Stick or twist? Standing still is a dangerous game…

Date published: Friday 3rd November 2017 9:05

As a mathematically-inclined kind of chap, I realised even as a youngster that there was a certain tactic for saving penalties in the video games of the early 2000s.

To use Pro Evolution Soccer as our touchstone, there were only six directions available to choose from: the high/low variants of left/right/centre. Diving into any of the four corners had a one-in-six success rate, while standing stock-still in the middle had a one-in-three chance of making the save, as the high/low didn’t come into it for penalties blasted down the middle.

Staggeringly, a 2008 study revealed that this almost exactly mirrors the real-life success rate of goalkeepers who opt to wait and see which way the ball is going rather than blindly diving in one direction or the other. Without wishing to follow in the footsteps of my predecessor on these pages, David Icke, you could perhaps chalk it up as evidence for the not-entirely-crackpot theory that we are more likely than not to be living in an elaborate simulation.

More importantly, it supports the idea that sometimes, the best thing you can do is nothing. If you’re recuperating from a virus, no amount of antibiotics or snake-oil will see it off; bedrest for you, and stay away from me with your lurgy thank you very much. Likewise, if you’re trying to tease further answers out of an interviewee, a well-placed and sturdy wall of silence can absolutely do the trick.

The difficulty, of course, is in knowing when it’s best to hold your nerve and when a change of course is required – especially difficult when what you’ve been doing so far has been effective. For a title-winning manager, the idea of having to act to ensure that success continues must feel like suddenly being forced to perform an elaborate dance ritual to make certain the sun will come up tomorrow. Everything has been working perfectly so far – why change it? In principle, doing nothing with a successful team ought to be the right move.

If the Premier League season so far has had a theme, it is stasis. Barring something very unexpected, this may very well be the first season since 2006/07 that all of the Big Six clubs finish the season with the same managers they had at the beginning of the previous campaign (Rafa Benitez, Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Martin Jol and Stuart Pearce, in case you’re interested). Removing Spurs and Manchester City from the equation as relatively recent additions to the ‘traditional’ Big Four makes no difference to that stat.

We have seen a number of clubs and managers caught between two stools (a disgusting turn of phrase, when you think about it) and seemingly paralysed into inaction – and not just Arsenal Wenger, the greatest poster-boy for standing still since Michaelangelo’s David.

Examples can be found at more clubs than not: Jurgen Klopp’s faith that a woeful back five will improve, Mauricio Pochettino’s reluctance to enter the transfer market even as one their own players revolted against it, Crystal Palace abandoning their dalliance with total football in record time to revert to type with Roy Hodgson.

Chelsea’s humiliating Champions League defeat to Roma, having already been overturned by Burnley and Palace and risked likewise against Watford, highlights the importance of getting these things right. Antonio Conte has freshened up the squad, but not the tactics, resorting instead to the endless tinkering in his back three that Sarah Winterburn rightly called out elsewhere on these pages.

It seems strange to compare champions Chelsea to managerless Sunderland, currently on course to double-drop into League One, but the parallels are there. There are only so many ways a manager with a proven winning formula can try to cajole his players into putting in the required effort without coming across as repetitive or desperate. As David Preece has observed, when your manager resorts to team-building paintball matches, you know you’re in trouble.

Change for its own sake can be expensive and demoralising in most walks of life, but in football, where keeping players interested and motivated is an absolute must, mixing things up just for the hell of it can become a necessity.

 

Steven Chicken

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