Recently, I read a chapter of Anderson and Sally’s (2013) ‘The Numbers Game’ which revolutionised my outlook on the 2014 World Cup and indeed football in general. The intention of Anderson and Sally’s book is to question common understandings revolving around football, and I feel there is no greater time to share such questions than during the 2014 World Cup. Before reading this chapter, I tended to agree with such statements as ‘Argentina could win it with an attack consisting of players like Messi and Agüero, but their defence really isn’t great’.  Such statements reflect a tacit understanding of defence as only secondary to attack, a game whereby attacking is primary and defending is secondary. Such a view is indeed a pervasive one and traces its roots back to César Luis Menotti, Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning manager, who treated attacking and defensive football ideologically different. Menotti argued that ‘left-wing’, attacking football should be encouraged, maintaining the premise that that goals scored are more important than goals avoided. This ideology seems to have had pervasive effects on other areas of the game, as strikers and attacking midfielders are held in significantly higher regard both on the level of finances and awards. Indeed, Fabio Cannavaro, Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer are the only three defenders to ever win the FIFA World Player of the year.  My personal experiences tell a similar story; I found it odd that a childhood friend devoted to Liverpool football club favoured Jamie Carragher over attacking players, in stark contrast to nearly every other Liverpool fan who adored Gerrard, Owen and Fowler. As Anderson and Sally put it: ‘Strikers are loved, defenders respected’.

The ideology which places greater value upon attack may, however, be unwarranted. Anderson and Sally’s wealth of data spanning across the top four European leagues over the past twenty years suggests that scoring more and conceding less seems to be equally as effective in producing points, against Menotti’s theory that scoring more should be encouraged. However, such data may be limited as the same amount of points may be garnered from three 0-0 draws or one win and two losses, though such results are likely to say a lot about whether the team is playing attacking or defensive football. Secondly, such results are limited in their applicability to any World Cup, since arguably the more important games being played outside of the points-ruled group stages. In order to overcome such limitations, Anderson and Sally (2013) continued to assess whether goals created and prevented correlate highly with wins or losses. Although goals created and goals prevented equally predict the number of wins, defence and goals prevented provided a significantly more useful account of why teams lose. Specifically speaking, scoring ten more goals reduced the number of defeats by 1.76 whereas conceding ten fewer goals reduced defeats by 2.35 matches. This may have vital applicability for a team such as England within the World Cup, who are playing in especially unfavourable conditions with an arguably weaker squad, whose chances of progression may be in fact greater if they avoid defeat within 90 minutes, leading the match to be decided by penalties. Despite poor penalty records, our penalty takers this year include Gerrard, Rooney, Lampard, Baines and Lambert, all tried-and-tested penalty takers. Therefore, defence and the number of goals prevented may in fact be more important than the goals scored for England within this World Cup.

The data leads us to pose the question: why does football’s obsession with attack come from? Once answer may lie within cognitive biases, for instance the bias to take notice of and remember events which occur (for instance goals) rather than events which may not happen (good positioning to stop a goal). A study by Treisman and Souther (1985) demonstrates this cognitive phenomenon within perception. These researchers presented the following two pictures, asking individuals to find the O with the line through it in the first picture and the O without the line through it in the second:

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Picture 1

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Figures Adapted from Treisman, A. (1986). Features and objects in visual processing. Scientific American255, 114B-225.

Of course, it is more difficult to find the missing line than it is to find the line through the O, supporting this notion of a cognitive bias. The bias towards seeing what is there (for instance, a goal scored) may equally be what makes valuing defence difficult, since the aim of defence is to prevent an event from occurring. Even experts are susceptible to such a bias. For instance, Jaap Stam, a key figure in Manchester United’s defence between 1998 and 2001, was sold by Sir Alex Ferguson after noting that he made less tackles per game than in previous seasons. At the time, Ferguson reasoned that this suggested Stam was declining in performance, though he later went on to admit that selling him was a mistake. This suggests that the key aspects of defending may be aspects which are less easily measurable such as the defensive positioning which prevents the need to tackle. Meanwhile, attacking play can be more easily measured through counting shots on target, assists or goals for instance. Thus, defence may be underestimated due to the cognitive bias to notice and remember events that happen more so than ones which do not, which is what often defines a good defence. However, it may be argued that clean sheets are easily measured and appreciated. Though this is true, they are still far less worshipped than goals, suggesting further psychological factors are needed to account for football’s obsession with attack.

Admittedly, the obsession may also to some extent reflect the effects of ideological beliefs filtered down from Menotti and the like, which in turn have pertinent effects upon how we perceive, reason about and understand football. Anderson and Sally (2013) argue that we are predisposed to look at the evidence that supports current beliefs, also labelled as ‘motivated reasoning’ or ‘selective perception’. Motivated reasoning theory argues that one’s desired conclusions (my team is winning) facilitates the accessibility to one’s memories and schemas, as well as reasoning of information. Support comes from an early study by Hastorf and Cantril (1954), who found supporters of two American football teams gave significantly different reports of what happened in the games. Therefore, the ‘facts’ were distorted by one’s motivation. We hold the ideological premise that attack overcomes defence, shaping one’s subjective perception of the game to become one consistent with our beliefs, even though the empirical and statistical data says otherwise.

 So where does this leave us? It is impossible to go away, restructure one’s complete psychological outlook and return with a refreshed consideration of the beautiful game. It is not, however, impossible to reconsider the importance of every defence and goalkeeper in keeping their country’s World Cup dreams alive. Players like Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar may only carry success insofar as their defensive players may allow, and only time will tell if their defending team mates will stand up to scrutiny.

ReferencesShow all

Anderson, C. & Sally, D. (2013). The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Hastorf, A. & Cantril, H. (1954). They Saw A Game: A Case Study. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 129-134.

Treisman, A. & Souther, J. (1985). Search Asymmetry: A Diagnostic for Preattentive Processing of Separable Features. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 114(3), 285-310.

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