Game Theory in Football Explained

Football has more money than ever before,
and it has made some football clubs enter a perpetual cycle of
hiring managers, spending huge sums of money, and when things go awry, sacking the manager
and doing it all over again.
This endless pursuit of immediate success and lack of stability is the result of poor
leadership at the club, and one way of explained that is through game
theory. Game theory is a branch of mathematics that
also uses elements of sociology and economics to better
understand rational decision making in competitive situations. It’s used to understand a wide
variety of topics, from business to war. The premise
is that when you have more than one competitor in a situation, you
have a game. And there are two types of games: finite and infinite.
Finite games are defined as having set rules and players in which the objective of the
game is to win. An individual football match is a classic example.
There are eleven known players on each team and set, agreed
upon rules that both teams follow in order to try and win the match.
In contrast, infinite games have changeable rules and both known players and unknown players.
Most importantly, the goal of the game is not to
win, but to keep playing. If we examine football in a holistic
sense, it becomes clear that it is an infinite game. Nobody can win or lose the entire sport
of football, they can only try and continue to be a player amongst
a large field of constantly changing players. There is no
football club who wins every trophy every season, and there are countless clubs who
fade out of relevance at the highest level.
In this sense, we can understand that the clubs who are successful are those who recognise
the type of game they are in and implement strategies befitting
that game. An example of this is Sir Alex Ferguson and
Manchester United from 2004 to 2007. United failed to win the
league for three successive seasons during that time period, and Ferguson was facing
significant pressure from fans and critics who saw Chelsea and
Arsenal as the best teams in England. However, Ferguson
understood that Manchester United could never be Premier League winners every single year
and that there would be times in his tenure that his squad
would be inferior to that of other teams. Rather than trying to immediately sign big-name
players to react to his competition, Ferguson understood the
benefits of developing talents like Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo would outweigh
Manchester United’s short term failures. This is not
to say that Ferguson didn’t care about results, it’s simply that he
believed in certain ideas about how football should be approached, among which was youth
development. Ferguson made decisions based on his and Manchester
United’s values ahead of their interests, and this type
of infinite strategy enabled him to eventually outperform his competition in the long term.
A more recent example of a team that recognizes that it’s in an infinite game is Watford.
Watford are not big spenders in the Premier League, with the likes
of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton, and Fulham spending
far more than them in the transfer window. Instead, Watford looks to make astute signings
that fit a system the manager is trying to play and do so with
the intent of achieving stability and consistency. Even when
events take a turn for the worse, Watford don’t become reactionary and instead stay
committed to their principles. For instance, at the end of the
17/18 season, Watford lost manager Marco Silva and a huge talent
in Richarlison to Everton, who finished six places above Watford.
In this scenario, it would be easy for a club to spend big to try and plug the gaps in their
side. However, Watford appointed a manager who could get
the best out of the players in the squad and have now developed
a cohesive and successful side that sit 8th in the Premier League and in contention for
Europe. It may seem strange for Watford to take such a pragmatic
and measured to its ownership. After all, they will be never able to get
close to winning the league without heavy investment in the squad.
But Watford realise that for them, that is not the definition of success. If Watford
were to stay a top half Premier League side for the next 15 years
and never finish above 5th, that would be an astonishing
achievement. Different clubs have different potentials, and Watford’s approach has set
them on course become the best version of themselves.
One case of a team failing to recognisee that they are in an infinite game is Fulham. The
London side was sensational in the Championship and earned
promotion with the expectation of performing well in the top
flight. The side was built on cohesion, and understanding between players to achieve their
possession-based, attacking style.
However, Fulham spent heavily in the transfer window in an attempt to secure safety by improving
the quality of player in the squad. In doing so,
they failed to recognise what had made them successful in the
past and aimlessly sought to achieve safety in the short term. Fast forward to March,
Fulham have had three different managers and seem destined to go
straight back down. There is no guarantee that Fulham would
have stayed up if had they depended on their existing squad alone, but they would certainly
have more stability and long term assurance than they
currently have. It’s clear that football is an infinite game
because it is the clubs and managers who pursue infinite strategies
that become great. Managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Johan Cruyff made Manchester
United and Barcelona so successful by consistently making
decisions based on their values, and thus made those teams
stand for something. As author Simon Sinek puts it, when people know what you stand for,
they can then say “I believe what you believe. I would like
to be a part of your organisation” and later explained that “this is
where loyalty comes from.” That loyalty and trust enabled to both of those teams to
create successful footballing empires. The blueprint for these
incredible coaches and teams and, more broadly, the morals and
values of football are clearly rooted in infinite strategies.

100 thoughts on “Game Theory in Football Explained

  1. An example of this could be the cruyff philosophy at Barça but the problem is that the board isn’t following it
    I wrote it before finishing the video

  2. Before Zidane and Ronaldo decided to leave, you could've said Real Madrid were starting to play the infinite game pretty well. Oh well….

  3. Any chance you watched that TED talks of Simon Sinek in the same subject (game theory) prior to making this vid? haha

  4. Shame ed Woodward didn't agree with saf’s blueprint and structure when he arrived and decided to tear it up in order to bigger profits

  5. QPR are a club who have consistently gone for the short-term finite policy for pretty much the last 20 years.

  6. When I hear Game Theory, I always think Michael Scofield from Prison Break. He used the idea of game theory to get out of prison and saved his brother's life

  7. That part about football from a holistic perspective was funny but very true. The only point I have to make is that about fergeson developing talent rather that buying- I mean if that talent is arguably the best player who’s ever lived it doesn’t really seem like a difficult decision, you know?

  8. The best example of this strategy being implemented and failed was ARSENAL. the young guns instead of staying for possibly 2 more years to succeed as unit left the ship to sink.yes, im taking about 2010-2013. this was the period arsenal probably had the best youth developing stars who could have made arsene wenger the greatest manager if they stayed together for just a couple of more years. they instead became judas and made arsene a joker.

  9. Fergiscum developed Rooney and Ronaldo? A bit of revisionism, eh? Unless you want to treat every situation in which a manager buys a player that is younger than him as "Youth Development", you must be joking.

  10. i think it’s harsh to say Fulham are a great example of short-term investment. sure they spent a lot but the players that were bought were great young prospects, unlike United’s or Barcelona’s approach which is to just chuck money on a Sanchez or Vidal. The problem with Fulham is that they never got a manager to fit their squad, and with Spurs and Liverpool on the final of the UCL, we can all agree that systems better individual talent

  11. Real Madrid is a great example of this. A few years back, they never stop wasting tons on money in the transfer market and changing their manager every season, never going further than the fist rounds of the champions, their goal. Then, it changed, it created a stable team, with no big transfers every summer, and they won 4 out of the last 5 champions.

  12. Wenger the infinity top 4 manager. Can't blame the fans for wanting more though. Rather go through the ups and downs.

  13. Bournemouth, Burnley, Athletico Madrid are more suited examples, even Newcastle more recently, but anyway, a point well made.
    United, on the other hand have lost all their game in theory, seeing the way they treated the likes of Van Gaal and Mourinho.
    Its intriguing how Barcelona's philosophy would've held up if not for the talismanic effects of Leo Messi.

  14. Great video!!!! The only error you made was referring to Game Theory as a field of mathematics. It's not. It's only math for social scientists.

  15. So Madrid should have kept Solari because Real Madrid cannot win every year and he was developing young players

  16. Can you guys make videos on the international tournaments this summer? I.e. copa America, afcon 2019, gold cup. I know you get a lot of suggestions but I'm sure whatever video you guys make will be pretty great.

  17. Chelsea used Game Theory in the 2008 shoot out with United, Anelka who missed the losing pen did not stick to the plan

  18. That's a very long video just to say that sadly Manchester United are probably gonna suck for the next few season even IF they sign 10 players this summer. Cheers mate I'm crying

  19. l think you guys can do more than this. You have already prove it you can. For instance you could explain Ferguson's choise in young players vs big pressure perspective or young players vs short term big money gambling with a table to show his decisions with using "The Prisoner's Dilemma". It could be more about Game Theory. Because game theory is about making decisions and risk taking.

  20. Yeah, but the goal of the team is to win championships and cups and not to finish at the 8th seed every year.

  21. Big fan of the videos normally but a couple of things.: 1. Watford can hardly be said to buy players to fit the manager's system when they change their manager almost every year. If anything they do the exact opposite, they recruit players thinking of the club's long-term needs, not the manager's.

    2. 'Reactionary' means politically conservative. The word you're looking for is 'reactive'.

  22. im surprised you used watford to show consistency, it works well in this case and i don’t have a problem with it, but i think this was their first time giving a manager an extension since being in the prem so its like they’ve really only been the model of consistency for a season, nothing wrong with it just thought it was funny

  23. You used the term 'developing talents' by citing Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo who were both signed from elsewhere for big transfer fees. Developing talent is about bringing players through your Youth system and not simply buying them after the development phase is largely over.

  24. Good descriptions….but dome poor examples. Watford? One season and it's some kind of….oh never mind.

  25. My thing with Man U's sacking of Jose Mourinho was that it was the right decision. They literally couldn't keep him on. The results were terrible, his relationship with players got so bad it made the news all the time, his "respect" rant, the moaning in press conferences, the shock defeats, the lack of future vision, the sheer anger. There was no redeemable factor about him. Woodward was right to sack Mourinho. There would be no infinite strategy, to link this to the video. Same with Van Gaal – he had the wrong strategy for the club, I feel. United went wrong in this sense by not keeping Moyes at the club to rebuild the side he inherited after Ferguson much as Ferguson did at the start of his spell. Now that is what they must give OGS 3-5 years to do and then according to game theory if they make smart decisions and create a successful strategy they will be the greatest team in the land again. I hope it doesn't happen, but that's the only way it can.

  26. Really? You're trying to make a point that Watford want stability and consistency when they sack all their managers after a single season? Not sure I buy into that point.

  27. I see Poch going the same way with Tottenham. Consistently finished top 4 the past 4 seasons – something that was unimaginable just a few years ago. And now, after spending 0 on transfers, we are in the Champs League final and finished top 4 yet again.

  28. Watford SACKED Marco Silva, are you mental? 1 of the worst examples of sticking to principles. Unless the principle is to sack the manager within 2 years?????

  29. Fantastic video – brilliantly explained, absolutely eye-opening and utterly fascinating. This is why Spurs are not spending money on new players but rather, on a new stadium that will bring in more money in the long-run and better training facilities that will benefit both the 1st XI and youth academy players that will become the future of the club.

  30. I was actually gonna pull off an all nighter for an exam i have tomorrow afternoon. But after watching this video,I've decided to sleep.After all its an infinite game

  31. "Nobody can win or lose the entire sport of football…"

    I dunno man, 2009 Barca came pretty close to winning the entire sport of football.

  32. Was looking forward to seeing you missaply game theory to football as soon as I saw the title, and you didn't dissapoint. What you're explaining isn't game theory. Your videos are enjoyable to watch because they're well edited, you have a nice voice over and great animation, but please please get someone else in to support you on the maths/stats/theory side of things.

  33. If they can stay up this year, Norwich could be one of these teams. They’re practicing the idea of being in an infinite game under Stuart Webber.

  34. Interesting that you cited Watford who were known to changing their manager frequently. Honestly I can’t recall if they fired their most recent manager at the start of season 2019/20.

    But I recall Charlton Athletic under Alan Curbishley in the early noughties. Brought stability and consistent top half finishes, even as high as sixth. Then I believe the board sacked him so as to go “in another direction”

    They key here are clubs knowing their identity and consolidating it. The trick is knowing when and how to take the next step.

    Football and clubs evolve, with previous also rans looking like kings. The best example were the big five who started the Premier League. Of these, one consistently did well, one is now beginning to look like a superpower again, one had its day in the sun, but later became a shadow of its former self and two have fought relegation battles winning an FA cup over twenty years ago (albeit one of these has made great strides to evolve back to former glories). But there was no Man City or Chelsea amongst this group who evolved and rapidly changed their identity

  35. I think this is related to the team management structure. Cyclical elected presidents tend to make heavy investments in developed players while centralized clubs go for long term projects like the Red Bull teams.

  36. this video aged really poorly regarding watford. plus they've sacked as many managers as they've had years in the premier league, hardly the paragon of stability.

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