In most sports, there is a relatively simple objective. Put the ball through the hoop. Run around the track as fast as you can. Shoot the puck in the net. If that’s all there was to it, these things wouldn’t be that hard to do. With a little practice, most people would be able to get a ball through a hoop on just about every attempt...but that wouldn’t be very interesting for long. The sports that grow in popularity and continue to be played across generations are sports that remain challenging even after years and years of practice.
With sports where performance is measured by time, like in races, then that room for improvement is automatically built in. No matter how fast you run around a track or swim a lap, there is always the possibility of going faster next time.
On the other hand, activities measured by “points” require some ingenuity to keep them interesting. Growing up, everyone has had the experience of inventing a new game like shooting wads of paper into the waste basket, flicking packets of jam across the restaurant table, or convincing your little brother that hitting him in the face with a ping pong ball is actually a game. Or was that last one was just me? Anyways, this universal experience of creating games to play is inevitably followed by finding ways to make them more difficult. Whether its moving the basket farther away or not being able to touch the floor because it is lava, making games more difficult forces you to develop your skills and keeps the game interesting a little longer.
Professional sports do that, too.
In basketball, the ball just needs to go in the basket, but the basket is 10 feet in the air with five grown men trying to stop you. In hockey, the puck just needs to go in the net, but six grown men are trying to stop you. Oh, and everything is on ice. Why? Because, screw you. That’s why. And, of course, in football, you can’t touch the ball with your hands, and now there are 11 grown men trying to stop you.
What do all these restrictions have in common? They take away a player’s control. When enough control has been removed, there will always be room to improve in the future. Essentially, removing control reduces a player’s ability to ensure they achieve their intended outcome, meaning they have to improve how they perform in the areas of the sport they can control, but they still won’t be able to do exactly what they want to do most of the time.
Reducing control has an interesting consequence. By reducing the influence a player can have, the outcome of games become more and more dependent on luck. And,of all the major sports, football involves the greatest amount of luck, according to researchers. This isn’t entirely surprising, either. Unlike in baseball or basketball, in football, a player can never fully possess the ball (i.e. hold onto it). Unlike in hockey or lacrosse, football players have no tool that helps them maintain control of the ball when facing a challenge. Therefore, even though the best players are better at exerting their will on the ball, they are still very limited in what they can do because of the unique circumstances of football. This means that the outcome of a match is a weaker test of the relative ability of the teams, and consequently, underdogs win in football more often than in other sports.
This helps us to understand what are the different optimal strategies for teams that expect to be underdogs as opposed to teams that expect to be winning. For underdogs, you want to make as many challenges as possible, out-muscle the opposition when possible, and always be close to the opponents to disrupt their influence over the game. Effectively, you want to be stronger, try harder, and run faster. Athleticism is a critical trait for minimizing the influence that an opponent has, and, importantly, it is cheaper to buy athletic players with decent technical ability than to buy exceptionally technical players that are also fairly athletic. This athleticism also helps the team to then counter at pace, trying to nick a goal and possibly a win in the process. This strategy of disrupting the buildup of the opponent helps to maximize an underdog’s ability to earn points against a more talented and expensive side.
On the other hand, the focus of teams that expect to win is different. Their key, generally, is to maximize the amount of control they can exert over the ball. The most talented teams want to make the game about who is more technically gifted—who is better at making the ball do what they want it to do. Players who can stand out in this regard are more expensive because these skills are in shorter supply and the wealthiest clubs are willing to spend big to get them.
Of course, there will always be exceptions to these rules, and the extent this is true depends on the position, especially for center-backs who must be as athletic as the oppositions attackers, defensive mids, and some strikers who can make their mark by being more physical (e.g. Diego Costa). Nevertheless, the general rule still applies most of the time—the best teams aim to control while the weaker teams aim to disrupt that control.
Recently, Roma has been stuck in an awkward in-between position where we are clearly the better team against most of the league but still underdogs against the best teams in the league. In the past 5 years, we’ve been in 2nd or 3rd place each year, never dropping off but never winning the league, either. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. This is partly because we opted for the strategy of an underdog side—aiming to be the most physically dominant team in the league that thrived against possession-based opponents. Like Reno, Nevada is the “biggest little city in the world,” Roma has been trying to be the best underdog in the world. The consequence was we were surprisingly effective against the best teams in the world but often looked a little lost against the lower table teams that played a similar physical and disruptive style of football. We’ve never won the league because we pursued a strategy that assumed we weren’t good enough to, and there is a limit to how well you can do by playing the role of the underdog.
So, how does this help us understand this summer’s episode of the Monchi Makeover? Monchi is positioning Rome to take that final step up to the footballing elite over the next 5 years. He wants Roma to change course and become a club that can dominate opponents through superior control of the ball. His strategy seems to be recruiting players with exceptional technique and creativity—especially ball control and footballing IQ. He wants players who can exert their will over the ball and who can anticipate where players will be next.
Kluivert, Coric, Ziyech, Cristante, Zaniolo—these are all players who are more technical than athletic (although especially Kluivert is very athletic as well). If they reach their potential, then in a few years, Roma will boast a wealth of players capable of controlling the ball and consequently the match for years to come, regardless of the opposition.
This also means that effectively swapping Nainggolan for Pastore was not only a tactical decision that made sense in its own right, but it is also a tremendously significant symbol, representing a seismic shift in the approach of the club. While Nainggolan is no slouch in terms of his technical ability, his value comes mostly from his athleticism and tenacity. He doesn’t often create something out of nothing. Likewise, Pastore won’t be rampaging from box-to-box, hook-tackling his way into our hearts, but he will be an excellent catalyst for breaking down stubborn defenses that are trying to sit back, disrupt attacks, and grind out a result. Finally, our technical ability should be able to reliably overcome the disruptive ability of mid-table teams, reinvigorating our attack.
And, of course, to be a top club, we must be the epitome of professionalism. Part of what is loveable about Nainggolan is his off-the-field antics and his easy-going attitude, but it is understandable that the club would worry about bringing in the next generation of youngsters to develop in an atmosphere where Nainggolan would be a significant influence in the dressing room. It’s painful to write that because Nainggolan makes the game more fun to follow, but like a rising tide, a professional atmosphere raises all ships.
Ultimately, sending Nainggolan to Inter is an incredibly gutsy decision. Every decision has direct and indirect consequences, but generally it is only the direct consequences of decisions that get judged. A large part of the footballing world may forever consider the Nainggolan sale to be a major blunder because, without a doubt, Nainggolan will flourish at Inter, which could expose Monchi to criticism for years to come. However, this move also paves the way for a transformation that might have been impossible otherwise. This decision could lead to Inter jumping Roma in the table at the end of this year, and that failure will be laid squarely on Monchi’s shoulders. However, it will also likely open the door for a Roma Scudetto in the following years. Sadly, very few will see how this decision also paved the way for our future success.