Men on Posts and Starting Fires

By Ted Knutson | March 21, 2017

Men on Posts and Starting Fires

I mentioned on Twitter recently that while I try to avoid disagreements when I am in a room with traditional football people, the one thing that is most likely to set off an argument is the topic of men on posts. Today I want to explain why that is the case, while covering a variety of other topics along the way.

Men on Posts

I swear to you, this topic comes up almost every week on highlight programs and game commentary. It is perhaps a bit less prevalent than discussion about the failings of zonal marking here in England, but it's an old favourite for the back-in-my-day commentator crowd. In 99.99% of the cases, it is also nothing but dead air and might as well be replaced with any other cliche that also gets spouted by the same commentator crowd. (We need better, smarter commentators, but that was a topic for a different day.)

My perspective on men on posts is that I almost never use them for defensive set pieces. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the basic principle is that I prefer active defending to passive and this takes one or two players completely out of the play where their only job is to act as last resorts. Now this isn't to say that I would never put men on posts. There are specific teams and situations where they are beneficial, but those are fairly unusual.

However, my preference for set piece defense isn't usually what starts the argument. Once the subject is broached, the conversation usually goes like this.

Me: "How do you feel about men on posts when defending set pieces?"

Traditionalist: "Oh, I would always have a man on [near¦far] post and sometimes a man on the other one."

Me: "Why?"

Trad: "Because [reasons]."

Me: "Okay, but how do you know?"

And this is where things invariably get awkward because usually they "know" because someone taught them this was the correct way to do things. Or possibly some anecdotally negative experience like, "we didn't have men on posts in this game, and the opposition scored a goal in the corner," changed previous behavior and now they protect against that scenario.

The problem here for someone like me is that when analysing most topics in football, I start back over at base principles. How do I know something? Well, I studied it. I typically take a large amount of qualitative and/or quantitative data, break it down, and then look at the outcomes to see what's there. Then I ask follow-up questions and pick at the results some more until I am comfortable I understand what I'm seeing.

This doesn't mean I am right. It's not about being right. It's about being knowledgeable in an area that is important*. And it means I have a foundation upon which to have conversations. Conversations and arguments tend to illuminate what you do and do not know, and highlight areas for further investigation. This is important, especially in football which, if we're being totally honest, is a game that we really don't understand very well right now. This includes most of the ranks of professional coaches around the world.

*important to the performance of your football team, at least. In the greater scheme of crazy world events, understanding set piece defending matters not a nip.

It also doesn't invalidate knowledge learned from years of working on the pitch. It just means that if you believe a thing to be true, you need to explain how you came to those conclusions, and the reasons need to hold up to scrutiny. If they do, great. If not, let's study the issue and see if the accepted wisdom the you believe to be true is correct.

So yeah, when you ask questions about how someone "knows" a thing, and maybe question the validity of that knowledge, you can cause problems. But the fact of the matter is, we should be doing this constantly inside of clubs because it leads to valuable research that can change behavior and develops more effective styles of play.

A goal in the Premier League is worth something like £2M. How many of those do we leave on the table because someone's knowledge is outdated or just plain wrong? (For what it's worth, on defensive corners, my players have shit to do instead of loafing around, leaning against goal posts. We save that sort of behavior for useless analysts, as it's the footballing equivalent of mooning the queen, donchaknow?)

A Good Question?

Someone noted over the weekend that Manchester City seem to prefer outswinging corners these days to inswingers. This is notable for two reasons.

First, a few years ago under Roberto Mancini we were told that City started using only inswinging corners because someone in the team had done a study and found that inswingers were more effective at generating goals.

Second, this switch to outswingers seems a direct contradiction to research previously done by this exact same team.

Odd, no?

James Yorke started poking around the data a little bit, as we tried to figure out what data they looked at to come to whatever conclusion it was that changed their behaviour. This lead back to a far more important problem that is often overlooked:

What question were they trying to answer?

It certainly doesn't seem to be "which delivery is more likely to score goals?" since that either leaned toward inswingers or was inconclusive, depending one what data was used.

However, what James did find was that outswingers were far more likely to be completed to a teammate. So if they were trying to answer the question of "which delivery is more likely to let us keep possession?" then outswingers would make a lot of sense. Given this is a Guardiola team, maybe that's what he wanted to know, especially since he is typically far more concerned about defensive shape when attacking than corner production.

Is that a very valuable question to bother answering is another issue entirely. Given elite corner execution can produce expected values per corner of .06 to .08, while average corner values are .025 and average possession values for most teams are in a similar or even lower range, I'm not so sure.

This is where the difference in counting and percentage stats comes into play versus stats that attach value (like the xGChain passing networks from StatsBomb Services). As football analytics matures, it moves more and more toward the value end of the spectrum, since that uncovers behaviour and strategies we really care about. Failing to incorporate these elements into team research can result in suggestions that actually makes team performance worse.

I'm not sure this is what happened at City - as I said, we're guessing at literally everything while we wonder why they are doing what they do. It's just a concept to keep in mind when generating research projects and then applying them to team behaviour in the future.

English Coaching and Commentators

Circling back to the commentators we hear on Sky, BT, and BBC every week, it frustrates me that the people talking about the game now were generally players that grew up in and played a style that has been completely refuted by the modern game.

The traditional English style of play Does. Not. Win.

If it did, we'd see far more English managers present in the Premier League, and dotted around Europe's elite. What we actually see is a complete dearth of English managerial talent throughout the ranks of the football league. The Premier League gives zero fucks about this, but it is worrying to the FA and generally to the lower tiers of the football league as well.

I've asked questions about how coaches in England are supposed to learn more successful styles of play, and the only real answer seems to be to beg, borrow, and steal internships either at teams with successful foreign managers (extremely difficult to do, even with elite contacts), or learn a language and do your coaching education abroad. Good luck with that in a post-Brexit environment!

This circles back to FA coaching courses, which have been revamped (again) in the last year. I did the class days for England level 2 badges almost exactly a year ago, and while I generally liked the process they used to teach you how to think about coaching, I thought they were also lacking in certain areas. The section on pressing was largely ineffective and dismissive, where the instructors were telling us it was fad-ish and existed before. Technically this was true, BUT

  • That ignores the fact that the current iterations of pressing come in many varieties and are substantially different than what you saw from the 70's through the 90's
  • Pressing variations really matter for evaluating top level tactics and play, which means they really matter for top level coaching
  • The instructors, who were otherwise quite good, displayed no real understand of this particular topic. Or really of shot locations and effectiveness. Which, if we're trying to train and develop better coaches and in turn better players, is probably a big deal.

Maybe this type of subject material doesn't matter at level 2, and I was expecting too much, or maybe English coaching education is still struggling dramatically to overcome decades of ineptitude to catch up with modern times. I honestly don't know.

Which finally leads me back to the current crop of commentators. Aside from Carragher and Neville, who clearly put a lot of research and work into their craft, the commentators currently discussing football on television generally don't understand modern tactics. How could they, when the tactics they were brought up playing were bad, and the coaching education failed to correct for that?

Nor do they have an analytical mindset, which would help to educate viewers on the reality of the game versus the perception. They commentate on games in 2017, but were almost exclusively trained in England, and brought up playing a style that almost doesn't exist any more at the top levels of play.

So what are they there for? The occasional interesting anecdote about mentality and what players feel like before a big game? To provide a constant stream of footballing cliches that provide no insight and are rarely relevant to the moment at hand?

We get nothing of interest from so many talking heads on television. No funny anecdotes about current players or managers. No tactical insight. No statistical insight. No points about technique and detail about what a player could or should have done better.

Half of the matches I and many other viewers watch each week have foreign commentators. I almost never feel worse off because of it. And THAT is a take away that should shake everyone involved in the production side of football, right up to the top levels of Sky and BT Sport.