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.