Football is broken. Can it be fixed?

Written on 14 April 2021, 05:42pm

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The nail-bitting moments. The anticipation of a goal. The celebrations. The supporter chants. The excitement. We all know these moments, and we all love them. Probably this is what attracted us to football in the first place.

But they are slowly going away. Time wasting and cheating are becoming the norm. The effective playing time is decreasing every season. The referees are taking inconsistent decisions. The VAR fixed some problems, but introduced others while painfully taking away the celebrations. And on top of all that, football is currently played on empty grounds.

Football is a low-scoring game. Bayern trashing Barcelona 8-2 or Liverpool conceding 7 at Villa Park are simply outliers in a sport that usually sees less than 3 goals per game. After reaching an average of 3.79 goals per game in the middle of October, the Premier League reverted to the mean and has currently 2.66 goals per game, in line with the historic average. There are very fine margins: more than 25% of the PL games end in a draw, while in further 40% of the games the winning margin is only one goal.
So in a game that sees on average less than 3 goals/match and where a team rarely wins by more than one goal, every goal counts.

In fact, a goal counts so much that it can dramatically change the way a game is played. When a team is happy with the result on the score board, they can effectively kill the rest of the game. The main weapon used for this purpose is time wasting and it’s largely tolerated by the referees and even appreciated by some pundits who are pretentiously calling it ‘game management’. Of course, this strategy doesn’t always work: sometimes the other team scores a goal, and might decide that it’s their turn to ‘manage the game’.
Suddenly seeing the attacking side of a team might be an exciting view. But most of the times, everything transforms into a borefest for the neutral viewer, who would rather watch the paint dry.
And just in case you were wondering how effective the time wasting is: from the allocated 90 minutes, only 55 represent actual playing time. It is not uncommon to have games with only 50% effective playing time.

Then, there are the referees. They are often responsible for sliding-doors moments and their subjective decisions can effectively decide the outcome of a game: fail to award a penalty, and several seconds later, a goal is scored at the other end. VAR doesn’t help too much in this scenario: as long as there’s not a clear and obvious error, the subjective decision of the referee will not be overturned. VAR is not interested in taking the right decision, but only in determining if there was a ‘clear an obvious error’. The right decision might be different for two different referees.
The referees are also primed to give a slight advantage to the home team, are often inconsistent, can get annoyed or might simply have a bad day.

But do you know what can always take the right decision in fractions of a second, is never influenced by the home crowd and is never hungry?

This guy:

Photo by Taylor Vick on Unsplash

Yes, I’m talking about the end of the human referees.
Just as the industrial revolution moved people away from agriculture to industry, the highly intelligent, non-conscious algorithms will gradually replace humans. And incidentally, referees.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect 100% correct decisions from human referees in the first place. To give only one example, the overlapping offside decisions would be a nightmare for most regular people (especially when additional players are blocking the view); yet the professional linesmen take the right decision more often than not.

The referees are taking two kinds of decisions during a game: objective and subjective.
The ball leaving the field of play and the offsides are binary, objective decisions that can be easily taken by an automated system consisting of several cameras, a small computer chip and some lines of code. In fact, this system is already in use: the Goal Line Technology is already telling the referee if the ball passed the goal line or not (unless a one in 9000 matches situation occurs). In a similar way, the referee could know in real-time if a player is offside or not. And the good news is, this is already happening:

Offside decisions may soon be “semi-automated” by using Artificial Intelligence to map players and make instant decisions. Arsène Wenger, who is now FIFA’s chief of football development, has said he is hopeful it will be ready for next year’s World Cup in Qatar.

espn.com: Semi-automated offside: why Arsène Wenger thinks it can fix VAR

The linesmen will soon be obsolete.

The subjective decisions will be more difficult to get right in the beginning. But that’s just because the human referees have to spend time training the system by feeding him thousands and thousands of videos of previous decisions. Like the two police officers in ‘The parking space‘ episode of Seinfeld, agreeing upon the correct decision in each case might be the difficult part. However, the more games the algorithm ‘sees’, the better it will get. And at some point, its decisions will no longer go to the human referee watch, but directly to the players, via an electronic signaling system.

And then, the human referees will be obsolete.

How close we are to that moment? Your guess is as good as mine. From a technical point of view, all the pieces of the puzzle are there. What is missing is the willingness to change. All the arguments saying that this move would make the game less inclusive are nonsense. That ship has sailed the moment when VAR was introduced.

So, what would be left by the humans to do?
First of all, humans can (still) set up the rules of the game. The algorithm can only be as good as the rules it applies. Garbage in, garbage out – as the old programmers say. So maybe it’s time to finally agree which limbs can be offside, and what part of the arm can be in contact with the ball.
Training the beast is a continuous activity, so there’s that as well.
Finally, setting up the context of the games is important. Agree on the minimum effective playing time (2 x 40 minutes?) and play until that threshold is reached. Scrap the away goal rule – which provides an incentive for the teams to see the game out. Punish the cheating. The list is long.

Football is currently broken. Fixing it is not difficult — it just takes an open mind and the willingness to do it.

Making sense of the current LFC freefall

Written on 15 February 2021, 12:12pm

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Here’s my take on the current state of affairs at Liverpool FC. It’s based of an accumulation of thoughts and notes over the last few months. While you could easily say that it comes right after the Leicester collapse, this is not resulting. The lines below are not about a single game, but about a series of strategic decisions taken by the club during the last 8-12 months.

So let’s begin

Back to the summer of 2020, all was looking great for LFC:

  • first league title in 30 years after playing some of the best football (up to the moment when the pandemics stroke)
  • an almost invincible squad, further strengthened with 2 quality signings (Jota and Thiago)
  • the desire to keep fighting and to ‘attack, not defend‘ the title

Fast forward to 13 February 2021, and things are looking quite bad. Out of the PL title race – as Klopp just admitted – and with a only 9 points from the last 10 games, finishing inside the Top 4 is in real doubt. Out of the two domestic cups, Liverpool are still in the Champions League last 16, albeit no one is giving them too many chances against teams like Bayern, City or Atletico.

Where did all go wrong?

Well, it turns out, not everything was great back in the summer. A combination of timing, bad luck, bad refereeing and a bad run of injuries brutally exposed longstanding flaws in a seemingly well-functioning system.

The first flaw is related to defense.Attack wins you games, defense wins you titles” said Sir Alex. Liverpool started the season with a mediocre second keeper (who already made plenty of errors leading to goals, the most important one leading to an unexpected elimination from the CL) and with only 3 defenders: one world class, another one relatively young for the position, and the third one experienced, but very fragile. In the financial context caused by the global pandemic, and having also the exciting academy option to fall back to, it is understandable why the club chose to invest elsewhere in the summer. However, after a few months, it became clear that the only experienced defender left available was the fragile one. Which I called ‘fragile’ for a reason: he soon joined the other two, being sidelined for the rest of the season.
In this situation, not having an emergency solution lined up in the first day of the winter transfer window looks baffling. Two deadline-day signings look more like panic buys rather than quality signings. But worse, by only signing some professional defenders in the last possible moment, a full month was wasted.

The second flaw is about injuries. Something is going terribly wrong in that department at LFC. At the moment, 10 players are missing due to injuries. At some point, the sidelined team was arguably stronger than the one actually playing. And in a bizarre sequence of events, even the makeshift defenders seem to get injured when playing at the back. Either Liverpool has the most injury-prone squad in the league, or something is going terribly wrong in the nutrition, fitness and physical training departments. It’s becoming statistically impossible that all the injuries are caused only by bad luck. Not counting the contact injuries (such as Virgil and Thiago during the Everton game), there is still a worrying number of players dropping out week after week with muscular problems. To make things worse, even the new signings (Jota, Tsimikas and more recently, Ben Davies) seem to be affected.
No matter how you look at it, Liverpool has a real problem with injuries, and the sooner it finds a solution, the better.

On top of all that, Liverpool seem to be way too nice. During the game against Leicester, there was a clear foul on Mane right before conceding the second goal. Nobody complained, everybody accepted their faith. Another team would have spent minutes talking to the referees. Liverpool are the nicest team to play against: in the last 4 seasons Liverpool topped the fair play table where they currently sit second. This is not about being aggressive and I certainly don’t agree with Mourinho saying that “nice boys win nothing” (take last season for instance). It’s also not about looking for contact or being street-wise. It’s simply about making your voice heard when it matters. And playing fair does not equate tolerating unfairness.

What’s next?

Despite the bad run of form and all the problems explained above, there’s still a lot on the table this season. In theory, Liverpool could still finish the season with 82 points and win the CL. But not even the most optimist supporters believe that the 82 points mark can actually be achieved — and even if it will, it surely won’t be enough to win the title. On the European front, winning the CL trophy during a bad season is a once-in-a-century event. Which for Liverpool already happened, back in 2005.

So realistically, all that Liverpool could hope this season is a Top 4 finish and a long run in the CL. The former will ensure that the CL money will keep flowing, and the latter would be a welcome financial bonus during these times. However, missing out the Top 4 would have catastrophic results.

And then?

Moving forward, investing in a quality partner for Van Dijk should be the top priority in the summer. Yes, quality defenders tend to be expensive, but defense is one of the departments where you need experience above all. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think the two recent additions (Davies and Kabak) will have a long future on Anfield. Gomez and Matip will be back and their experience is important; but I’d rather see them as quality substitutes rather than starters.

Then, a solid backup goalkeeper becomes a necessity, especially since the medical problems seem to affect Alisson more and more often. Kelleher is an exciting option for the future but with very little experience he cannot be realistically trusted as a backup GK at this stage.

A third priority should be trimming the squad and selling the injury-prone players. It’s probably time to cut the losses on players like Keita, Ox or Shaqiri. Maybe add Matip to that list if a good alternative is found before the start of the next season.

At the end of the storm…

Yes, Liverpool have had a freakish run of injuries. Yes, almost all of the 50/50 refereeing decisions went against them. Yes, there was a lot of bad luck. But success is not about finding excuses; it’s about the way you react to adversities and how quickly you find solutions to unexpected problems. Or, as a contemporary philosopher said, it’s about being antifragile.

At the moment, Liverpool look very fragile. Fixing the injury problem and having a different attitude on the pitch could stop the current tailspin. Investing in the defensive area and trimming the squad would help moving forward.

Everything’s not lost.

10 things that I liked in 2020

Written on 31 December 2020, 10:33am

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Last hours of the year, so it’s time for the periodic roundup of things that I enjoyed over the past 12 months. 2020 has been a really strange year, but not everything was bad.

  1. The scientific community for coming up with a vaccine in 2 days. You read that right, 2 days. Here’s for hope that this golden period of breakthroughs will have the same impact in the field of medicine as the Apollo moon landings had in the field of technology. Plus, after all this will be over, we will look back at 2020 and see it as a collective altitude training. Everything else will feel lighter and easier and we will be ready for bigger challenges.
  1. Apple Watch and the Airpods for helping me stick to a healthy routine. Just like the previous years.
  2. A place: Southern France. A wonderful, sunny place, full of history. To be visited again in 2021.
  3. A series: Better Call Saul. I know, it made this list also in 2018. Some things don’t change. Plus, this year we got to see Lalo. Tell me again!
  4. Liverpool FC for finally winning the Premier League. The first part of the year felt so good. So good that the rest of the year would not matter. But here we are still, with all the problems and top of the league again 🙂
  5. Philips Hue. For the long winter nights and because the lights influence the mood.
  6. A book: Andy Weir – Artemis. Quality stuff from the writer of The Martian. Had to take a day off to finish it. I loved the way it made me imagine humans living on the moon.
  7. The Starship. If the humans will set foot on Mars this century, it will be in a Starship. Hopefully this will happen during our lifetime.
  8. Reddit + Quora. The first one for keeping me informed, the other one for putting me to sleep 🙂
  9. Working from home. Because it magically gave an extra hour to all my working days. Here’s for hope that the ‘new normal’ will be nothing like the ‘old normal’.
2020