Football - FA Premier League - Fulham FC v Liverpool FC

By Joseph Pepper

EVERY YEAR, about 1.5 million Wildebeest, 300,000 Zebra and other Antelope migrate north from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, across the Mara River, all the way to the fertile National Reserve in Maasai Mara, Kenya.

The 2 million or so animals undertake this mass exodus to search for food and water, and each time the 1800 mile round trip is undertaken, about 250,000 of them don’t survive.

This is because the Maasai Mara itself is home to one of the worlds densest Lion populations. In fact this entire pilgrimage is beset by the world’s deadliest predators as Cheetahs, Hyenas and Wild Dogs join the Lions in their hunt.

It is one of the natural wonders of the world.

Usually around July the animals have to cross the Grumeti river where Crocodiles lurk in the dense vegetation beneath the river’s surface, making drowning a risk.

This combination of aquatic and land predators surrounding the travellers means that dramatic scenes are often witnessed as the animals try to scramble across the water or retreat to relative safety. This is nature red in tooth and claw. This is where the wildlife documentaries get made.

If you’ve ever watched one of these documentaries it is very likely you will have experienced something similar to the following scenario and resulting emotional response when seeing it.

A Zebra approaches the river and begins to drink the water. As it stands there, neck extended down, casually sipping, the camera does a rack focus and we see a Lion, crouching in the middle distance behind the now blurred outline of the Zebra.

The Zebra stops drinking, and looks up. It turns its head around slightly and makes visual contact with the Lion.

There is a pause.

As viewers, we become filled with unease. We know what’s coming.

We watch, holding our breath, waiting for the Zebra to make a run for it.

Seconds go by.

Nothing.

More seconds go by.

Still nothing.

What is the Zebra doing?

Why isn’t it making a rush for it’s life?

Surely it knows the danger?

And then, finally, the Zebra moves. And you watch in shock.

But your shock is not at any ensuing bloodbath, it is at what move the Zebra finally decided to make.

Instead of sprinting in the opposite direction to the Lion, the Zebra doesn’t in fact really move at all. It just turns back, and carries on drinking.

“Run away! Run away!” we think, watching.

The Zebra continues to drink.

“What are you doing? That Lion is going to kill you and eat you” we cry.

The Zebra carries on drinking.

The Lion then inches forward, closing the distance between the two animals.

We can’t be sure what the distance between them really is. This is a telephoto lens after all.

But still, if ever there was a situation that justified a reasonable amount of blind panic, this was it.

And yet… the Zebra continues drinking.

This back and forth continues for some time. And we realise that the Lion is barely 30 yards away from the river. And we can’t fathom it.

Why is the Zebra still drinking? That Lion is right there! I mean, come on, it’s RIGHT FUCKING THERE!

Get the hell out of there, get the hell out!

Finally, the Zebra makes a run for it.

Sometimes it survives.

Sometimes it does not.

But long before any chase happens we have made our minds up. This is a dumb creature.

It stood there drinking the water, and the Lion was standing thirty fucking yards away. What was it thinking? It was bloody stupid. Needless risk!

That’s what we think.

And we are wrong.

The Zebra isn’t really mentally weighing the risk.

Not in the way you or I would. It’s acting on instinct.

And if there’s one thing we can be sure of it’s that the Zebra’s instinct is the best weapon for it to survive this situation.

Standing to drink the water is the correct course of action for that Zebra to maximize it’s own chance of surviving the day.

Since the Zebra isn’t doing it’s own higher level analytical evaluation of the situation, what this represents is the ultimate simulation of a strategy.

For trillions of strategies, billions of animals and millions of generations the simulation was blindly run over and over again.

And of all the strategies the Zebra could employ to survive the situation, this is the one that was the most successful.

Let’s put it another way. Zebras who didn’t stick around and drink the water did not get enough water, and as such did not survive to pass that behaviour on to future generations. Zebras that just simply run aren’t still around.

It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable it is for you to watch. This is the most effective, most finely tuned, most perfectly weighted strategy for that Zebra to survive. It’s balance between mitigating risk of death vs reward of hydration has been filtered over millennia by natural selection.

The Zebra needs to drink, and successful Zebras drink water for longer than you’re comfortable with as a viewer. If you panic watching it, tough! Your anthropological origins gave birth to different instincts in different scenarios, filtering different approaches.

Your innate inclination for when to cut your losses is deep rooted, and is a function with different variables to that of the Zebra. It is also clouded even further by higher reasoning.

——————–

In 1981, the football league changed the league’s rules so that a win was worth three points instead of two. The idea was the brainchild of Jimmy Hill and was intended to make football more interesting.

That Hill then spent the next decade and a half making football interminable to watch on the BBC is beside the….. er… point.

The fact is that the dynamic of domestic league football changed when this rule was introduced.

Anyone who doubts this is reminded of the fact that had the system of two points for a win been retained, Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn team would not have won the Premier league in 1995.

Despite this, how often do you hear a commentator or match report use the phrase “the points were shared” when there is a draw? Or that someone “earned a share of the points” after scoring an equalizer in a game that ends in a draw?

Whilst it’s technically true that the points were indeed shared, it’s a little misleading, because not *all* of the points are shared. Only two thirds of them are.

In that respect it is less than a zero sum game. Rather than being mutually beneficial for teams to cooperate it is mutually harmful for them to play out a draw.

They are sharing a pie that is 33% smaller than if one of them wins.

Not the entire pie

Not the entire pie

But does this kind of “game theory” logic correspond to how we feel when we watch football? In reality, most of the time, it does not.

For some reason, a draw can often really feel like a 50% share of the pie.

It might not feel that way if you’re a Liverpool fan who just saw his team draw at home to West Brom, or concede a last minute equalizer, but conversely for the other team it can feel like an even bigger share of the spoils has been stolen.

Ultimately, and I’m aware this may set new precedents for stating the obvious, a goal can only be scored at two ends of the pitch.

Any event which ultimately counts in a football match (a goal) will either be scored by your team or the opposition. As such, we tend to treat the two events as equal and opposite.

Scoring a goal is just as good as conceding a goal is bad. At least that’s how it feels. And proportionately this was perhaps more true in the era when a draw really did result in a share of *all* the points.

Perhaps it goes deeper than this though. Perhaps, we don’t actually treat goals conceded and goals scored as equal and opposite after all?

Allow me to posit a hypothesis.

What if collectively, as a species, we treated a goal conceded (in absolute terms) as greater in magnitude than a goal scored? In other words, what if we all subconsciously see a goal conceded as more bad than we see a goal scored as good?

Let’s look back to Liverpool’s 2013-14 Premier League season.

Did you enjoy it?

Yes, it was a white-knuckle thrill ride. It set the pulse racing and the heart pounding in ways which are hard to describe.

And yes, there were myriad moments of euphoria as the reds swept all before them, winning game after game. But what about the actual games themselves?

Those moments during the actual 90 minutes as you sat there watching, wherever it was.

Were those moments, in and of themselves, enjoyable, at the time they were happening?

Frequently the experience of watching the Reds last season was like standing in a room watching a bullet ricochet around all the walls hoping it didn’t hit you. As the opposition were given unholy amounts of space in our defensive third, shooting almost at will, all you could do is try not to flinch.

Indeed it was often an experience not entirely dissimilar to watching that Zebra sipping water from the Grumeti river.

“Steven, look behind you. Kieran Richardson has just ambled into the box and he is completely unmarked. What are you doing? Yes that’s it, you can see him now. Why aren’t you tracking him? He is standing right there! I mean, seriously – he is RIGHT FUCKING THERE.”.

We are reduced to powerless observers alarmed by the Zebra’s lack of urgency regarding the predator.

And if players freely arriving unmarked in the box is our Zebra’s casual drinking in front of a predator, then watching Skrtel haul down his man at corners is surely equivalent to wrestling the Lion head on and hoping for the best.

But is our response to these circumstances rational?

Or rather, even if our response is rational, does it encourage a strategy that will be the most successful in the long run?

The following apparently contradictory statements are both true.

1) Last season Liverpool put six goals past Cardiff City in one game.

2) For the vast majority of that game I did not enjoy myself.

That’s a highly unusual juxtaposition of two seemingly very conflicting statements. But anyone who has followed the general reaction to Liverpool’s stuttering start to the 2014-15 season might not be surprised.

Whilst Liverpool have barely created more than a handful of chances in the opening 6 or 7 games, the vast majority of concern and discourse has focussed on the team’s defensive shortcomings.

If scoring a goal is at least as important as conceding one, why was there such a bias of analysis towards the likes of Mignolet and Lovren, rather than the teams inability to create clear cut opportunites?

Is it for the same reason that the rabbit usually outruns the fox? That whilst the rabbit is running for it’s life, the fox is only running for it’s dinner?

Does our own internal flight or flight response, our own anthropological neurosis, cause us to focus much more on that which can harm us before we even begin to think of life’s possible rewards?

The parameters that defined the evolution of our own psychology are not the same as those that govern the instinct of the Zebra.

That’s why our emotional response is a flawed evaluation of the steps the Zebra takes to survive. The Zebra is right and we are wrong.

Similarly the parameters which defined the development of the human psyche are surely different from the parameters that lead to successful football strategies. The trick of course lies in identifying which of our instincts correspond with successful on pitch strategies.
Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Southampton FC

It started to dawn on me last season that my own comfort levels whilst watching Liverpool were not necessarily corresponding to the how successful the team was being.

In fact, I started to notice that the less comfortable I felt watching the reds, the more successful they became.

Where was the control?

Where was the sterile domination?

Why aren’t we killing games off by just killing the game?

It became apparent that what made Liverpool successful was very different from what made me comfortable watching the game.

Two disparate ideals forged in environments with radically different parameters.

It is the central thesis of this brief, rambling piece that success will come to those football managers who are able to separate their own anthropological psychoses from what actually works on the pitch.

I know for a fact that I would be terrible at it. Every player would have instructions to leather the ball away as soon as we were a goal up.

But is Brendan Rodgers good at it? On last season’s evidence it would appear that he is.

But has the summer transfer activity belied a doubt, as Rodgers decided to replace 75% of the defence whilst investing only modestly in the striker position, a position now missing a certain Luis Suarez?

Is the manager acting based on what makes him feel more comfortable during games rather than what actually works?

Time will be the judge.

Unlike the annual pilgrimage of the Wildebeest and Zebra, we do not have millions upon millions of iterations to filter in order to end up with football’s equivalent of the casual water sipping strategy.

But football does have it’s own kind of natural selection.

Successful managers will survive. Unsuccessful managers will not. (A fact often staggeringly overlooked when people point to the success of long serving managers as evidence that giving a manager time will cause him to be successful).

Strategies that win games will survive, strategies that don’t will not. Or at least not until the general population of strategies changes in such a way that paves the way for them to return.

Last season was easily the least comfortable I’ve felt watching Liverpool ever. It was also the most dramatic upturn in club’s fortunes of the modern era. That is almost certainly not a mere coincidence.

“We are never going to replace Suarez, but we can stop conceding so many goals at the other end to make up for the fewer goals we’ll score” is the familiar cry of last summer.

“All success is built upon the solid foundation of a good defence” is the even more familiar cry that echoes through football history.

Long before Jimmy Hill changed the rules, this conventional wisdom was being passed from generation to generation, accepted without question.

But before we default to accepting this received wisdom, it is worth pondering the Zebra.

Casually dangling it’s neck over the river’s edge, taking much needed sips of water, and ending up on 84 points, while it’s less successful forebears panicked, replaced the whole defence, didn’t get to drink the water, and ended up getting eaten by the Lion anyway.

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