One of the joys of football, apparently, is its unpredictability (see Leicester 2015-2016 and various upsets of Icelandic proportions).
Except the game of football is full of predictability – at least in terms of decision making and patterns of play.
Imagine you are leading 1-0 in a semi-final with five minutes remaining. You will replace an attacking player with a defender or defensive midfielder.
Imagine you face Arjen Robben. He will cut in from the right and shoot with his left. We all know that (unless you’re an Arsenal defender in early 2017).
Such is the strength of predictability that it easily morphs into inevitability. Some decisions, patterns, approaches may become immutable.
This makes sense in many cases: Robben cuts inside and shoots because he scores goals that way. And replacing a defender with an additional striker as the clock ticks down on your 1-0 victory would be tantamount to football blasphemy – a rejection of long-established law and lore. Crowds would assemble outside the stadium with torches and pitchforks, and march the manager to the nearest stake.
Such a decision would be…insane? Stupid? Counterproductive?
Or, perhaps, innovative? Inspired? Game-changing?
We argue that the surprise effect is a much underestimated and underused principle in football. A decision or action that is simply unexpected can disrupt and redirect the flow of a game and deceive opponents. It embraces not just “surprising” decisions or actions, but also unconventional, counter-intuitive or innovative ones.
Examples of where the surprise effect may be applied include:
- Tactical modifications and developments (e.g. the starting formation)
- Prearranged drills (e.g. innovative corner routines)
- In-game management (e.g. a counter-intuitive substitution)
- Individual decisions (e.g. shooting earlier than expected)
- Context control (e.g. modified player appearances or unusual fan choreographics)
In future articles, we will highlight examples of the surprise effect drawn from all these fields of influence.
Obviously the surprise effect can lead to an immediate and direct benefit, best illustrated through a novel free kick routine that produces a goal.
Equally, it can disrupt two of the key factors that determine a player and team’s performance: confidence and routine. Few players and fewer teams have the flexibility, intelligence or training to adapt to unexpected scenarios quickly. The opposition behaves much like an early attempt at Artificial Intelligence when confronted by the litany of human irrationality: “Does not compute” signs accompanied by suspicious smoke appearing from air vents.
Sowing confusion among the opposition and chipping away at their sense of control over proceedings has obvious benefits. The surprise effect can even find use as an anti-Moirai device – preventing the seemingly inevitable by disrupting the confidence that underlies the power of predestination.
Such is the grip of convention on football that the surprise effect can even continue to work when the decision or action taken is no longer a true surprise. Iceland’s long throw-ins at the 2016 European Championships continued to “surprise” opponents even during the later stages of the tournament.
The same might be said of Welsh tactics at corners. Opposing teams had no answer, even in the quarter-finals.
The successful application of the surprise effect can also improve team bonding and simply add to the joy of playing football.
However, the characteristics that the surprise effect exploits to benefit a team are also those that can cause it to backfire. If an unusual substitution is not effectively communicated and accepted among the team making the substitution, for example, then the surprise effect may undermine their confidence and sense of control as much as the opposition’s.
Therefore, adaptability and a willingness to “expect” or embrace the unexpected are important characteristics for taking advantage of the surprise effect (and resisting its impact). Team-based surprise effects in particular require adequate preparation.
This broad adaptability and game intelligence also helps cope with inadvertent surprise effects. When two players share identical haircuts, as was sometimes the case with David Alaba and Kingsley Coman for Bayern Munich in 2015/2016, it may not just be the opposition who can become confused (especially when the players’ shirt numbers and build are near identical, too).
The surprise effect also needs selective and intelligent application (of course). Here’s how one player we know described the attributes of a teammate who plays in front of him:
“The opposing defender never knows what he is going to do with the ball. I’m not sure he knows what he’s going to do with the ball. So he’s almost impossible to defend against. Equally, he’s difficult to play with, because you don’t know what runs he will make or where to make yourself available for a pass.”
In addition, the associated risks are perhaps the biggest reason why the principle is not applied more widely.
The first risk is if poor execution then leads to a disadvantageous in-game situation, perhaps even to a goal for the opposition. You will not make friends among your teammates if your attempted rabona skews out of touch when an ordinary cross was also an option.
The second risk is the abuse, especially with high-visibility decisions like substitutions, free kicks and tactical formations.
If the surprise does not work, then the initiator – commonly the manager – faces censure, even humiliation, for a failure to do what was expected.
In the 2014 World Cup, Germany attempted a free-kick routine where Thomas Müller faked a stumble before running past the wall to (hopefully) collect a chip from the real free-kick taker. The trick failed when Toni Kroos failed to get the ball over the wall.
USA Today headlined an article “Germany’s failed free-kick routine is the greatest blooper of the World Cup”, Blick called it a “debacle” (my translation) and online commentators responded similarly.
Perhaps the secret then to applying the surprise effect is to possess enough of the very characteristic its application seeks to undermine: confidence.
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