle a difficult equilibrium to find. Sacchi believed in players being able to play a number of positions and hence do more and his AC Milan team played a high pressure game with the team defending in a organised defensive unit. “The trend is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball,” says Gerrard Houllier. Defending is such a way allows for greater balance especially as deep playmakers are converted attacking midfielders in some cases (Pirlo, S. Petrov, Murphy, Scholes, Denilson) and while there is more utilisation of the dual defensive midfield shield that allows organisation.

For Arsenal the departure of Matthieu Flamini has had a great effect;  hardworking and strong positionally and in the tackle as well. The only weakness was his limited technical ability but in his replacement, Denilson can offer more. Like all great defenders, at most times they are not required to even make a tackle to win the ball as his interception stats shows; the Brazilian is second only to Clichy in the league (109 to Clichy’s 118). Playing with much simplicity, Denilson is not the type of player one notices but the work he puts in is tremendous and is also able to initiate attacks. The boy from the favelas in São Paulo can be better and more expansive, but that will come with games and with quality players around him.

As Wenger says, there may not be too many intelligent tacklers but the player described as “a little bit in between Tomáš Rosický and Gilberto” can be the one to rekindle the lost art of tackling in the midfield.