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What football can learn from recent trends in American sports?

So much in sport is copied and learnt. American sports have all seen big changes since the turn of the century. Most of the changes are related to the analytics movement. Is there anything football can learn from what has changed in these sports?

MLB:

Baseball was the first sport to seriously undergo the analytic revolution with the money ball tactics used by the Oakland Athletics. Despite being out budgeted by almost $100m they found a way to be competitive. They did this by finding stats that proved to be more important than they were regarded. This included on base percentage and slugging percentage. Matthew Benham owner of Brentford and Midtjylland uses a moneyball strategy and has seen great success. However a lot of it seems to be maximising value of players, whereas although this was a focus of moneyball, it was also about finding undervalued stats. Riyad Mahrez was signed due to the amount of clear chances he created. Maybe it is a place that can be exploited but you would imagine most football teams value that stat. Goals over expected goals is seen as a hot streak that can change from month to month or a game changing player such as Lionel Messi. There must be an undervalued stat out there, but it is hard to see what it is. Stats can be misunderstood, such as the mistake Alex Ferguson made which led to him selling a prime Jaap Stam.

It has also been called the age of pitching as home run and scores have gone down. There are reasons for this. One is the increased drug testing and its affect on batters. No longer are crazy home run numbers being put up. Someone like Giancarlo Stanton can put up terrifying performances at the Home Run Derby but has struggled in game. Part of this is the additional stats that are available so pitchers know he struggles with sliders. The information boom benefits pitchers and they use a number of different pitches to give themselves the advantage. Does anybody hold an advantage like this in football? Not really! The only comparable situation is penalties. Goalkeepers especially have been using stats in those situations but as with baseball the edge should really go to the penalty taker who starts with the ball. He should be able to make the keeper react to his move; expect more penalty takers to be better prepared and try things to confuse goalkeepers.

Baseball is very hard to compare to football due to the differing natures of the two sports. Baseball is often pitcher versus a batter. A game is a series of battles between the two with actions from fielders impacting the game. Football is a more complex game. 11 versus 11 with fluid and interwoven tactical shifts. Maximising value is hardly a new concept but the value of finding an underrated stat is vitally important.

NHL:

Corsi (shot numbers) – Possession – Zone Entries

At last year’s Sloan Conference, Tulsky and others presented a paper that looked at the value of entering the offensive zone with possession, as opposed to dumping the puck in deep and then trying to retrieve it. They found that entry with possession was roughly twice as valuable in terms of generating shots and scoring chances. That went against conventional North American hockey wisdom, which has long leaned toward the safer dump-and-chase approach, but the numbers were convincing. It was also exactly the sort of insight that a coach can actually use, and in fact, some NHL coaches did Wild.

NBA:

The NBA has really changed over the last fifteen years. The first major change came with the understand that a three pointer is worth more than a two point shot. Of course this sounds blindingly obvious, but not many coaches could take advantage. The corner three (the shortest three pointer) was a staple of some of the best teams a few years ago as they realised the advantage of this shot. A player who makes that shot 34% of the time as valuable as someone who makes a shot from inside the arc 50% of the time. This is something that football cannot take advantage of as a goal is worth the same whether a tap in or a 40-yard screamer. The most successful play in basketball tends to be a pick and roll. This involves a ball handler and a screener on one team against two defenders. This tries to create mismatches and offers a trackers numerous options. Once again football is very hard to compare to basketball due to the difference in number of players and roles of all the players.

The next revolutions go hand in hand. Pace and space along with small ball basketball. This tends to describe a team who eschews the orthodox positional tendencies and instead goes for players with speed, agility and usually shooting over size. This usually involves versatile players who can defend a number of positions. The prime example is the Golden State Warriors who use Draymond Green as a centre despite coming in way under 7ft. If the team is successful in scoring three pointers because the opposing defence is not quick enough, it can often succeed in forcing teams to adjust to them and put out a worse lineup. Is this relevant in football? Probably not. There are not such stereotypes regarding position and body type. Short centre backs is probably the only thing left and over the last few years a few centre backs under 6 foot have experienced success. It is also related to the fact that basketball is played with rolling subs so you can take risks and if they do not work, take it off a couple of minutes later.

Basketball is almost as far from football as can be. The changes in that sport bare almost no resemblance to anything that you would imagine would be successful in football. An interesting variation on the pick and roll could be tried in football. This would be like American Football as two attackers runs towards each other and try to pick off an opposing defender by causing a collision. This would only be an available option on a very low number of plays and would probably not succeed the majority of times.

NFL: 

The major change in the NFL came with the introduction of spread offences and quarterbacks who could run the option. The spread offence in it’s purest form is not often seen in the NFL. This involves numerous wide receivers spread out and trying to stretch defences. However this is seen as to risky for quarterbacks to operate. There is more three receiver sets than ever though as offences try and confuse defences. Some of these such as the New England Patriots mainly operate by quick throws with the occasional deep shot while others such as the Arizona Cardinals use deep shots to open up the mid field. Could this be adapted by football. If teams chose to practically ignore the midfield but used defenders who could pick long passes and attackers all with pace to get down the field. It is unlikely. Football does not stop and start after every play meaning tactical shifts are not as easy to perform mid action. It would also lead to a defence being woefully undermanned. In response to more receivers, defences have chosen to use nickel and dime packages (with more pass defenders) more often. Some players such as Deone Buchanan have seen their value skyrocket as they can cover the defence in either way.

Quarterbacks who could run the option really became significant in the NFL at the start of this decade. Robert Griffin III, Colin Kapernick and Andrew Luck were all meant to herald in this new era. The option means the quarterback who usually only had two options, to throw or hand off to the running back, was given a third. If the defence unfolded in the way they wanted, the quarterback could hold onto the ball and choose to run himself. The only two who have managed to enjoy prolonged success with the option are Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. The only things they share are a tenacity and ability to irritate a majority of the population. But the option can have success. By creating another option for the offence to succeed, it also makes the defence account for something else. The same is true of pass catching running backs, pass catching tight ends who can block and even the occasional offensive lineman who can catch a pass. These players change the arithmetic of the game.

The key here is versatility. If players can do more than one thing they are infinitely more valuable than those who can only do one. The same is true in football. When you look at Pep Guardiola and players like David Alaba being shifted around, it is due to his ability to do it all. It is also the reason why he values a goalkeeper who can sweep and play with the ball at his feet. Footballers are multi-faceted and have always played in all aspects of the game which makes it such a hard comparison.

NHL: 

The Premier League has seen an increase in total goals scored. This increase has happened since 2010 with one exception – in the 2014/2015 season. The NHL has seen a decrease from the highs of the 80s and 90s. This was mainly thanks to the neutral zone trap. This is mainly seen as started by the New Jersey Devils to take away passing and skating options through centre ice. Once again the differences between the sport make it a tough one to execute. A pitch is larger than a hockey rink and thus cutting off the centre pitch needs more players. However, pressing has been a key feature in some of the best managers in the world. Juergen Klopp, Diego Simeone, Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Biesla all press to differing extents in order to not allow opponents the chance to attack. The links between the neutral zone press of the NHL and the presses of Premier League football are striking.

The league has also seen their players develop strong into bigger, faster and stronger athletes. Goaltenders have improved mainly for this reason while some of the other players you imagine could have had the pick of any sport. Over the past 20 years the shot speeds have increased by over 15mph with Shea Weber hitting 108. They have grown; players are 20lbs bigger and two inches heavier. This may not seem a lot but it just makes the game that much faster and more physical. If you watched the playoffs last season, the biggest defining feature in the Penguins win was their speed. They seemed to have an ability to skate through and around opponents. The speed revolution is also being brought through with some outstanding rookies who seem to have a similar speed advantage.

Footballers have experienced the same changes in terms of speed. The players have got bigger, stronger and more athletic. Notable exceptions exist but the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba are incredible athletes. Speed has always been something that teams covet. Players like Theo Walcott are blessed with speed but often lack the footballing ability to complement it. The players with the quickest speed of mind seem to be those who lack foot speed! Maybe the combination of the two is the way forward. The press is something very successful in football and teams have had to find ways to increase their zone entries which make a team more likely to score. Increasing counters to pressing may become used over the next few years.

Conclusion: 

Hardly any of these changes seem to be likely to influence football. The sports are all too different to be compared. The have and have not nature of football as well as the lack of rolling substitutes are the major differences when looking at comparisons. One trend is the versatility of players almost to the point that it could be declared “position-less.” This has been used in the NBA and NFL. Interestingly some of this has already begun in football. The false nine and players such as Lahm, Alana and Blind have seen versatility in football be an important concept. It is also a facet of football that almost goes without saying. While the number one role of a defender is not setting up attacks, they tend to have that skill. Versatility has always existed in football and though maybe it can be pushed even further, it cannot be looked at as a revolution. Speed of mind is also something that cannot be valued by statistics but is vitally important along with actual speed which could still be underrated

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