Football is a team game, but it is one prone to being decided by sheer, staggering individual incompetence. Every team has had one – a player whose very presence chills a fan’s blood. We are describing the type of player that with one misplaced pass, one lapse in concentration, can undo all the good work his manager and teammates have done over the course of a game, a week or a season. Incompetence can also be communal. A team can be condemned by a lack of cohesion in defence, an absence of harmony and balance in midfield, or by apparent unfamiliarity in attack. All this can doom a team’s chances of winning a game or lifting the trophy. Football is a weakest-link game where success is determined by whichever team makes the fewest mistakes, whether they are individual or collective.
If we have 10 players performing at 100 per cent while the 11th player is only performing at 45 per cent, then in some economic processes the value of the final performance can be estimated at 95 per cent and the effect is minimal. But if that was an O-ring process, the value is 45 per cent for the total performance because all player performances are multiplied with each other. If football is an O-ring process, then one inefficient member, or a faulty connection between two players, or a rare mistake by a great player can significantly affect the entire team performance.
It is important to evaluate how vital a role the weakest or strongest link plays in a team’s success and ultimate position in league table. It is obvious that both are relevant to team performance.
If we increase the quality of your best player from 82 per cent to 92 per cent, by singing a new striker, then over the course of a thirty-eight-game season, you will find your goal difference improving by just over ten. Improving your weak link from 38 per cent to 48 per cent is worth thirteen goals a season, or nine points in the league table. That means that upgrading your weak link can help a club more than improving its best player.
To compare the importance of weak and strong links, we can decrease or increase their quality by a commonly used statistical step, a standard deviation – a measure of the spread of qualities of all players around the mean. (Machine Learning in sports betting) So, what happens to the average club if the form of its weak or strong link decreases a step due to injury or advances a step due to a transfer signing? The differences add up. A one step decline in the form of your weakest link rather than your strongest link means 4.6 fewer points over the course of a season. More importantly, improving your weakest link over your strongest link by one standard deviation translates into 13.7 more points in the final league table. Furthermore, performance differences in weak links are 30 per cent more important when it comes to goal difference, and almost twice as important with regard to points per game.
For all the money that is spent on superstars, there are limits to how great an impact they can have on any give game. In their respect the professional game is quite different from the amateur game. In a kick-about in the park, the side with the best player or two will win almost all the time. Player selection is extremely important, and the best players define the very limit of maximal fitness and skill. As they are selected from millions of candidates, they pile up right against this limit, which is determined by technology and science, as well as the physical bounds on sprinting speed, endurance and reaction times. This means that the spread of talent on a professional pitch is so much narrower than that in the park, and the ironic effect is to make outstanding players relatively less outstanding.
Moreover, even those players who can shoot hardest, pass most accurately, sprint quickest and run furthest must then come to terms with the fact that they will only have the ball at their feet for just 1 or 2 per cent of the time they are on the field of play. This is another crucial difference from the park game, where one or two excellent players dominate possession. It distinguishes football from other sports such as basketball (Mark Few After An Upset Against Tennessee: “It Was Heck Of A Basketball Game”), baseball and American football (Controversial Win For The Seattle Seahawks On MNF), where the point guard, the pitcher and the quarterback have control of the ball for a significant portion of the contest.
It is the strength of a football team’s weakest link that determines how much success a side will have, or that games are most often decided by errors, breakdowns in communication, or by finely tuned tactical systems falling apart. Football games are defined by mistakes – it is only natural that the worst player on the team is most likely to misplace a pass, or forget to mark his man, and lay a whole’s week’s preparation to waste.
It is the manager’s job to minimize the potential impact of his worst player, both on the pitch on any given day and over the course of a season. Recognizing that football is a game disproportionately influenced by its weakest links is the first step – it should pay a significant role in setting the manager’s agenda.
There are few general plans for solving the problem of a team’s weakest link, including player improvement, substitutions and tactics.
An orientation towards the weakest link might frustrate supporters. It means a manager knowing that, come the opening of the transfer window, he needs to spend more time and money seeking the perfect replacement for his team’s weakest link than acquiring a crowd-pleasing signing. However, improving the weakest link is the most effective way to win more matches and climb the table.
Suppose we have a team with ten excellent players and one weak link where the substitutes’ bench is packed with even worse alternatives. In youth football there is one easy solution – you put your worst player in a position where he can do least damage and instruct your other, competent players, to ignore him. Footballers, being competitive animals, will probably do this instinctively.
By hiding him, the manager has transformed a player of some talent, into little more than a fan with a particularly good view. In fact, he might have taken his weakest link’s output of 40 percent, for example, and turned it into a zero. Fortunately, football has one situation that provides us with a decent test of whether a weak link should be sidelined or played – red cards. (Placing bets on bookings) When someone is sent off, one player is now completely hidden in the dressing room, makes no contribution to the team’s production, and eleven players magically become ten. It would seem that the chances of that red card being received by a team’s worst player are one in eleven, but that almost certainly is an underestimate, given that the worst player is also more likely to dive in late for tackle, use his arm to flick away a header or be forced to pull a shirt to compensate for poor positioning.
Traditionally, there has only been one place where poor players are stationed: right and left back. Perhaps, years ago, a manager would have been able to get away with hiding his worst player at full back, but with the rise of video analysis, extensive scouting and a more intensive pace of the game, it seems unlikely that a team could conceal a weak link for long.
An alternative option to a manager is to get the other players reinforce the weakest link. When the weak link is reinforced not through improvisation but through well-planned strategy, results tend to be rather more impressive. One of the most famous formations in football history – catenaccio – was based on this principle. As David Goldblatt explains in the book ‘The ball is round’, catenaccio as a system of play was first developed by the Austrian-born coach Karl Rappan at Servette in the 1930s. His innovation was to withdraw a player from his forward line and play him behind his three centre backs. He had no direct opponent to mark; instead, he would protect space. This worked spectacularly for Servette and then Grasshoppers that brought Rappan seven Swiss league titles during the 1930s.
It would be Nereo Rocco, at Ac Milan and Helenio Herera, at their city rivals Inter, who would develop this strategy most comprehensively. Between them, they forged a system that would define Italian football for two generations at the very least. Under their guidance, catenaccio became identified with a brutal, cynical, defensive, inelegant, cautious style of play. As Rocco famously told his players: ‘Kick everything that moves; if it is the ball, even better.’
That should not, however, be allowed to cloud what catenaccio, in its original form, was meant to be: a way of solving football’s most significant structural problem – protecting your team’s weak links.
Managers would like to be in control and another option for them is substitution of the weakest link. A research over the last decade has proven that there is far more in the art of substitution than identifying and removing your weak link. The vast majority of players who exit the pitch for a substitute are midfielders, and 40 per cent of all substitutions are midfielder for midfielder. Most forwards are replaced by other forwards, but again almost 40 per cent of them are replaced by midfielders. Defenders are replaced the least, and defenders and forwards are very rarely swapped for each other.
A sample of games from the Premier League, La Liga, and Seria A shows that most first substitutes come on at half-time and between the 56th and 65th minutes of the match; most second subs are used between 66th and 80th minutes, and the third one happens in the last ten minutes of the game.
According to already concluded analysis of the best way of using substitutes, if a manager’s team is losing, for maximum effect he should make his first substitute before the 58th minute, his second before the 73rd, and his third before the 79th. If he is not losing, it doesn’t matter when he makes his substitutions.
Each player has an expected level of performance and it is fair to say that those players who have the better expected performance levels start the game. That will reduce over the course of the game, and at some point a substitute’s expected level of performance will start to exceed that of his tired and ineffective teammate. This is when to make your substitution.
Players do not usually want to be removed unless they are injured. They are experts at making a manager believe they have plenty more to give, which makes judging their performance levels even more tricky. Fatigue may not show up in their average work-rate; it may not be visible from the dugout. Instead it shows up when they try to go from the 90 per cent capacity they are operating at to the 95 per cent they need to stretch for a tackle or to leap for a header. Early in the game, they can do this easily. Later, when they are pacing themselves, reaching the required capacity is no longer possible.
The third option for the weakest link is improvement of skill. A really good manager will take hi weak link under his wing, give him the benefit of all his wisdom and make him a better player. During the week, managers are essentially employed to do two things: develop tactics to try and conceal the extent of their weakest links, and coach weaknesses out of players. In broad terms, there are two categories of weakness – effort and skill. The first requires the manager to motivate, and the second to teach.
Smart managers, often unwittingly, will use the Kohler effect to increase the effort of his weak links. As an example, through a very simple series of tests performed on members of the Berlin rowing club, Kohler had demonstrated that teamwork could produce significant gains in motivation. First, he tested how long each standing rower could, while holding and curling a bar connected to a weight of 41 kilograms, keep the weight from touching the floor. Then he doubled the weight, paired the rowers and tested how long they could curl the heavier bar together. This is a weak-link task because they weight was too great for any single person to hold up: the 82 kilograms would hit the floor when the weaker partner’s biceps gave out. Kohler found that weaker rowers would endure significantly longer when they were paired than when they were solo. In doing so he had isolated one of the key characteristics of psychology: the gain in enthusiasm and effort and perseverance that comes from being on a team. The Kohler effect occurs because weak links work harder to keep up, whether in an attempt to match their more talented colleagues or because their role is just as essential. These two factors are equally important in helping improve a weak link.
That is not to say that harnessing the Kohler effect is easy. It would mean a manager convincing a player earning millions, with a ruthless agent and surrounded by an admiring entourage, that he is the worst player in the squad. That would be an interesting conversation, though it is not an impossible one. A better approach would be to put the blame on a recent injury, a tough run of opposition, or his own failings as a boss to ease the player’s dissatisfaction. Then the manager has to make the unfortunate player believe he can improve and show him a path and a training programme that seem promising. In addition, the manager has to promote the philosophy within the club that football is a weakest-link game, and that therefore everyone’s contributions are essential.
Football is not a sport where effort matters more than skill; instead, technique, physical abilities and mental aptitude are at least as important. Many times the manager teaches his players, especially the weak links, directly. This could take the form of collective training: practice sessions around short passing exercises, so that even the worst technical player grows used to passing and moving. Some managers will even give certain players one-on-one tuition to improve a certain aspect of their game. As with motivation and increasing the weak link’s effort, the manger doesn’t need to do everything himself. Instead, he can structure the squad and create a club culture that fosters skill development. In this club culture, the weak links will be able to ask for help and listen to advice. This club culture should remind managers and technical directors that when a new superstar is bought, it is not just the goals and step overs and back heels a team is buying, but also a set of habits and attitudes – if positive this will result in a willingness to help and a commitment to his teammates. These qualities may be as important as what the star does on the pitch, because of the effects on the weak-link players.
Some weak links cannot be hidden or improved and for this reason the last option for a manager is to sell such a player. Some players simply will not get better, no matter how much you try to help them. They will not learn from their peers or be able to keep up with their teammates. Reinforcing them may weaken other areas of your side, and there are only so many times a player can be substituted. That leaves just one solution – sell him.
Every player leaves a club sooner or later, whether it is for money, for ambition, for age. The decision usually rests in the hands of one man – the manager. This brings with it its own risks. The manager might say he has done all he can with his worst player. But whether the manager is correct or wrong depends on his own ability. For a club to know selling a player is the right decision, it must be sure that it has the right manager.
It is easy to think of football as a game of superstars. They provide the glamour, the genius, the moments of inspiration. They sell the shirts and fill the seats. But they do not decide who wins games and who wins championships. That honour falls to the incompetents at the heart of the defence or the miscommunicating clowns in midfield. Football is a weak link game. That has profound implications for how we see football, how clubs should be built and teams constructed, how sides should be run, and substitutions made. It changes the very way we think about the game.