Gamesmanship, tactical genius or just economics?

We often assume that football managers think strategically, know exactly what is going on and play to a set plan.  However, watching a number of teams both in the Premier League or nPower Championship where the only strategy is one of hit and hope I doubted this was the case.  I do not take the same view of games as experts such as Michael Cox or Jonathan Wilson, but I do have a casual glance once in a while along the line, or the formation at corners.  I have also been in the “inner sanctum” of the Lewes FC coaches room (aka the old boardroom/office/kitchen/kit room) and seen the tactical maps drawn up by the management there.  So there seems to be some intent there, if not the delivery.

However, last Sunday whilst watching the Super Bowl I was made aware of exactly how tactical the game can be.  Picture the scene.  This is the biggest game in American Football, second biggest game in the world behind the World Cup final.  The TV audience in the US alone is over 100 million people.  There is 59 seconds left on the clock.  The New York Giants are at the Patriots six yard line.  The Giants are down by two points.  Now in every other sport there would be an urgency to get on with the game and score.  A touchdown would give them 6 points (plus an almost guaranteed one extra point from the kick); a Field Goal from this distance would give them an almost certain three points.  Either way they take the lead.  BUT by doing so they give the ball to the Patriots who would have a chance to go down the other end of the pitch and score themselves.

Ian Ayres, from the fantastic blog, Freakonomics has picked up on this story.  “One of the amazing things about the Super Bowl game this past weekend was that both coaches understood that the Patriots would be better off if the Giants scored a touchdown late in the game and reportedly instructed their teams accordingly. To my mind, this represents a high point in the prevalence of strategic thinking.” The likes of Ayres and Levitt are on a different plain to us mortals yet this was a question I asked at the time.

Do I score or not?

So what happened next was that the Patriots let the Giants score.  But the Giants player Bradshaw who was given the ball to run with was unsure whether to score or not.  In replays you can see him run unopposed through the Patriots defence, then pausing on the goal line, turning away to face his team and almost beg for instructions before falling gracefully backwards to score.

Ayres tried to summise the situation in Economic terms:-

“Here’s a strategic way to approach the question. If you were the Giants, which would you prefer:

A six-point lead — and kicking to the Patriots with 60 seconds remaining, or
A four-point lead — and kicking to the Patriots with 60 – N seconds remaining

What would be the “N” that would make you indifferent between these two outcomes? What would be the “N” that would make you indifferent, taking into account that two-point conversions are only successful about half the time?

There has to be some “N” at which the four-point lead is preferable.”

A tactical genius? But which one?

Heavy stuff I am sure you will agree, but it had me thinking.  What other sports would strategy play such a major part.  Cricket, for certain, is a game of real life chess.  Field placements are made by the captain and the bowler, based on certain inside knowledge – i.e what the batsmen was likely to do against a certain type of ball.  But Football?  Really?  Do we have such deep thinkers that they would have run through every scenario in their brains and know what to do and when.  Sometimes a substitute is brought on and he scores.  “An inspired substitution” the commentator will often say – but is it inspired or just a manager doing the job he is paid to do – recognising when a change in strategy is required and intervening.

Certain types of spot betting are illegal in the US.  Nevertheless, the amount of money that went onto some markets in that last 57 seconds of the Super Bowl would probably top the GDP of some small African nations.  It reminded me of the ad I saw a few months ago – Are you currently looking for some of the best Betting Tips and betting odds all in one place? Make sure you come to betfair to check out theirs, you won’t be sorry!  Just how many people would be sorry after Sunday thanks to Bradshaw’s touchdown?  In hindsight he can claim to have scored the winning points in a Super Bowl – something only a few players can ever say they have done.  But did he do it at the detriment of his career for breaking team orders?  Only time will tell.

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