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Science of Winning Soccer: Emergent pattern-forming dynamics in association football

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New England Complex Systems Institute
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Phone: 617-547-4100 Fax: 617-661-7711

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Figure 1. The association football field and the locations of the 20 outfield players, area of play, sub-areas of play in 
one exemplar moment. Figure 1. The association football field and the locations of the 20 outfield players, area of play, sub-areas of play in one exemplar moment. Extra-Large Medium Applying Complex System Analysis to Soccer
by Christopher Sessums
Humane Games

Cite as: L. Vilar, D. Araújo, K. Davids, Y. Bar-Yam, Science of Winning Soccer: Emergent pattern-forming dynamics in association football. Journal of Systems Science and Complexity (in press).

Abstract

Quantitative analysis is increasingly being used in team sports to better understand performance in these stylized, delineated, complex social systems. Here we provide a first step toward understanding the pattern-forming dynamics that emerge from collective offensive and defensive behavior in team sports. We propose a novel method of analysis that captures how teams occupy sub-areas of the field as the ball changes location. We used the method to analyze a game of association football (soccer) based upon a hypothesis that local player numerical dominance is key to defensive stability and offensive opportunity. We found that the teams consistently allocated more players than their opponents in sub-areas of play closer to their own goal. This is consistent with a predominantly defensive strategy intended to prevent yielding even a single goal. We also find differences between the two teams' strategies: while both adopted the same distribution of defensive, midfield, and attacking players (a 4:3:3 system of play), one team was significantly more effective both in maintaining defensive and offensive numerical dominance for defensive stability and offensive opportunity. That team indeed won the match with an advantage of one goal (2 to 1) but the analysis shows the advantage in play was more pervasive than the single goal victory would indicate. Our focus on the local dynamics of team collective behavior is distinct from the traditional focus on individual player capability. It supports a broader view in which specific player abilities contribute within the context of the dynamics of multiplayer team coordination and coaching strategy. By applying this complex system analysis to association football, we can understand how players' and teams' strategies result in successful and unsuccessful relationships between teammates and opponents in the area of play.

Press Release: Soccer as a complex system gets scientists' play

CAMBRIDGE, MA., May 11, 2012 -- Governments and corporations are turning to the science of complex systems for insights, models and predictions of ethnic bloodbaths, famines, healthcare policy woes, banking meltdowns, and how Manchester City won its first Premier League championship since 1968 with a miracle finish. Wait...what?

While football (soccer) is alternately known as a sport, a national pastime, or a national obsession, the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) is the first to place soccer in the category of a complex social system. A new study from NECSI uses quantitative analysis to reveal the key team dynamics within a Premier League match.

The paper, "Science of Winning Soccer: Emergent pattern-forming dynamics in association football," concludes that local player numerical dominance is the key to defensive stability and offensive opportunity, i.e. defense wins championships, and stars matter less than cohesive teams.

The study offers a detailed method of analysis capturing how teams occupy sub-areas of the field as the ball changes location. "We found that the teams consistently allocated more players than their opponent in sub-areas of play closer to their own goal," the study finds, a defensive strategy intended to prevent even a single goal.

"We also find differences between the two teams' strategies: while both adopted the same distribution of defensive, midfield, and attacking players (a 4:3:3 system of play), one team was significantly more effective both in maintaining defensive and offensive numerical dominance for defensive stability and offensive opportunity.

"That team indeed won the match with an advantage of one goal (2 to 1) but the analysis shows the advantage in play was more pervasive than the single goal victory would indicate."

The conclusions arise from a frame by frame analysis of a soccer match. "Translating sports into math is key to using a game to validate scientific hypotheses." said Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of NECSI and a co author of the study, "The winning goal of the Manchester City match occurred when a Queen Park Ranger fell down, leaving a two-on-two situation which is exactly the situation our research shows enables goal scoring opportunities."

Choosing soccer as a topic isn't out of the ordinary for NECSI, which focuses on group dynamics in various forms of conflict, cooperation and competition. Applying complex system analysis to soccer creates a clear view of how players' and teams' strategies result in successful and unsuccessful relationships between teammates and opponents. That gives the paper itself a competitive edge in sports science. What NECSI has done in this study is to quantitatively analyze behavior at the collective rather than individual scale.

"Our focus on the local dynamics of team collective behavior is distinct from the traditional focus on individual player capability," said Bar-Yam. "It supports a broader view in which specific player abilities contribute within the context of the dynamics of multiplayer team coordination and coaching strategy."

Authors of the study, which was funded in part by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, are Luís Vilar, Duarte Araújo, Keith Davids, and Yaneer Bar-Yam.

For media inquiries, contact:

Karla Bertrand, Press Relations
karla@necsi.edu, 617-547-4100

Clare Froggatt, Program Coordinator
clare@necsi.edu, 617-547-4100