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Soccer is the Cruelest Sport

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The Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy have a history of close games and cynical tactical adjustments. When teams limit hazardous play, they risk a heavy impact of dumb luck.

Shields have been won with defensive tactics.
Shields have been won with defensive tactics.
MikeRussellFOTO

In October of 2014, Sigi Schmid took the Seattle Sounders into two games with the Los Angeles Galaxy to wrap up the regular season. The two teams were even on points at the top of the table with Seattle holding the tiebreaker, and played the first game in Carson, CA. So, naturally, Schmid modified his tactics:

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On the left, we have the (hopefully familiar) 2014 team role chart for passing and defensive shares*. On the right, I've plotted the team's average numbers for the last 2 regular season games in addition to the teams' first meeting in the playoffs (again, in Carson). In the middle, the difference between the plots between players playing the same "positions" shows the tactical change.

Against LA, Brad Evans took the third midfield distributor role while also adopting a heavy defensive share (along with heavier loads for Osvaldo Alonso and Chad Marshall). On the right, the other wide midfield position summarizes two starts from Lamar Neagle and 1 from Marco Pappa - but these two players had largely the same action shares for those games (looking at the left graph, you'll appreciate how unusual that was). Seattle's starting tactics in those 3 games against LA put a heavier passing load on Gonzalo Pineda, DeAndre Yedlin, and Stefan Frei. Summarizing:

  • Seattle exchanged an attacking midfielder's passing approach and an average midfielder's defensive share (Pappa) for a holding midfielder's passing and defensive midfielder's defensive share (Evans).
  • The team gave higher passing shares to a goalkeeper and a box-to-box central midfielder, at the expense of a fullback and a forward.
  • Seattle leaned still-more-heavily on its two best defensive players for touches.

Many fans would call this a "cynical" approach - and would use the term still more often when they dislike the result. One could argue Schmid's strategy had the desired result: Seattle won the Supporters' Shield, and held their away-and-home playoff series close for the return leg. One could also claim it didn't exactly "work" - Sounders starters played 228 minutes together in those 3 games without scoring (15 shots, 5 on target) and conceding 3 goals to LA. Schmid brought on substitutes, and the team converted on a relatively small number of chances.

Seattle was much more aggressive on Sunday. The Galaxy, on the other hand - missing 2 key attackers and struggling with a 1-2-2 start to the 2015 season - moved Gyasi Zardes back to a nominal midfield role, posted Alan Gordon as a lone forward, and added an extra defensive midfielder.

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The tactical changes aren't reflected in action shares in the same way as they were above.

  • Robbie Rogers and Stefan Ishizaki exhibited exceptionally greater defensive shares, perhaps reflecting Seattle's effectiveness on the wings.
  • The CDM midfield pairing Of Juninho and Rafael Garcia had a lower defensive share than might be expected, but took on a greater-than-average passing share, reflecting LA's control of possession.
  • Other increased passing shares were shown by Dan Gargan at RB and Alan Gordon - who is here compared to positional performance mainly derived from Robbie Keane. 29 of Gordon's 45 passes were backwards.

Perhaps part of the difference in how the role chart reflects defensive tactics could be attributed to the fact that LA did not really limit Seattle's chances very effectively. "Under the brown fog" of Southern California, LA did just well enough for the win, scoring 1 goal off a poorly-defended set piece and channeling Sounders shots into an extremely well-positioned Jaime Penedo.

Soccer is not the cruelest sport simply because teams inflict negative tactics upon one another and their poor fans, but also because the game is indifferent to justice.

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Credit is due to Jaime Penedo.

The linear trendline of shots on goal plotted vs. goals converted (I) can be used to estimate goals scored with an average conversion rate. These plots depict the conversion rate for the Sounders and their opponents in 73 games since the beginning of the 2013 season. The difference between this calculation and the actual numbers is extremely close to 0 (II). Plotting this difference against total shots (III) can give one a sense of how many scoring attempts Wastefully hit the keeper. That little point in the bottom right is Sunday. "Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road."**

*All statistics are derived from numbers provided by OPTA via whoscored.com

**Apologies to T.S. Eliot