Saturday, July 20

Knowledge Is Power in Soccer. But Is It Fun to Watch?

Few things degrade quite so rapidly as the element of surprise, once exposed to the pressurized, accelerated conditions provided by elite soccer. In most cases, its half-life will extend no more than 90 minutes. Even in extreme, extenuating circumstances, it is unlikely to be more than twice that.

Two games — one at home, one away — is all that is required these days to know everything there is worth knowing about any given rival. Two games provide three hours of footage that an opposing manager and their coaching staff can mine for insights. They generate reams of data for analysts to pore over and pick through.

And, of course, they provide a large enough sample size for the players themselves to learn. “When you’re playing against someone twice a season, every season, you start to see the little tells,” Newcastle defender Dan Burn recently told the BBC. As a rule, Burn said, teams go into games “knowing what is coming.”

There are exceptions, of course: Newly-promoted teams, sides who have drafted in a host of reinforcements and managers who have only recently arrived at a club can be decoded more easily on paper than on turf. Still, even their secrets are relatively fleeting.

“Look at Leeds, when they came up under Bielsa,” Burn said. “That first year, the players were running all over the place, and nobody had a clue what to do.” After a year, though, opponents had started not only to understand Bielsa’s system, but to find ways to counteract it.

Knowing what is coming, though, is not the same as being able to stop it. For the most part, Burn said, everyone is well aware what Manchester City will attempt to do when it takes the field. Such is the quality at Pep Guardiola’s disposal, though, that there is not much you can do about it.

It is difficult to overestimate quite how much soccer has changed in the last 30 years. It is faster, fitter, more technically accomplished and more tactically sophisticated than it has ever been. It is richer, more popular, more glamorous and more powerful: all at once a juggernaut and a leviathan and a hegemon.

Arguably as significant as any of those traits, though, is that it knows far more about itself than at any point in its history. In a way that was held to be heresy until relatively recently, soccer has come to understand its inner mechanics and its silent rhythms. It has learned to see itself as an intellectual exercise as much as an athletic one.

That, of course, is inevitable in an information age. Teams are incentivized — duty-bound, in fact — to seek any advantage that might increase their chance of victory. It might be through being more talented or more energetic or more industrious than their opponents. Or it might be a result of being better informed. Knowledge, after all, is power.

The problem is that soccer, like all sports, has another imperative: to entertain. The sport’s thriving economy rests on the idea that people will pay to watch it, either through exorbitantly-priced tickets or exorbitantly-priced subscription packages. In exchange, they will demand a compelling, enthralling spectacle.

This covenant is substantially more uneasy than we often admit. Everyone in soccer, from the managers and the players to the coaches and the analysts, is paid to win. If they do not win, they tend not to get paid any more. That is the performance metric that matters most to them. Whether the rest of us find it entertaining or not is, at best, a secondary consideration.

That tension is worth taking into account, though, when we consider soccer as an information war. It is difficult to make the argument that soccer is getting less entertaining. True, there are variations from season to season — some will, by definition, be more engaging than others — but the overall curve is an upward one.

This edition of the Premier League may be the most absorbing in some time. In Germany, Bayer Leverkusen has emerged as a genuine threat to Bayern Munich. Four teams are competing for the title in Spain, and at least two in Italy. Expansive, adventurous soccer has become de rigueur across Europe.

A whole new school of thought is emerging in Brazil. Major League Soccer continues to develop and improve. Saudi Arabia is attempting to build an elite league from scratch. And all of that pales in comparison with the women’s game, which is hurtling forward with every passing year, not just in Europe and North America but in Africa, Australia and South America, too.

All of that has been accomplished — accelerated, perhaps — by the game’s pursuit of knowledge. In coming to understand itself, soccer has been able to push the boundaries of its own possibilities. Information has served to burnish the spectacle, rather than diminish it.

Whether that will always be the case is a different matter. Listening to Burn, the game becomes not a physical contest — the fluid, chaotic ballet that soccer believes itself to be — but a mental one, not so much a series of individual battles as a series of collective, strategic maneuvers.

For 90 minutes, two teams who cannot be surprised, who know exactly what the other is trying to do, engage in an array of feints and shifts and sleights as they attempt to identify a weakness, to engineer a vulnerability. The winner is the one that succeeds in creating even the briefest of imbalances.

Quite where that leads is an entirely theoretical exercise, but it is possible that the natural conclusion is not further growth but an unbreakable stalemate, where the sport is no longer lifted by its knowledge but burdened by it, where the impulse to win comes at a cost to the need to entertain. Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt, and there are times when there is such a thing as knowing too much.

There is a very modern fairy tale lurking in the story of Girona, the team that currently sits on top of La Liga and that, last weekend, made the short journey to Barcelona and emerged with a startling, propitious sort of a victory. This is, after all, a small-town team that is currently holding off not only Barcelona but Real Madrid, too, a David overcoming two Goliaths.

Except, this being modern soccer, the David is not quite what it seems. Girona is owned by City Football Group, the investment network run by Manchester City’s owners that currently encompasses teams in Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Uruguay, India, China, Australia and the United States.

Club networks themselves are a subject worthy of fuller consideration and investigation — and that will come, in due time — but for now, let’s focus on just one of the complications this situation presents. It is (just about) possible that Girona will hold on and win La Liga. It is (just about) possible that one of Arsenal, Liverpool or Aston Villa will hold off Manchester City to win the Premier League.

The thing is, according to UEFA’s current rules, two teams with the same ultimate, beneficial owner cannot play in the same competition. Which, in this case, would mean Girona playing in the Champions League next season, and Manchester City being demoted to the Europa League. Maybe this model does have advantages, after all.

There is an unfortunate tendency in soccer to see only the fine detail, not the big picture. Manchester United will travel to Liverpool on Sunday missing, depending on late fitness tests and to what extent they can repair Harry Maguire’s wiring, somewhere between nine and 13 players.

Within that figure, there are self-inflicted wounds. Jadon Sancho, for example, continues to be omitted from Erik Ten Hag’s teams for reasons that are not entirely clear, and no longer appear to be proportionate to the original offense. United’s captain, Bruno Fernandes, is suspended, essentially, for stupidity.

The vast majority of the absences, though, can be attributed to injury. In that, United can hardly claim any particular ill fortune. Newcastle’s lofty ambitions are currently being asphyxiated by the absence of a dozen of its key players; Tottenham’s fast start has been derailed by injuries to 10 or so of Ange Postecoglou’s squad.

As a rule, these missing players are all treated as isolated crises. United’s problems highlight how poorly they have spent their vast cash reserves. Newcastle is finding it difficult to cope with the Champions League. Tottenham’s squad is imbalanced, incomplete.

That treatment, though, does not take into account the fact that Bournemouth and Crystal Palace and Chelsea all are all burdened with full treatment rooms, too, or that A.C. Milan has seen its team shredded by injuries. It is almost as if all of these things are related, and that three years of almost constant soccer is beginning to take its toll on the game’s elite players, and the sport itself is starting to show the wear and tear.

It is with heavy heart that I have to confess something. There were a couple of small elements in last week’s newsletter that were not meant entirely seriously.

“I read with stunning disbelief your positioning of Zlatan’s time with L.A. Galaxy as being “low-key,” Rob Pait complained. “Zlatan was a magnificent heel for the Galaxy, who raised the profile of a nascent El Trafico rivalry to cauldron levels from his first appearance.”

This is absolutely true, of course. It is just that this newsletter’s policy is not to add further fuel to a fire that Ibrahimovic is perfectly capable of stoking on his own.

Steven Greene, meanwhile, was one of a number of “30 Rock” fans who took exception to the (again, not wholly serious) idea that the show might be “problematic.”

“Do we really need your liberal guilt virtue-signaling?” he asked. Sadly, this is the point with virtue-signaling. You have to do it even when people specifically ask you to stop.

It was also touching to see how many of you are more than willing to provide — for free — the sort of advice that major sports leagues really should be purchasing from consulting firms for millions of dollars.

“One area where the Premier League could take direct-to-consumer broadcasting is countries with sizable appetites and mediocre broadcasters,” Will Clark-Shim wrote. “My experience, in South Korea, is of tireless reruns of games featuring Korean stars. Live games are rare, most are at odd hours, and even access to high quality highlights is limited.”

That is precisely the sort of market where it may well, one day, make sense for the Premier League to dip its toe in the streaming, um, water. Unless a surging, upstart league gets there first. “Should the Saudi Pro League go into streaming, or strike the sort of broadcasting deal Apple has with M.L.S.?” asked Mohammed Sayeed Khan.

We’ve written previously about the significance — or otherwise — of actual soccer matches to what the Saudi Pro League is trying to achieve, but at this stage of its development, streaming would almost certainly be a bad idea. Arranging a specific highlights package with TikTok, on the other hand, might work very nicely indeed.

That’s it for this week. If you would like to help out any of the world’s major leagues with your thoughts, send them to, and we’ll do our best to pass them along to the relevant officials/executives/tyrants.