An Underdog Wins with Aggressive, Risky Football

No, not that kind of football.

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about how underdogs can increase their chances of winning by employing a high-risk, high-reward strategy. It seems that’s just what the US soccer team did in their recent upset against the globe's top team, Spain.

According to this analysis by the Journal’s Carl Bialik, the American team uses long aggressive passing, looking for fast-break scores, instead of using a more typical ball control offense. This opens up opportunities for a quick goal, but usually results in the opponent controlling the ball on the US side of the field (or pitch, if you’re a ‘football’ aficionado). As long as the goalie has a good game, and the defense gets some breaks, the strategy works.

It makes sense because the US team has nothing to lose. No one expects them to go very far in World Cup play, so they can afford to use a risky gameplan without being humiliated if they end up losing 4-0.

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5 Responses to “An Underdog Wins with Aggressive, Risky Football”

  1. The Mathlete says:

    The interesting thing about soccer is that with the low likelihood of scoring, you can also improve your odds by "packing it in" and devoting all your players to defense and yielding possession and likelihood of scoring and taking the game to PKs (essentially a 50/50 outcome). I would guess that this game is less profitable for a high level underdog (such as the USMNT) but more profitable for a HS or college program.

  2. T.J. says:

    If you watch the sport played at a high level there is a consistent benefit to "bunkering" or packing 10 players around the box and only stretching forward on counter attacks.

    If you watch any of the top four English Premier League teams take on a team from the bottom of the league, especially when the elite team is known for its offense (Arsenal, Man United, generally), the weaker team is likely to be seen with 10 men positioned around the box and the attacking team forced to rely on long balls into the box ,or short intricate passing through a cloud of defenders, both of which reduce the offensive team's advantage. It's called "parking the bus" in front of the net, in less formal terms, because you're putting your entire team in front of goal.

    If you notice though, the US didn't always put that many behind the ball and in fact kept two players forward (Altidore and Davies for most of the game) and just played a compact 4-4-2 defense, choosing to yield the outside of the field, clogging the central passing lanes, rather than truly "bunker down." It's not exactly the high-risk, high-reward strategy. It's only really high-risk in that you're ceding the majority of possession to a highly skilled team and hoping you can make the most of the one or two real scoring chances you're likely to get, which the U.S. did.

  3. sean says:

    "Packing it in" has its weaknesses though. One is your keeper has limited vision, and prone to deflections inside the box. And two your forced into a defensive shell and you better have someone who can finish when the opportunity arises.

    This is why teams "stretch" the defense by pushing the ball out wide to the wingers and forwards with wide runs. This opens up space and creates better scoring positions, generally inside the 18 yd box.

    The beauty of soccer is that you can have 25 shots and if your opponent has 1 and makes over. USA did just that!

  4. vik says:

  5. Jim Glass says:

    I see your point, but think one should be careful about defining "aggressive".

    Many I'm sure would take "aggressive" to mean coming out throwing all over, quickly to get more throws in, etc. But this would contradict your own analysis of a while back that the best team (at least the best offensive team) should seek to run the most plays, and the weaker team fewer.

    I mean, if you are a poor team do you really increase your chance of winning against the Warner/Greatest Show on Turf or Steve Young /49ers by getting into a chucking contest, throwing every 10 seconds?

    So while I *do agree* that being aggressive is good for the underdog, I'd define "aggressive" as taking a finite number of carefully prepared gambles (if they fail you get killed but you'd lose anyhow) while keeping the overall game under control.

    I may be able to illustrate what I mean via a digression away from football, into chess. I was a tournament player once and had to deal with exactly this issue. I needed a line to play as black against stronger opponents, and analyzed the options.

    Play very aggressively in a two-edged style, as by using Fisher's Najdorf Sicilian, and every move becomes a complicated mini-game with the better player having the advantage in each, and over 30 moves I'm sure to suffer the equivalent of having Jerry Rice run game-breakers against me five times over. Not good.

    Play defensive trench warfare, head-to-head. Against a better player I'll be under constant pressure with no chance to win. I have a chance of drawing, but also a real chance of losing if I slip under the pressure. Not a good tradeoff, and not fun to play.

    What I came up with was playing the Center Counter, which then almost no strong player had played in 80 years. Once it had been a popular opening with masters, good by test, but a couple "busts" to it were found, so it disappeared and got a reputation as junk. But after 80 years white players who had never seen it forgot the busts. Another good thing about it was that there were just four or five keys in it to steering the game your way that a "weaker" player could master -- no myriad of complexities.

    So the "gamble" was: Did white, the stronger player, know the CC? If so I was dead meat on a plate.

    OTOH if white didn't know the CC he had a problem from move one. Facing a weaker player playing "junk", he had to attack, right? But he'd be rushing an unprepared attack against a prepared defense and could be humiliated. So maybe he should back off, play bland? But then he'd concede the initiative and admit weakness, both to a weaker player on move one. That shock value alone can put points on the board. As it turned out, my career record with the CC against stronger players was better than my career record as the favorite against weaker players.

    Back to football. Last year I saw the until-then lowly Dolphins blow out the Pats with 4 tds run off the Wildcat and I thought ... Center Counter!

    There was a reason why the option as a main offense disappeared from the NFL 50 years ago, so it was a gamble for the Fish to invest in it. But who playing last year's Ds remembered what the reason or was staffed to meet it?

    Once the Fish got it going, it wasn't real complex and didn't make great demands on talent, like a chucking contest against Steve Young & Jerry Rice. It was pretty simple and direct, *and* effective for several plays a game to open up other things. Enough to play a big role in getting the team from 1-15 to 11-5 without great changes in talent (outside of QB).

    Anyhow, from my thinking and experience, that's the sort of aggression that best helps the underdog -- not general "aggressiveness" all over the place, which gives the best team more plays to run and more chances to make use of its superior talent, but a finite number of aggressive calculated gambles, while keeping the rest of the game controlled.


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