A few years back, a retired German player by the name of Stefan Reinartz came up with a new metric in football. In short, he and his team analyse how many players were ‘taken out’ or bypassed during the 90 minutes by assigning a numerical value to effective passing and dribbles. They called it ‘Packing’.
The very fact that I am explaining this metric underwrites its lack of mainstream credibility and attention in the world of football statistics. It did, however, manage to gain some traction in Germany around the time of Euro 2016, with the state broadcaster ARD using it during games, and it was also adopted by Dortmund as an analytical tool in player performance. Nevertheless, it certainly never reached the now widespread affection and accepted utility as the most recent kid on the football stats block – expected goals. But that’s not to say it doesn’t evidence anything interesting.
Out of 51 games at France 2016, 34 were won by teams with higher Packing numbers for getting past defenders. Fourteen of the remaining 17 games were drawn, and only three games were lost by those who got beyond defenders more often than their opponents. To illustrate Packing, a pass from Mats Hummels into Mesut Ozil – who during that Euros got a high Packing score for received passes, taking out 62 players, on average, per game due to his ability to find space – would score highly; it could easily take out 2 defensive lines and 4 plus players. Another example would be that Toni Kroos ‘took out’ 82 players, on average, per game and was the best ‘Packer’ in the same tournament.
It can highlight a number of things – which teams play more vertically, which players are the most effective between the lines, efficient attacking play, appreciation of space, where the ‘dangerous’ space is, or, indeed, a good or bad acknowledgement of space by the defensive team.
Therefore, it goes without saying that a sideways pass or a team that strings endless sideways passes together would be attributed a low ‘packing’ score. In this case, players have a diminished ability to recognise or appreciate space, the passing lanes are blocked by a good defence, or players are not fearless enough to play vertically.
I remember reading about packing in the aftermath of the Iceland versus England quarter final in Euro 2016. It showed that England achieved a packing score of 28 in comparison to Iceland’s score of 41. Now, one major problem with metrics being used as analytical devices is that they are never completely objective; they were thought up by someone with a particular goal in mind, to highlight a certain part of the game, and they can easily be twisted, post-hoc, to support a narrative. And that’s what I wish to do here! Chiefly because Packing’s interpretation of that particular game perfectly joined up with my view of that particular game: in short, the players were scared. They did not want to take responsibility or make mistakes. They played safe passes. And they certainly didn’t want to beat a man.
Of course there is a second interpretation: Iceland defended deep, or parked the bus. But that explanation didn’t pass the eye test or the packing scores; Iceland broke admirably, looked constantly dangerous and were the better side that night. So, that begs the question. Why? Well, let’s look at Kieron Dyer’s recent elucidations on playing for the Three Lions:
“We were the golden generation. We were meant to win the first tournament since 1966 and with that comes great expectations from fans and media, and if you don’t meet those expectations, then you know you’re going to get hammered.
“You just look at some of the things, David Beckham is a national treasure now but when he was sent off in that World Cup he was public enemy number one, so you know that any kind of mistake that cost your team would see you vilified.”
“So again that’s only going to have a negative impact on you and speaking just for myself, when I went onto the football pitch for my country, I wanted to take the easy option.
Maybe Kieron Dyer is making excuses for his modest international career. Maybe he was an anomaly in the squad – that’s to say he was simply more sensitive to the happenings within the camp, in the past, in the media, and in the stadium. But, I think that would be an overly charitable interpretation and ignorant of group psychology. ‘Behavioural contagion’ (self-explanatory) in group psychology is a demonstrably real phenomenon, and so we have to assume that this is/was a factor among England squads, at least on a subconscious level.
A cursory recall of all the vilified members of the England squad over the last 30 years certainly point to Dyer’s possessing of an important insight, at least one worth exploring. Waddle, Southgate, Batty, Vassell , Beckham, Rooney and most recently, Joe Hart have all felt the ire of the media and fans after on field indiscretions. On both front and back pages, in Pizza Hut adverts and during the following season, in stadiums.
Please note that I believe it is far too reductive to apportion all the blame of England’s glorious failures in summer tournaments on the media; there are a host of problems affecting the national team, but I certainly think the media’s role in the creation of the patent fear with which recent England teams have played is understated.
This game the media plays has a name: ‘the-build-them-up-to-knock-them-down’ syndrome. It’s part of the national psyche, and the leader of the pack is the English press. Celebrities, politicians, reality TV stars and sports stars all navigate this tightrope. Their brilliance and their dreams being narrated and granted by the media’s left hand, but all the time its right hand, open hand, poised and just out of sight, ready to slap them down, and revel in it.
Where does it come from? Historically speaking, English tabloid habits set in early. The advent of railways meant that newspapers were delivered to all parts of the nation and subsequently became an unbreakable part of the daily habit. The newspaper market became segmented early, too. Tabloids would be devoured by the ‘lower classes’, on the buses and trains or the tube. Britain also had high literacy levels so – unlike Spain or Italy for example, whose underclass had high illiteracy levels and therefore have historically spread their more lurid side of life through the TV – newspapers could reach each man and woman alike, regardless of class. Another reason was the adversarial parliamentary system’s encouraging of a partisan press, one that built up any personification of the romantic ‘Rule Britannia’ spirit and then subsequently shot it down, taking rabid enjoyment in its chronicling of glorious failure.
Here’s Dyer again: “If you don’t meet those expectations, then you know you’re going to get hammered. I wanted to make sure I got the pass from A to B, not try anything over the top and that’s my game. My game was trying to make things happen, take people on but I never really showed that in an England shirt because my mindset was: ‘I can’t make a mistake.’”
This would be debilitating for anyone in any walk of life. Imagine going into an important negotiation, knowing that, if you mess it up, you will not be able to walk down the corridor for the foreseeable future without being sneered at, and a company wide email will be sent out with a hilarious pun on your name as the title, and the content being a 400×800 image of the very second you ballsed up the negotiation, accompanied by a sensationalist paragraph, full of loose prose helpfully emboldened to convey why YOU are such a DICK. Anyone would, rightly, be paralysed in that negotiation.
Another intriguing excerpt from Dyer’s book is one in which he regales a moment in which he and his fellow representatives of the England under 20 team, on the piss, had all decided to shit in a bag and then hang it on the manager’s hotel room door. He proceeds:
“We were doing that to the manager of an England team. I look back and wonder if it was our culture holding us back. We acted without considering the consequences. Inevitably that mind-set is going to bleed into performance.”
Breaking down this quote: the first part, i’d agree with. Football culture in the UK really does not allow for international success. The Premier League lacks the tactical subtleties seen in international football. Nor has English football ever been intellectualised like on the continent – but those are arguments for another day. The second part of the quote, however, is the complete opposite of what happens on the pitch. The players act as they do because they do (subconsciously) consider the consequences. They consider the national ostracisation they will suffer at the hands of the press and, consequently, the fans. The past shows them that the consequences of any wrong decision or action are completely known, and importantly, known to be negative – which creates the inertia needed for glorious failure, as seen in that Iceland game. Maybe, the answer lies in their engaging in that other English pastime of having a couple of pints before games – freedom in their play may ensue.
Does this happen in other countries? My sample size is small, but, from what I’ve seen, no, it doesn’t. I live in Mexico, and have lived in Italy and Spain. I have never seen anywhere near the same levels of glee with which the press and fans ridicule sporting, or, indeed, any failure.
Italy, is a completely different beast; its sports dailies (which are 90% football) are measured in their analysis; they exude sophistication. There is club and regional focus in their reporting – Gazzetta dello Sport is based in Milan and centres itself more on the two clubs from there, Corriere dello Sport is the paper for the southern teams, Napoli and Roma, while Tuttosport is based in Turin and sings Juve’s tune. Despite smatterings of partisanship, on the subject of gli Azzurri, their desire to humiliate individuals is nonexistent. It’s a world away from the English press.
Another notable aspect is how Italians are able to put bitter domestic rivalries behind them during national tournaments. England and English football is based on both authentic and fabricated, yet intense domestic rivalries – a dynamic which allows hatred and ridicule of someone born 31 miles away from you and who is ostensibly the same as you. Domestic football is so fiercely contested and so embedded in English culture both on and off the pitch that it is difficult to break its spell when it comes to the national team. I have had the fortune of sharing the company of a couple of England fans who refused to cheer for a Gerrard goal because ‘I’m United pal, and I can’t stand the c**t’. I can’t help but think that that small act is very telling in its own seemingly insignificant way. The only thing similar that I experienced from my time in Italy was my Neapolitan friend’s approach to the Italian National side – for he just did not feel any attachment to them at all. He is Neapolitan, not Italian.
Italy crashed out of Euro 2012 when I was living there. How did the press react? Well, to frame it with potential English reactions – there were no pictures of Antonio Di Natale or Vicenzo Iaquinta missing a big chance on the front pages. There were criticisms of Marcelo Lippi’s not taking Mario Balotelli, Giuseppe Rossi or Antonio Cassano. There were calls for the manager to resign, which he duly did. But it’s important to note that a turnip was not superimposed onto his head. What struck me was how there seemed to be an air of tranquility, a dearth of hysteria. Simple but needed reflection proceeded accompanied by a simple “what now?”
Spain won the World Cup while I was living there, so that might explain the lack of scathing attacks. But beyond anecdotal evidence, revealingly, their main sports newspapers operate as part of the propaganda machines for the big two clubs – you know who. Marca and AS report mainly on Madrid, and Mundo Deportivo and Sport for Barcelona. They are linearized by their attachment to those clubs, and therefore geographically, so the national team gets kind of a free pass. That said, they are more than happy to go after individual players (Bale and Benzema receive a lot of bad press in the Madrid journalistic offerings for example), but overall the extreme domestic dichotomy means that neither clan can operate as an overarching national voice or purveyor of ridicule in the English way.
In 2014, I moved to Mexico, just before the start of the World Cup. In Mexico’s quarter final, Rafa Marquez committed a foul in the box in the last minute against the Netherlands. Arjen Robben, admittedly, made the most of it. It was a 50/50 penalty. One that you’d be livid about if it had not been given for your side. But the captain of the national side, in the box, dived in on Robben in the 93rd minute of a World Cup quarter final, when Robben was going nowhere. Ask yourself how that would’ve played out in the press in the UK.
How did it play out in Mexico? Well, there were no pictures of Marquez on the front page of the national newspapers the next day. It was all on Robben; his dive knocked them out. Songs were uploaded onto YouTube about Robben’s dive. Robben T-shirts were made. He was public enemy number one for a short time. After all, Mexicans are very patriotic and Robben robbed them of the chance of a World Cup semifinal. Everyone goes mad for Los Tri, yet it is a passion expressed through positive energy, mixed with a bit of self-depreciation, and most markedly, humility.
Maybe that is another part of the problem – the lack of national modesty in the realm of football. The press and the fans still see themselves as sitting at the top table of world football. Echoes of 1966, Jules Rimet etc. Who knows? It seems outmoded that in an age when the prevalence of the printed press is waning, I write an article on its dampening effect on the England national football team. They are professionals for God’s sake! They should be able to handle a bit of pressure! They are paid thousands of pounds a week! This is both true and misleading, because top-level sport is played in the head, and especially when you are not by far the greatest team in the world – that extra X% is vital to succeed. England need to seek an advantage any way they can in the major tournaments – but it seems an impossible task to reach and foster the requisite mental state within this media driven national atmosphere of derision that has been in play for a fairly long time now. Because like another almost uniquely English pursuit – binge-drinking – the ‘build-them-up-and-knock-them-down’ attitude is highly self-destructive and ultimately self-defeating. It paralyses you. Because, as Dyer says, ‘you’re gonna get hammered.’