Coaches at the World Cup: Conservative and stuck in their ways

I’ve blogged before about how football coaches are risk-hating morons. The World Cup’s made me realize that soccer coaches can be moronic, too. Here are 4 examples of coaching stupidity.

1. Failing to adjust to high altitude conditions
Johannesburg is 5,500 feet above sea level. Pretoria, Polokwane and Rustenburg are all roughly 4000 feet above sea level. High altitude means that the oxygen in the air is more thinly spread, making it harder to recover and harder to sustain sprints than when you’re playing at sea level. It also takes time for the body to adjust to these conditions, which is part of the reason Mexico is so good when they play in the Azteca; it’s 6000 feet above sea level and visiting teams only have a few days to adjust before they have to play. Bolivia are horrible, but beat Brazil and Argentina in qualifying at their home stadium of La Paz, 11,000 feet above sea level.

Coaches knew about the altitude, and they knew what stadiums they were going to be playing in, including the US, who played every game at high altitude. Yet many still conducted their training camps at sea level, including the US, who held theirs in Princeton, despite the seeming availability of Colorado Springs (10,000 feet above), where every US Olympic athlete trains. To their credit, they arrived two weeks early, unlike some teams, who waited for a few days before their first game to show up in South Africa and undoubtedly suffered.

Another wasted high-altitude opportunity: Because of the altitude goalies were kicking the ball 20 yards further than at sea level. This meant that they were routinely landing the ball around the opponent’s penalty box. Why on earth did no one treat every single punt and goal kick as a scoring opportunity? Why were forwards routinely underestimating the distance the ball would travel, letting the opposing keeper gather it? When your goalie collects the ball, put six guys on the opponent’s penalty box, chuck the ball in there and who knows what could happen. The only reason the ball was previously going into midfield was because goalies couldn’t punt the ball further.

2. Horrible tactics
Coaches have been making horrible tactical decisions all tournament. It’s possible that they have been doing so in previous tournaments, but now thanks to sites like Zonal Marking, we can get the full measure of their incompetence. Germany are good, but they’re not good enough on paper to be beating other teams by 3 and 4 goals. But every team they’ve beaten for 4 has displayed tactical rigidity/incompetence, either failing to pick up Ozil, or packing the middle and leaving the wing backs open.

In the club game, if you don’t have a left-footed fullback, you go out and buy one. If your country doesn’t have one, you have to adjust and play different tactics. There have been more varied lineups in the World Cup than in club soccer and the majority of coaches haven’t been able to adjust. To his credit, Bob Bradley was one of the few who made tactical adjustments and whose teams looked much better in the second half than the first.

3. Not being aggressive enough
Going into the final group game, Algeria could have advanced, but needed to win by two goals. From a strategic perspective, they were completely indifferent between winning 1-0, tying 3-3 and losing 10-0. As an underdog needing a low-probability outcome, they should have employed a high-variability strategy – throwing players forward, committing everyone to the attack. Instead, they chose to pack it in, ensuring that they went home. Only in the 91st minute did they show any sort of tactical boldness, sending enough players forward to be vulnerable at the back. Of course this led to the US counterattack and goal, but you have to gamble to score, and as I mentioned above they should have been indifferent between a tie and a loss.

Also, when you’re down a goal, you have two considerations: A) scoring, and B) giving up a second goal and probably the game. A always dominates B, especially as the game winds down, but coaches will wait until the 90th minute to bring on a striker for a defender, throw players forward, or otherwise give themselves a chance to win. I’m amazed that teams aren’t trying crazy formations and waiting to bring the defenders/goalkeeper forward until the very last minutes. In this world cup, no teams have yet scored on an empty net, I don’t think, because the goalkeeper was trying to get forward into the attack. Risk losing in the 80th because you gambled and lost, instead of playing conservatively and losing because you only gave yourself three minutes to try and score.

4. Not having your goalkeeper wear bright colors
In one study, players were twenty percent more likely to miss penalty kicks when the goalkeeper was wearing red. It’s well known that people will focus on brightly colored moving objects. When an attacker has to focus on the movement of the ball, navigate through ranks of defenders, he might get one tenth of a second to look at the goal. In that brief snapshot, if you’re the defense, you’d love for the striker to aim at the brightly colored object – the goalkeeper. And yet, during the crucial elimination game against Ghana, Tim Howard was wearing – of all colors – BLACK. Which would have been fine if Ghana was really bad at soccer, or if this wasn’t the World Cup. When the stakes are this high and you’re passing up opportunities like this to improve your odds, you’re a moron.

5. High coaching turnover
Looking for a reason African teams underperformed at the World Cup? Nigeria and Ivory Coast replaced their managers within three months of the World Cup, and Cameroon and South Africa changed coaches less than a year before the tournament started. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re not familiar with the personnel, the culture, or the people who hired you, you’re going to find it extremely difficult to succeed. In their classic book Hard Facts, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton cite a study showing that it took about 15 years for studio heads to find the sweet spot on the job, and that virtually no one had instant success. Granted, running a soccer team is easier than a multibillion dollar company, but the principle applies. Football associations read too much into a game or tournament’s results – the US and Ghana were essentially neck and neck through 90 minutes, but the result is that one team had a wonderful tournament and the other didn’t meet expectations. Great coaches from medium teams might have a really tough group, lose two games and have an above-average tournament. There’s too much noise in the space of three or four games to get a feel for a coach, but they’re all expected to resign if they go out early.

Chalk another one up for the status quo bias. My hunch is that referee performance has improved more than coaching tactical performance at the World Cup; a coach from 1970 in the modern era would do better with his team than a ref from 1970 would do with his performance. An inept coach can still win against other inept coaches, but everyone notices when referees blow it.

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2 thoughts on “Coaches at the World Cup: Conservative and stuck in their ways

  1. Andy McKenzie

    One might even say “sports isn’t about success.”

    Why didn’t the Warrior’s change their uniforms to red when they changed em this year? Certainly would have helped. But they probably wanted money from fans and went with better marketing option, right?

    Another ex is that coaches are more interested in not getting fired by making the “right” decisions.

  2. Kevin Burke

    You could probably still market it but the color change would mess up the team’s recognizability and fans’ ability to affiliate. However teams change their away jersey colors frequently and you could definitely change the keeper’s colors.

    In the World Cup more than other sporting events I think the coach problem is less salient – the coach will get fired, or be expected to resign, if he loses. Also there’s more tolerance of weirdos. Raymond Domenech picks his team based on astrological charts.


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