Player Decision Making: The Holy Grail? (Part Two)

Player Decision Making: The Holy Grail? (Part Two)
September 30, 2013 Tony Mckenna (Macattack)

By Tony Mckenna & Lee Mooney

Decision2Previously, in Part One, we looked at the concept of “Decision Making” in general life situations, and one extreme example involving a US Presidential assassination attempt.  This provided a backdrop outlining the difficulty of making decisions – in contexts where information accrues – engendering fatigue, stress and an overload on the mental capacity to cope.

In such circumstances, the human mind is inherently flawed, blighted by an auto propensity for biases that compound the “Decision Making” process further. People, by virtue, make spectacular errors of judgement.

Football is no different; only the context changes. Players have to make a lot of decisions on the pitch. Inevitably, they will incur same the incidence of mind biases. However, maybe the exigencies of “Decision Making” processes can be short cut, even in the battle heat of competitive football matches.

The implications for the development of Players, both Youth and Senior, are obvious; especially because the art of decisive acumen is regarded as the ultimate skill – in fact, the Holy Grail.

Youth Development: A Red Tree and A Caveat:

At Liverpool’s Youth Academy there is a pictorial depiction of a “Decision Making” tree – boldly displayed – guiding Players through the process of making decisions during the game of play. The whole emphasis is on creating space, or denying space, with questions posed to circumvent obstacles and enable options; or else facilitate progress if the situation dictates.  The question that appears twice may surprise the purists; it contains a dirty word:  Can play be direct?

Whilst such a visual aid is valuable, it may be too difficult to be entirely prescriptive; the dilemmas posed, during football matches, can far exceed more than we could conjure up – in sedentary comfort – away from the chaos of fierce competition.

Ultimately, players will have to make decisions, at varying speeds and pace, in random fashion – a phenomenon that managers cannot predict or prepare them for. Sometimes, indeed, the optimum choice will entail being “direct” so the word should not be totally expunged from the football vocabulary; it is, therefore, encouraging that the option is acknowledged within the Academy illustration.  And no, that does not translate to mean playing like Tony Pulis’ Stoke as the style fetishists may counter. It is time to acknowledge that “Decision Making” will need to be practical at times; not all scenarios will be conducive to elaborate or non-direct play.  Best to give young people the notion of the reality of playing the game; problems to solve will occur in a random, non-linear fashion.  And you are on your own out there.

Successful youth development may be the ultimate goal for any football club; a self-sustaining production line in the mould of La Masia would be a pipe dream. Yet it could be literally that: a dream. It will be some time before we know that Barcelona can continue to replicate the sourcing of young players – of that carat calibre; and whom evolved to comprise what has been called the “greatest ever team”.  What an act to follow! The possibility of generational serendipity cannot be ruled out until we see another generation of similar type players.

In the meantime, if “Decision Making” is to be the Holy Grail, there is an overwhelming caveat in relation to youth development.  Paul Holder, (FA National Player Development Coach), and Perry Walters (Bristol City FA Academy Coach) undertook research into the thinking processes of teenagers, suggesting that young people make decisions in qualitative different ways to adults. Unsurprisingly, it is a case of developmental processes. Whilst we readily accept that young people will be at different stages of physical development to adults, we are less inclined to balance this with a consideration of cognitive development when applied to sports; but there are huge differences:

“Adults use a quicker process that uses intuitive and automatic areas of the brain, generating pictures of the scenario in the mind’s eye”.  (Teenage Kicks: Football, growth spurts and the brain: FA Magazine, The Boot Room, Sept 2012).

The less developed thinking apparatus of younger people will impact upon their ability to make correct decisions.  Not only will this lead to frustration on their behalf but also any youth recruitment programme will be flawed in ascertaining who the better players are; especially, if “Decision Making” is to be deemed the ultimate talent divider.  This said we also know that some adult players are weaker in the task when compared to others. Is there a way of improving, by training, the ability in those areas?

Let us consider what simple information can be gleaned from the occasions when a goal is scored; and at the same time, of course, bear in mind that it is also the case of a goal being conceded.

Achilles League:

Reflecting on the top ten goal scorers, for any given season, is interesting; not in relation to the strengths of individual strikers but rather their weaknesses.  Firstly, each scorer exhibits telling information about their natural and weaker foot, with most of their goals weighted towards the former. Secondly, as we expect, most goals are scored in the area.  Thirdly, whilst headed goals are less frequent, the statistics still help to out the players who are more proficient in this category.

These simple numbers offer a goldmine of information for defenders, particularly if appropriated with regard for football being a game of making decisions in space and time. Undoubtedly this is how strikers score goals: they decide to move into optimum areas to receive the ball affording enough time to threaten the opponent’s goal. But, in these circumstances, something often appears to happen to defenders.

Example A:

4th November 2012: Liverpool 1 v 1 Newcastle:

Newcastle goal:  Cabaye out far left of opposition area… unseen…unmarked…LFC players focus on the incoming ball from the right…Cabaye remains free…in space… and with time.  Cabaye receives the ball and… scores a wonder goal…from a seemingly impossible angle.

Example B:

11th November 2012: Chelsea 1 v 1 Liverpool:

Chelsea goal: John Terry…in space…with time…watches to the left side of the opposition corner flag…waits for the corner to be taken…then…focused on the incoming ball…still with space and time… heads…into the net…Enrique, doing nothing, but watching on the edge of the area.

Example C:

22nd November 2012: Liverpool 2 v 2 Young Boys:

Young Boys 2nd goal: Player motions to shoot… from outside the area…four LFC Players nearby in space and time…but not close enough…Skrtel recoils…hands guarding his bollocks…even before the ball is struck…ball struck…effectively…unchallenged…accurately…hits the back of the net.


“They’re not your cojones son, they’re Liverpool’s”

For brevity, just three examples have been selected.  However, the whole Season Review, (2012/13), has been looked at and contemplated. Though sheer volume prevents a written analysis or description of every goal conceded, the intention was to select two League games that occur closely together. They are separated by just one calendar week; with a European game, occurring in a close proximity, for good measure – demonstrating, or at least hinting, that the phenomenon is forever present.  The prime purpose is to suggest how defensive flaws can be addressed.

Each goal conceded exemplifies what one could obviously predict: it is the fault of defending players to yield space in time which opposing players seize upon.  Still, it is always a worthwhile exercise to corroborate what one assumes to be obvious; too often, the evidence can contradict.

Biases & Heuristics:

The mind is curtailed by many cognitive weaknesses we call biases: Availability bias; Hindsight bias; Confirmation bias; Bystander effect; these are just four examples and not meant to be exhaustive.

Secret Service Agents were arguably confounded by Confirmation bias as illustrated during the attempted assassination of President Reagan; together with the incidence of Availability bias; on the premise that Reagan was still conscious, and talking. This seemingly sanctioned his good health. Information is now readily available; Reagan was afforded the honour of self-diagnosis, and almost tragically, it became the sole means on how to proceed in the crisis.  How can football players cut through disarming complexity?

Heuristics offer techniques that can be utilised when information overload makes problem-solving, and decision making, difficult; especially in a context when time is a constraint.  If all factors at one’s disposal are too numerous to evaluate efficiently, heuristics offer an opportunity to short cut the chase.  You can choose from a smorgasbord of different type heuristics: the Affect heuristic; the Contagion heuristic; the Recognition heuristic; the Gaze heuristic – again naming just four for convenience.

The main point to make is that any player would glean enormous benefit from knowledge, and training, in biases and heuristics; in short, how the mind works in relation to all potential foibles and how to avoid them.  We have selected just a couple of examples to whet the appetite.

The Gaze Heuristic:

“The Gaze Heuristic is the simplest one and works if the ball is already high up in the air: Fix your gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of the gaze remains constant.  A player who relies on the Gaze Heuristic can ignore all causal variables necessary to compute the trajectory of the ball-the initial distance, velocity, angle, air resistance, speed and direction of wind, and spin, among others.  By paying attention to only one variable, the player will end up where the ball comes down without computing the exact spot.” (Gigerenzer: cited in Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Taleb).

The reference to ” just one variable” chimes with the “less is more” mantra and if gun shots are heard – during the preamble to the President falling ill – maybe an initial focus on just the gunshots is key? This is especially true if all other causal information leads to blind alleys.  We now know that the “easy” bit was far from easily deduced!

If decision-making is to become a successfully studied theme in football, it is important to appreciate how intricacy and complexity obstruct the human mind.  Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the amount of influences that can inform decision-making.  But one also needs to overcome the psychological inclination of bias and human nature itself.

Bystander Effect:

“The bystander effect is a social, psychological, phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.  The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders.  In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that anyone one of them will help.  Several variables help to explain why the bystander effect occurs.  These variables include ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility”.  (Wikipedia).

When Cabaye scored his goal for Newcastle, (Example A), he managed to anticipate the trajectory of the incoming ball; yet, he is helped greatly by the luxury of space and time.  If LFC players had utilised the Gaze heuristic successfully, in the same way, then there is a point when defenders know when they have no chance of being in the area where the ball lands. At this juncture, it is imperative to improvise; to look around and to adapt; taking up a position whereby your presence becomes useful. This is now the occasion to automatically think of football as a game of “Decision Making” in time and space; if just one player does this, then Cabaye’s space can be invaded and his goal scoring opportunity reduced.

Yet, no one had done so. How often does this happen?  There were many red shirts in the box; was each individual player impacted by the Bystander Effect? Similarly, John Terry`s headed goal, (Example B) raises the same questions.  Terry has successfully deduced the ball’s downward trajectory, but so too should the defensive players.  It is also a no-brainer to expect that Terry had come up for the corner because of his aerial prowess; expect this, and at least one player should take responsibility for curtailing his space, and time at Terry’s disposal.  You do not even have to get the ball.

And Enrique, in particular, has taken up a useless position merely becoming a passive passenger, watching as the goal is conceded.  If he had of positioned himself in the box then possibly he – and other players for that matter – could have adopted a defensive position on the Goal line or Posts; or else added to the obstruction of Terry’s space.  But as it stood, many players were positioned in redundant space; areas where field of play was irrelevant – at that juncture in time.

During the concession of a second goal in the Young Boys game, (Example C), there are four LFC Players all failing to close the space down. Since goals are more difficult to score from that range, then conceding such type is probably more unforgiveable.  Skrtel, as mentioned, is already protecting his bollocks – before the ball is even hit.  He is recoiling and retreating; much in the same way that people usually recoil from gunfire. Even in that potentially fatal situation we have seen how Secret Service Agents had been re-trained to overcome natural inclination – all in the name of taking a bullet for the President.

In any case, Tommy Smith once bemoaned ­his bandaged knee; Shankly reprimanded him; it was “Liverpool’s knee”. Substitute “Smith” for “Skrtel” and “knee” for…well, you know what…and imagine Shankly’s reaction.

The intent is not to single out any individual player to apportion blame.  You can select many different examples; they are all susceptible to psychological weaknesses; they all falter and err.  Or to be more precise; it can be the case of being caught in the wrong frame of mind…or the wrong mind state.


Probably an unnecessarily violent term especially since its precursors – such as “bottling it” or “freezing” or “cracking up” – amply sum up the meaning intended.  However, it is the term that Syed uses in “Bounce”. The wider explanation for how and why the phenomenon occurs – when sports stars flunk a big moment – is deserving of consideration and attention.  It is attributable to two different systems of the brain; one being the conscious application when performing a task; the other being an unconscious mode.  Respectively, the tasks are performed by the explicit and implicit systems of the brain.

Without question, there are occasions when one system is essentially preferable over the other.  The advice to a player to “focus” may actually be disingenuous; or, at least, it is pertinent to be clear what we mean by this word; often an overkill of “focus” is negligible to the task in hand.  Faced with complex variables, it is advantageous to employ the implicit part of our brain and Syed offers two compelling reasons:

“First it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole…something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle.  And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy.”

In essence, players would do better to do less; not more.  Two historic examples, where a right and wrong decision ensued, may exhibit the benefits of implicit thinking.

Hot & Cool Heads:

  1. 1.       22nd April 2008 Liverpool v Chelsea (Champions League Semi-final 1st Leg):

Ball…crossed by Kalou from the left where…Riise…facing his own goal…waits…ball approaches…he is favourite to receive it…time…not much time at all…Riise… senses an opponent at his back…space…not much space…but space all the same…not much time but just enough…he’s left footed…the ball is coming on his right…Riise decides…heads the ball…into his own net…

Did Riise choke?  If you look at the replay of that own goal, a right footed player could have hooked the ball out. Since Riise is naturally left footed, he presumably chose to decline the risk. Deciding to head it was not necessarily the problem but where to place it was disastrous. Alternatively, he could have headed to the side of the right hand post to concede a corner; or he could have chested the ball down and then kicked it out; or, pure and simple, he could have immediately kicked the ball out with his left foot.  But this is the problem; he has created a myriad of issues for himself.

His troubles began from the point of how he had positioned himself in space when anticipating a cross; he is facing his own goal. This circumstance is disadvantageous, for a left footed player, dealing with a ball coming from the left; and he did not have the wherewithal to improvise.  Worse still, it was the goal that made all the difference. We lost the second leg 3 – 2; if Riise had manifested superior decision-making then Liverpool would have gone through on away goals.

  1. 2.       13th May 2012 Man City v QPR (Premier League Final Day):

Ball…threaded through to Balotelli who…with back to goal…falls to the ground…ball still at his feet…QPR players rush…a maelstrom of bodies…time…not much time at all…Balotelli looks up…sees…Aguero breaking to the right…space…not much space…but space all the same…time…not much time but just enough…Balotelli…still on the floor…decides…passes the ball…perfectly mirroring the run Aguero makes to the right and…crucially…just out of reach of oncoming defenders…the rest…is history.

Did Balotelli, the reputed hot head, maintain his cool?  When Mancini was sacked by City, reference to his shortcomings included the lack of a “holistic” approach to management.  This caused some bemusement in the football community.  But if pushed to contextualise the meaning, then the image of Mancini remonstrating with Balotelli – on the training ground – springs to mind.  Neither is likely to work with the other again.

Yet, and ironically so, manager and player share an umbilical link denoting not only personal triumph for each, but also for Manchester City.  Aguero may have scored that goal; but the Pass facilitated the outcome.  “Assists” have been demoted in terms of importance, but how priceless was that one?  Or what price could you put on it?  After all, it ended a 44 year drought. Re-name the “Assist” or “Pass” and call it a “decision made”, then it was the correct call. If a different decision ensued then Aguero could not have scored.

Significantly, Balotelli is in a mayhem situation; bodies are present in and around him; the noise of the stadium assails, all around him.  Time is running out; his team are currently losing the title – in desperately cruel circumstances. Despite being on the floor, he has a single-minded purpose: to identify a playing colleague; no other thought sways him from this task.  Less is more… always.

Ending On Our Yesteryears:

Twenty two men and women chasing a bag of wind or football is a game of Decision-Making in space and time?  Watching football on this premise can elevate greater understanding of the game; particularly if we observe player movement and positioning; in the knowledge that decisions are made more often – off the ball – than actually being in possession of it.  Add to the mix a sprinkling of cognitive biases and heuristics; educate players on how to overcome the former, and employ the latter; then maybe a pursuit of the Holy Grail is closer to the finish line.

But we must remember that, over all, players will always have to make their own decisions; managers or coaches cannot do this for them.

None of this is new; we have merely wedded the past to the present – with a view to renewed consideration for the future. Maybe with the explosion of available statistics, and metrics, we tend to forget old stuff like this:

“Bob, like Shankly before him, disliked too much preparation in training for attacking set pieces, and was happy to rely, largely on the spur-of-the-moment decision-making of his lieutenants and the element of surprise this offered.”  (Inside Bob Paisley’s Liverpool: Kennedy’s Way…Alan Kennedy/John Williams).