Unrestricted View – Eddie’s Success! Or football as a space shuttle! –

Shit! Is the season really over? Sunday felt so routine that while everyone else was caught up in the agonizing drama of the last day, Eddie and his boys just showed up at work, got on with work, and went home ready to do it all again. Somehow it doesn’t feel right that we’re being denied more of this next week, the week after, and the week after, forever and ever. It’s going to be a long three months in a desolate wasteland without football.

At least it gives us enough time to think about the important questions in life. Since when do people stand in orderly single file in bars instead of pressing down to a nanometer at the bar? If Chris Wood falls in a forest and nobody hears him, are the defenders still busy? What would you do if you actually had to live in Burnley? And most importantly, how on earth do we explain our miraculous transformation since January and which of the 17,138 players connected to us will we actually be buying this summer?

Funnily enough, I discovered this week that the answers to those last two questions can be found in the same unlikely place – the exploding launch vehicles of the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle… I know, but bear with me… This thought occurred to me as I read the excellent by Chris Anderson and David Sally That Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong. As the authors emphasize, football is a classic O-ring phenomenon. In other words: success (or not) in football does not depend on how good you are, but on how bad you are.

First the short lesson in space exploration. The space shuttle program was the multi-billion dollar jewel in NASA’s crown. But the investigation into the Challenger disaster revealed that the small rubber seals between the parts of one of their rockets had frozen and cracked overnight in the Florida frost. And with them, history’s most sophisticated and complex technological project had been destroyed by the failure of its simplest, least valuable component.

Applied to football, it’s a lesson that turns Real Madrid’s lavish Galactico project on its head and PSG’s current relentless handing out of Qatari oil money. What matters is not how good your best players are, but how bad your worst is. Because soccer is a game decided by mistakes, with the average player touching the ball just 53.4 seconds per game. And one where all the statistical evidence suggests that not conceding goals is a far more effective strategy than scoring them. In football you are only as strong as the weakest link in the team.

If we turn this into a transfer policy, then it will be intelligent, reasonable and pragmatic. Much more perchinho than robinho. And very Eddie Howe. Improving your worst player, even just a little, yields much better results than upgrading towards the top end of your roster, especially when that weak link is a defender. This strategy explains Targett, Burn, Trippier and, yes, even Wood. With Wilson injured, the center forward became by far the weakest position in our starting XI. Any improvement was worth it, even at Β£25m, all the more so as the signing also helped build a defensive structure away from possession and stopping set-pieces.

And what does it say about our summer business? Or to ask the question directly, where is the weakest link in our current professional team? When we ask that question, the deficits in our squad come back into focus because, despite our remarkable form in the second half of the season, there are candidates everywhere on the pitch.

Given Wilson’s rice paper muscles, signing a forward remains an absolute priority. But with Targett’s loan ending, the left-back becomes the other obvious answer. With Lewis far from ready, a hopelessly exposed Ritchie played at full-back for the first half of the season before the newly signed Dummett returned against Leeds. Even disregarding his injury record, the Welshman does not provide the dynamic ballplay contribution Howe demands from his full-backs. Targett’s immediate impact – simply because he’s a really competent left-back – shows the extent of our distress.

Beyond that, things get a bit trickier, but three positions with more or less equal weakness suggest themselves. The first is the right-hand side of the first three, where Fraser and AlmirΓ³n always did a willing job, but where real sharpness and end product were all but absent. Right behind them are the right central defender and central midfield. As much as I adore the Swiss Adonis, a mistake never feels far away, and while Shelvey’s efforts have been beyond reproach of late, his lack of agility and continued penchant for hopelessly over-ambitious 75-yard diagonal passes will seriously hamper us the better teams.

Of course, it remains to be seen how many new additions will come. I’ve already advocated strengthening five positions without touching the goalkeeper and (putting on the helmet) whiny French winger, the latter being a definite weak link in the overall team play. Therefore, it is not self-evident that improvements are possible in all these positions, and even if we were, we would still be dependent on existing squad players below the level of the first eleven.

And that brings us to our final O-ring question, or to give it the correct scientific title, the “Trippier-Krafth Principle”. What do you do with the vulnerabilities that you cannot remove from your system? The answer, of course, is to make them stronger, although that’s decidedly easier said than done. Crucially, the strategy laid out by Anderson and Sally in their book reads like a study of our training ground under Howe.

First, the Koehler effect of team psychology – named after the German psychologist who first noticed the phenomenon – works to increase effort and motivation. Then a “team-oriented strong link” shares knowledge and skills to pull performance upwards. As the authors note, a manager buying a star player isn’t just buying “goals and stepovers and heels, he’s buying a set of habits and attitudes.” And those qualities “can be just as important as what the star player does on the pitch because of the impact it has on the weak players.” Step forward, Kieran Trippier. And note Emil Krafth, our O-ring no more.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731

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