Monday, 29 October 2012

Psychological Effects

Hello there, I am Callum Rivett, and welcome to this instalment of my articles. Today, I will be looking at a subject close to a number of footballer’s hearts: the mental side of the game.

One hears many a manager saying the game is “played in the mind” and some may wonder what that means. It is one of the reasons that there are upsets. The reason why teams are able to win games that perhaps they shouldn’t. They either had a fantastic game plan, or they were prepared enough mentally to go out and challenge. The opposition (let’s call them Champions) may well go into the game against the Underdogs thinking they will be 3-0 up by half-time and it’s an easy three points.

However, if the Underdogs come out and attack, it puts the Champions mindset under threat. This isn’t the team they were expecting. They thought they would be able to stroll to an easy victory. The Champions were not adequately prepared mentally. The Underdogs set up to frustrate and annoy the Champions, get stuck in, and subsequently win the game.

That was purely a figment of imagination, but it happens every week. Norwich 1, Arsenal 0 last week. Middlesbrough 4, Manchester United 1 in 2005. The list goes on. These are just notable examples I can drag up from my memory banks.

There is also a mental side to the game that the supporters and media do not see. The side of depression.
Dean Windass and Darren Eadie are just two ex-pros who admitted that they were suffering from depression after leaving football, and in my opinion it is easy to see how it can happen. You grow up with football: football is your childhood, as it is mine. You don’t know anything other than kicking a ball around grass into a net. Your whole mental mindset is being focussed on the weekend, on the next game. That is what your week builds up to as a professional footballer.

When I step onto the football pitch, I become a different person. Every thing bad that has happened in the week is forgotten when you cross that white line in the grass, when that first whistle blows. You are absorbed in the game, you and it are one. Every kick, every goal: you feel it. You feel the emotion running through you, and you love it, you crave it.

When it is taken away - either through retirement or injury - you lose a part of yourself. You lose the part that everyone knew, that everyone saw. Your whole life hinged on playing football, then it’s gone.
Nothing can match the thrill of adrenaline that football provides, it is unique. It doesn’t require the type of courage that throwing yourself out of a plane does. It isn’t the bravery of saving a life. It’s something entirely different, yet entirely simple.

Football fills you with a determination: I will win that header, I will make that tackle.

Football relieves stress. Whilst exercising, neurotransmitters are stimulated, and these are responsible for producing sensations such as happiness, or the feeling of stress relief. Endorphins are produced, which target the limbic and prefrontal areas of the brain; the areas associated with emotions and feelings. Footballers run many kilometres a game in total, and these endorphins produce a phenomenon called “runner’s high”.
But endorphins are also related to addiction. Drug addicts have been shown to have high levels of endorphins, according to a paper published by the neuroscience journal Impulse.

What that means is that football is a drug. It is an addiction, and when it is taken away, players often feel low, depressed. Watching a game live does not quite replicate the feeling that playing does, so offers only a temporary reprieve. Footballers may have to make do with coaching, but sometimes - in the sad case of Gary Speed - it is not enough.

On a different approach, injury can also cause depression. Injury is a lonely place: your fellow professionals are outside, kicking the ball around, whilst you are stuck in the gym trying frantically to build up your muscles and match fitness. Depression can hit even the player with the strongest mind.

To conclude, more support needs to be given to players who have retired and are struggling, or are out injured for long periods of time. Whether they are in the Ridgeons Premier or in the Premier League, there needs to be support give by the PFA. Depression can affect everybody, and the best possible support needs to be given to those suffering from it, either in football or someone from everyday life.

Follow Callum on twitter: @CJRivett12. You can find more of Callum's work here.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Phil Jones – One season, two different stories

Once a upon a time, Fabio Capello was asked to compare Phil Jones to a past player, in his position. Capello responded with Two great centre backs of the game, Baresi and Hierro. 

Putting Jones and Baresi in the same sentence, seems utterly stupid. Even if journalists forced the comparison out of him. At the time when Capello made the comparison, Jones was flying for England and Man United, people reluctantly saw the comparisons between Jones and Baresi. But a majority of people thought, ‘you know what, what the hell? The lad is 19 and hasn’t even had a full top season for England let alone Man United. Let’s not get carried away.’ 

While now, if someone came up to you and said Phil Jones is in the same ilk as Baresi and Heirro. You’d probably laugh at the person, and think they were a complete idiot.

What happened to Phil Jones?
In the first half of the season he was on fire. He was glistening at Man United. He made his big transfer to United appear like simple a procedure for a teenager. At times Jones was dominating for Man United and even England. He was providing penetration, creativity and solidity in his play. 

But by the end of the season, Jones had been forgotten by some. And Yes, did go to the Euros, but his role in the team was a merely as a bit part sub. At the start of the season, many thought he’d be a certain starter for England by then. While at the end of the season, people pondered if he was actually good enough to be in the squad.

So what went wrong for Phil jones? Or did anything actually go terribly wrong, or are people overreacting?

I have compared Jones’ stats from last season between August to December ( the first half of the season) and January to May (the second half of the season).

Stats via EPL Index
Green =best, Red = worst

Let’s start off with the defensive stats. On the whole, in terms of tackles, ground duals and aerial duals, in the first half of the season (August – Dec), his win percentage was better than in the second half of the season. The defensive solidity in the first of the season maybe comes down to Jones being more fit, focused and confident.  

However, to be fair to Jones, the decline in percentage, isn’t that much at all. So you can’t say his defending declined severely. But one most consider in the first half of the season, Jones played in a more offensive role. He played central midfield and often right back during the first half of the season. While in the second half, he played mostly right back and centre back. Perhaps that explains why he won more tackles, ground duals and aerial duals more often per a game (in terms of minutes) than in the August – December period. 

My last point on the defensive stats of Jones, it is interesting that the only stat which Jones severely declined from August to May was interceptions. I think this factor is due to Jones lacking in focus in the second half of the season. As its clear, if Jones was a wee bit sharper, he would read the game in a more active way, meaning his interception rate would be close to the first half of the season. But another point to consider is because Jones played in a more defensive role in the second half of the season, as opposed to playing in midfield, the need to intercept is far lower in the defensive third. While in Midfield, the ball is often lose due to United’s aggressive pressing game, meaning there is more balls to intercept.

In terms of passing stats, I feel this will indicate Jones positional play far more clinically than his defensive stats, but generally, passing stats show how tidy, composed and useful he is on the ball.

Firstly, and quite obviously Jones has made far less in the second half of the season. This could be the consequences of Jones playing fewer games in the second half of the season. And it could also be due to Jones playing far less in the middle of the park. 

Another decline in the passing sector was Jones long ball passing and the accuracy of it. I imagine this was due to Jones playing more often at centre back and right back. In those positions Sir Alex Ferguson likes his defence to predominantly build from the back rather than kick it long to the strikers. But that doesn’t particularly explain why his long ball accuracy declined. Perhaps it declined due to tiredness and a lack of fitness in the final phases of last season. I do feel this tiredness has led to a decrease in Jones’ focus when making passes, especially long passes.

 What’s interesting is although Jones has played in far more defensive roles in the second half of the season, his final third passes and accuracy did not declined by much at all. But moving onto chances created, Jones created far less in the second half of the season. Again, I feel this is the consequence of Jones playing in a far more defensive role. However, Jones created more clear cut chances in the second half of the season. This is the consequence of Jones making more runs from deep, thus having more space to exploit. 

Ok, so why did Phil Jones become anonymous and even forgotten in the second half of the season?
The answer to that is simple but varied.

 The stats for me demonstrate Jones became anonymous due to injuries, playing out of position and tiredness. Although Jones played in more of his natural position (a defensive role) in the second half of the season, he lacked the confidence and energy to make the penetrative runs which made him catch everyone’s eye.

Although Jones stats did in overall decline in the second half of the season, I don’t think the stats in the second half of the seas are that bad. Especially considering his age and it’s was first season at Man United. I think in some respects, he overachieved in the first half of the season and often overachievement brings greater expectations on Phil Jones to sustain his form and improve it even further.

However, as I said, Jones stats aren’t bad at all. With time, Phil Jones could be one of the best centre backs in the Premier League. The anonymity he currently faces, could help him progress under the radar.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Spain: 4-6-0 formation: A revolution in the making?

In his debut article for The Football Front Thomas Payne evaluates Spain's 4-6-0 formation.

The eventual winners Spain were criticised recurrently during the recent European Championships for their lack of goals considering the plenteous and lengthy spells of possession as well as the quality of their team. La Roja's tiki-taka football was branded as "boring" by the media, due to the lack of chances created in the final third.

The predominant reason for their 'dull' football was their formation, as Del Bosque used a formation similar to a 4-6-0, with Fabregas being (on paper) their highest position player. Despite being listed as a striker in this formation, the Barcelona midfielder played a false 9 role, in which he dropped deep into midfield, meaning that Spain were without a forward quite often throughout matches.

This innovative system allows teams to dominate the midfield, as you'd expect with 6 midfielders and supported Spain's aim to control matches with possession.

However, since they sacrificed playing a striker to dominate more of the middle of the park, the long spells of possession that they had rarely had an end product. This was due to the fact that there was no one to receive through balls into the final third, since the forwards played a lot of the time deeper alongside the trio in the middle of the park.

Origins of the 4-6-0 

The birthplace of many tactical innovations is Italy, this great footballing nation is the home of the libero, the regista, and is where Lionel Messi's role, the false 9 was created. The latter of these positions was actually invented in the 4-6-0 system, at AS Roma by their manager at the time, Luciano Spalletti. Unlike Spain's 4-6-0, this formation was used for counter-attacking purposes, as the Italian side looked to score on the break through their men on the flanks.

Spalletti was somewhat forced to invent this formation, due to a lack of strikers during a small injury crisis at the club and it brought them success, and despite the forwards coming back from their injuries, Spalletti continued to use this system.

Could it Work on a long Term Basis? 

Within both examples of teams playing a 4-6-0, they used the formation temporarily. It was Spalletti's solution to an injury crisis, whilst Del Bosque only used it in the European Championships. We have yet to see a 4-6-0 be effective throughout a long period of time. The reasons to the failings of this formation lies up front, without a striker teams can dominate the possession stat, whilst creating few chances. There is no forward to make the runs behind the defence, to serve as an outlet for the through balls of Silva, Iniesta, Xavi, and Alonso.

This problem was exposed in La Roja's opening match against Italy, despite having 66% of the possession, they only scored one goal. This goal came from a run from deep and behind the Italian defence, something which they lacked throughout the tournament.

As you can see in the diagram, most of Spain's passes in the final third were short, and there aren't many through balls, which resulted in a lack of chances created for the side.

To counter this lack of penetration, the wingers need to be good goalscorers, like Mirko Vucinic in Roma's system, the Montenegrin was positioned on the left flank by Spalletti despite being a natural striker, where he now plays for Juventus.

On the attack, the side also has to get numbers forward. The front three should always be in advanced positions when their team is putting pressure on the opposition. This means that there will always be players making runs from deep and looking to make themselves available for the piercing through balls supplied by their teammates in midfield.

How it Could Work 

The 4-6-0 is a good formation for both counter-attacking and possession football. The compact midfield allows you to sit deep without giving the opposition too much space to work with, this also allows for quick and short passes to move the ball upfield, since every player is in close range of each other.

Like in the Roma side, the wingers need to be competent goalscorers to make sure you don't lack too much firepower up front. The two central midfielders also need to support the attack to make sure the players up top don't get isolated, whilst the holding midfielder behind them can either play as a destroyer (if you're in a counter-attacking side) or a regista if you're playing possession football.

This article was written by Thomas Payne. You can follow him on Twitter: @tacticalterrier  . Check out his blog too:
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