Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tick-Tock

Tika-Taka. That's the name of F.C Barcelona and Spain's soccer teams' style of play. Essentially, it means playing keep-away for long stretches of time until the opponent gets out of defensive position (often from frustration or fatigue from chasing the ball). It would be hard to argue that these teams aren't excelling with this style:  both have won nearly every trophy available over the last few years.

But are they playing optimally? Could they be even better?

A digression. Elite basketball coaches in the U.S. have adopted a mindset whereby they look at statistics on a per-possession basis. Maybe your team has been scoring 1.1 points per offensive possession, while your opponent has been scoring 0.9. You're a better team, assuming similar prior competition. The only problem is that these are just the averages. On any given set of plays, there could be a wide variation...someone banks in a bad three-pointer, etc. But as more and more possessions take place, these blips should wash out to the 0.9 and 1.1 averages. So each team's strategies suggest themselves:  the better team wants lots of possessions; the other team wants fewer possessions. "Possessions" mean trips down the court, not time with the ball.

Back to the beautiful game. Soccer strategy can change dramatically once the first goal is made, since a lesser team can often set up shop on defense knowing it is not necessary to score again (maybe). But for the aim of scoring the first goal, soccer's analog to # of possessions is # of times the ball is within, say, 25 yards of the goal. In this case, the superior team would want to create as many chances as possible. To do so, the players must minimize the time spent doing unproductive things. Even thirty extra seconds could lead to one more opportunity that notches a goal.

Of course, the method in which the ball reaches 25 yards of goal matters. If your per-possession stats are based on quality approaches then that's what you'll need to continue doing. Wasted time can be shaved off during restarts, limiting back-and-forth kicks among the fullbacks, winning turnovers as high up the field as possible, etc. Playing faster is another option; so is adding players with good long-range shooting to extend the 25 yard zone. A team can even make a trade-off if rushing an attack hurts its chance of scoring by 8% but it gets to try 10% more often.

The better team will go high-pressure defensively and minimize wasted time to attack as often as possible while the underdog is still trying to balance out offensive and defensive priorities.After scoring a goal, the team can sink back into playing keep-away to reduce the number of opportunities for the opponent.

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