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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Knowledge is power. But is it fun to watch?

Winning is the performance metric that matters most to everyone in soccer, Rory Smith writes.

By Rory Smith

Few things degrade quite so rapidly as the element of surprise, once exposed to the pressurized, accelerated conditions provided by elite soccer. In most cases, its half-life will extend no more than 90 minutes. Even in extreme, extenuating circumstances, it is unlikely to be more than twice that.

Two games — one at home, one away — is all that is required these days to know everything there is worth knowing about any given rival. Two games provide three hours of footage that an opposing manager and their coaching staff can mine for insights. They generate reams of data for analysts to pore over and pick through.

And, of course, they provide a large enough sample size for the players themselves to learn. “When you’re playing against someone twice a season, every season, you start to see the little tells,” Newcastle defender Dan Burn recently told the BBC. As a rule, Burn said, teams go into games “knowing what is coming.”

There are exceptions, of course: Newly promoted teams, sides who have drafted in a host of reinforcements and managers who have only recently arrived at a club can be decoded more easily on paper than on turf. Still, even their secrets are relatively fleeting.

“Look at Leeds, when they came up under Bielsa,” Burn said, referring to Marcelo Bielsa. “That first year, the players were running all over the place, and nobody had a clue what to do.” After a year, though, opponents had started not only to understand Bielsa’s system, but to find ways to counteract it.

Knowing what is coming, though, is not the same as being able to stop it. For the most part, Burn said, everyone is well aware what Manchester City will attempt to do when it takes the field. Such is the quality at Pep Guardiola’s disposal, though, that there is not much you can do about it.

It is difficult to overestimate quite how much soccer has changed in the last 30 years. It is faster, fitter, more technically accomplished and more tactically sophisticated than it has ever been. It is richer, more popular, more glamorous and more powerful: all at once a juggernaut and a leviathan and a hegemon.

Arguably as significant as any of those traits, though, is that it knows far more about itself than at any point in its history. In a way that was held to be heresy until relatively recently, soccer has come to understand its inner mechanics and its silent rhythms. It has learned to see itself as an intellectual exercise as much as an athletic one.

That, of course, is inevitable in an information age. Teams are incentivized — duty-bound, in fact — to seek any advantage that might increase their chance of victory. It might be through being more talented or more energetic or more industrious than their opponents. Or it might be a result of being better informed. Knowledge, after all, is power.

The problem is that soccer, like all sports, has another imperative: to entertain. The sport’s thriving economy rests on the idea that people will pay to watch it, either through exorbitantly priced tickets or exorbitantly priced subscription packages. In exchange, they will demand a compelling, enthralling spectacle.

This covenant is substantially more uneasy than we often admit. Everyone in soccer, from the managers and the players to the coaches and the analysts, is paid to win. If they do not win, they tend not to get paid anymore. That is the performance metric that matters most to them. Whether the rest of us find it entertaining or not is, at best, a secondary consideration.

That tension is worth taking into account, though, when we consider soccer as an information war. It is difficult to make the argument that soccer is getting less entertaining. True, there are variations from season to season — some will, by definition, be more engaging than others — but the overall curve is an upward one.

This edition of the Premier League may be the most absorbing in some time. In Germany, Bayer Leverkusen has emerged as a genuine threat to Bayern Munich. Four teams are competing for the title in Spain, and at least two in Italy. Expansive, adventurous soccer has become de rigueur across Europe.

A whole new school of thought is emerging in Brazil. Major League Soccer continues to develop and improve. Saudi Arabia is attempting to build an elite league from scratch. And all of that pales in comparison with the women’s game, which is hurtling forward with every passing year, not just in Europe and North America but in Africa, Australia and South America, too.

All of that has been accomplished — accelerated, perhaps — by the game’s pursuit of knowledge. In coming to understand itself, soccer has been able to push the boundaries of its own possibilities. Information has served to burnish the spectacle, rather than diminish it.

Whether that will always be the case is a different matter. Listening to Burn, the game becomes not a physical contest — the fluid, chaotic ballet that soccer believes itself to be — but a mental one, not so much a series of individual battles as a series of collective, strategic maneuvers.

For 90 minutes, two teams that cannot be surprised, that know exactly what the other is trying to do, engage in an array of feints and shifts and sleights as they attempt to identify a weakness, to engineer a vulnerability. The winner is the one that succeeds in creating even the briefest of imbalances.

Quite where that leads is an entirely theoretical exercise, but it is possible that the natural conclusion is not further growth but an unbreakable stalemate, where the sport is no longer lifted by its knowledge but burdened by it, where the impulse to win comes at a cost to the need to entertain. Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt, and there are times when there is such a thing as knowing too much.

Mounting toll

There is an unfortunate tendency in soccer to see only the fine detail, not the big picture. Manchester United will travel to Liverpool on Sunday missing, depending on late fitness tests and to what extent they can repair Harry Maguire’s wiring, somewhere between nine and 13 players.

Within that figure, there are self-inflicted wounds. Jadon Sancho, for example, continues to be omitted from Erik Ten Hag’s teams for reasons that are not entirely clear, and no longer appear to be proportionate to the original offense. United’s captain, Bruno Fernandes, is suspended, essentially, for stupidity.

The vast majority of the absences, though, can be attributed to injury. In that, United can hardly claim any particular ill fortune. Newcastle’s lofty ambitions are currently being asphyxiated by the absence of a dozen of its key players; Tottenham’s fast start has been derailed by injuries to 10 or so of Ange Postecoglou’s squad.

As a rule, these missing players are all treated as isolated crises. United’s problems highlight how poorly they have spent their vast cash reserves. Newcastle is finding it difficult to cope with the Champions League. Tottenham’s squad is unbalanced, incomplete.

That treatment, though, does not take into account the fact that Bournemouth and Crystal Palace and Chelsea are all burdened with full treatment rooms, too, or that AC Milan has seen its team shredded by injuries. It is almost as if all of these things are related, and that three years of almost constant soccer is beginning to take its toll on the game’s elite players, and the sport itself is starting to show the wear and tear.

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