“Football is like chess, but with dice”
Watching and discussing football throughout the years, there’s always that eternal question that doesn’t have one definite answer. Why are we so hooked on it?
The beginning usually coincides with emotions, whether it’s the atmosphere, the tension of the game, the connection with a loved one or the game itself. No one starts watching football because of how team A’s pressing scheme forced the hands of team B’s build up.
But as you immerse yourself inside the game itself you understand it more, the tangible and the intangible. The patterns, the collective and individual analysis, the sports science and the data, but also the randomness, the moments, the psychology and the emotions.
So, if randomness exists then why do teams prepare? They prepare because they never know when randomness will strike, if it strikes. They prepare to gain any marginal advantage in a low-scoring sport. They prepare to decrease the probability of randomness.
And preparation isn’t only about the collective system or style of play or even a one-off idea. It’s the individual preparation, the mental preparation and the physical preparation.
So when Jurgen Klopp, Peter Krawietz, Pep Lijnders and the team sit down to discuss the 2022 Champions League final for future reference, it won’t be to dwell on the missed chances, rather analyzing what they could have done when Real Madrid changed their build up into a 3–1 or 3–2 shape by dropping either Luka Modric or Toni Kroos into the first line of the build up. Or how to deny the crosses in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold without messing with the offside line.
Preparation for a possible future encounter against the same side or a similar problem, to try and decrease the probability of randomness and increase their control over a certain situation.
Yet randomness isn’t the only uncontrollable aspect in football. Psychology, emotions and moments of individual brilliance play a huge part in any football game.
“When we speak in big data, you know, all the analysis, analysis. What is analysis? How you control that my friend? The emotion of the players.
“Tell me, tell me in the big data how the players feel that in that moment. How they feel it.” Those were the words of Pep Guardiola after his side’s dramatic exit against Real Madrid in the semi final of the Champions League.
The reality is that football is played by humans and coached by humans. All of whom have uncontrollable reactions, all of whom could have a eureka moment for an idea as well as an individual moment of brilliance.
A moment of brilliance or an outstanding individual display for ninety minutes. Just like Thibaut Courtois in the final against Liverpool. For all the tangible and intangible aspects of that match, this was probably the one with the heaviest weight.
Add to it a sprinkle of psychological experience due to being in similar positions many times before and we can have a glimpse of the intangibles for Real Madrid.
Jorge Valdano once said that “Madrid have an extraordinary competitive spirit. Nobody plays bad football as well as Real Madrid.” and by “bad football” he probably meant what an analysis of the Champions League final would equate to.
All the individual shifts put in from Courtois, Dani Carvajal — who neutralized Luis Diaz, Casemiro, Eder Militao and David Alaba in addition to Modric and Kroos’ calmness under pressure only resulted in Real Madrid being second best on the night.
However, the tangibles and intangibles of football don’t add up. There’s not a weighed function where all the aforementioned tangible factors and intangible factors add up to spit out the winner of a football game.
And that’s exactly why we love it. We love football for its weirdness, its unpredictability and also its logic, patterns and data. There are unexplainable moments, like Rodrygo’s double at the death against Manchester City to bring Real Madrid back into the Champions league. And also explainable ones like how Real Madrid forced Chelsea into medium to low quality chances at the Bridge in the 1st leg of the quater-final.
Because of its knockout format, the Champions League is the place where the intangibles can have a bigger weight on a certain night. You can’t recover like in any league format.
When this happens, delirium breaks the internet. And arguments over which team deserved what splits people into many groups. But what happened, happened. The camp you choose to be in, mostly represents your preference and how you view the game of football.
A person who analytically breaks down football matches and uses data to support his views, probably will be devastated that the better team on the night didn’t win. Another person who values moments of individual brilliance, psychology and randomness will accept that the ifs and buts don’t work in real life. The only thing that matters for him is the result.
In fact, both opinions should hold. and the only way forward is acceptance of the other factor. Acceptance that in football, the unpredictable goes hand in hand with the methodical. That’s why Krawietz, Klopp’s long-term assistant called it “chess, but with dice.” One of the best explanations of what football is.
So, why are we so hooked on it?
“It’s football. They tell me ‘what happen?’. It’s football. It happen” — Pep Guardiola.