Very recently I came across with an article covered here which studied and compared the effectiveness of the decision-making process of different players including Messi, Ronaldo, Robben and Xavi. Unfortunately I did not get access to the original paper from the GoodCall group, however I got the information from two different sources and therefore I am confident that a reliable evaluation about the strengths and the weaknesses of this specific method can be made.
According to Ouriel Daskal, Goodcall is a group of people working with statistical analysis who “have developed an algorithm that calculates quality and effectiveness of decisions taken by footballers”. So as for an attacking player the Efficiency Per Match (EPM) is the measure of different variables (actions) that a player takes during offensive plays resulting in goals.
In practical terms, this means that a player responsible for a goal every match has an EPM of 100. By the same token, the algorithm also claims to be able to quantify the quality of the decisions taken by measuring variables such as numbers of shots, passes, key passes, etc. Theoretically this algorithm should give us a good picture of what happens on the pitch, however in my opinion, this is not the case.
Potentially it could be a useful tool to analyse the game/actions if it were possible to break down the game into fragments. But as Carvalhal (2014, p.122) remind us “talking about moments might create the illusion to the less experienced that the fact that these moments exist, that does not necessarily means that they (moments) can be disintegrated in order to be analysed. Indeed they can and produce erroneous analysis.”
In my perspective, Carvalhal’s view (fractal) can be applied in the same way when looking at individual performance in general, or more specifically in this case the decision-making process. My argument is that it is not possible to analyse in depth the decision-making process by looking at variables such as shots on target, passes or that EPM is a reliable indicator. Let’s analyse the following situation:
In this example Messi transformed a 2v2 into a 2v1 situation. If Suarez had the same (or anywhere near) game knowledge as Messi, he would understand that a simple vertical pass would leave Messi 1v1 with Neuer. So could the first pass could be considered a key pass? Definitely. What about the way the ball is controlled and received? How this can be measured? Had Suarez taken the right decision, Messi could have scored and raised his EPM or missed the shot and consequently lower his EPM.
This last consideration lead us to the next argument: decision-making cannot always be assessed only by the end product, like strikers should not be judged only by the amount the goals they score (read here). Strangely enough whilst I was writing this, I have had a conversation with a fellow coach (yesterday), who defended the opposite. On his own words “who am I to tell off a kid who scores from a difficult position when he could have passed to a teammate better positioned?”. To me this is perhaps the main reason why gifted players go through the formation ladder as hot prospects and then fail miserably to become professionals (or top players).
So why does this happens then? Let’s imagine the wonderfully gifted 12 year-old kid who is able to take on most of his opponents at his age (or even older ones), is very efficient on 1v1 or even 1v2 and sometimes 1v3 situations. His cognitive process transformed into game knowledge is more or less this: as soon as I receive the ball I’ll take on any defender who stood up for me and I will score dozens of goals and I will be the best player of my team. Over time as the player tries to do this and it is successful, the coach sees (or should see) that he takes the wrong decision most of the times. Instead of telling him in a constructive way that he should also look for other solutions for various reasons (i.e. transform his game more unpredictable, long-term development), the coach gives positive feedback and reinforces this behaviour. And I believe that the coach will do this not because he wants to damage the kid but for pure ignorance or willing to win at all cost at this stage of player development.
Fast-forwarding a few years, what do we see? Well the kid is still very gifted, but guess what? So are the other kids. What happens then? The once hot prospect is not a prospect anymore and it is struggling to even get a professional contract. Mainly because his game and consequent knowledge, is far too limited to make an impact or even to be good enough for a professional contract. Football is a game (and art) intrinsically connected to the brain of the players and performed (and unveiled) though their physical and external movements. Not acknowledging the primary role of the brain and game knowledge in a footballer (at least the very best of them) is to deny the chance of producing more players better prepared to deal with the intricacies of modern and future football.