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Rational Expectations: A Tale of Two Lucases

January 20th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Saturday the 22nd of November 2008. Liverpool lie second in the league, behind Chelsea only on goal difference. The afternoon’s fixture is a home game against Fulham, a side sitting mid-table who have collected just one point on the road all season. Thirty-five minutes pass and it is still 0-0. A young Liverpool midfielder receives the ball, plays a poor pass and loses the ball. His name is Lucas Leiva. The crowd’s response is instantaneous: a chant of “Xabi Alonso” rings out across the ground. The match finishes 0-0. Lucas, just 21 years of age, trudges off the pitch to a most peculiar sound — a chorus of boos. The Anfield faithful, famed for their patience and loyalty, are booing one of their own.

Sunday the 15th of May 2011. Liverpool’s final home game of the season ends in a 2-0 defeat to Spurs. After the game, Lucas is presented with a Golden Samba by the influential fan site Red All Over the Land to commemorate his victory, with an extraordinary 75 per cent of the vote, in their player of the season poll.  A packed Anfield cheers at the very sight of Lucas. After accepting the award, Lucas, with his baby boy cradled in his arms, walks along the edge of the packed stands to graciously accept the adulation of the delirious crowd, like an American President working a rope line after a glorious, landslide election victory. Nine days later, Lucas is crowned Liverpool’s official Player of the Season for 2010–11 after winning an astonishing 40 per cent of the 129,774 votes cast in the official fan poll.

It is the most remarkable of turnarounds.

But why was the Anfield crowd booing Lucas in the first place and was it justified? How did Lucas manage to win a seemingly impossible case in the once hostile court of fans’ opinion? What is the explanation for such a radical change in collective opinion?

The answers to these questions have as much to do with expectations as actual performances.

When Lucas arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 for £5m, he was arguably the best-credentialed young midfielder in South America. As a 20 year old, he had just led Gremio to the final of the Copa Liberatores and become the youngest ever winner of the Bola de Ouro award for the best player in the Brazilian National Championship. The four preceding winners of the coveted award read as follows: Carlos Tevez, Robinho, Alex and Kaka. Lucas captained a Brazilian U-20 side containing Pato to victory at the 2007 South American U-20 Championship, scoring 4 goals, including the opener in the title-clinching 2-0 win over Colombia, along the way. With a CV like that, it was little wonder that Liverpool had to beat the likes of Inter Milan in order to secure his signature.

Naturally then, the general expectation amongst Liverpool fans was that Lucas would be an attacking force. At the very least, he was expected to deliver assists and goals. Moreover, as a highly-rated young Brazilian attacking player moving to an English club, he was subject to the perception, widespread in the English-speaking world, that he would play in a style similar to that exhibited by the likes of Kaka, Robinho and Ronaldinho who are distinguished by their exquisite touch and technique, and their ability to dribble at pace and beat defenders.

However, the reality is that at Gremio and for the Brazilian underage national sides, Lucas played as a box-to-box central attacking midfielder with a licence to rumble forward. He had many virtues: he knew when to time his forward runs; he scored goals; and like all modern Brazilian central midfielders, he had a phenomenal engine and a terrific work-rate. Technically, he was solid, but he was never a playmaker or a dribbler. He was a completely different style of player to that which many Liverpool fans expected. Bryan Robson would have been a more appropriate analogue for Lucas than Kaka. The trouble is that many fans expected the latter.

Accordingly, even before Lucas had kicked a ball for Liverpool, he was subject to the expectation that he would be something that he is not and never was, namely, a Kaka/Robinho style player. Once he arrived at Liverpool, this gap between expectation and reality was widened by his deployment in a position in which he’d never previously played, requiring him to both change his style of play and learn new skills, all whilst taking the place of one of two regulars who had spent a lifetime in that position.

For the bulk of Lucas’s early Liverpool career, Rafa Benitez favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation. In such a system, there were only three positions which a career central midfielder such as Lucas could conceivably fill — the two deep-lying midfield berths (occupied by Alonso and Mascherano) in front of the back four and the central attacking midfield position (occupied by Gerrard) in the bank of three behind the lone striker.

The problem for Lucas was that each of those positions was occupied by a world-class player with a particular style and peculiar strengths which Lucas did not necessarily share. Mascherano was one of the best pure stoppers in the world. Alonso was a deep-lying playmaker with the technique and tactical awareness to both elegantly stroke 30 yard passes and diligently perform his defensive duties. Gerrard was an all-out attacker with a scoring record which put most strikers to shame.

Lucas did not have the technique and passing ability required to function as an Alonso-style regista. Having spent his career up to that point as a box-to-box attacking midfielder, he did not yet have the tackling technique or positional know-how required to effectively play the Mascherano pure stopper role. He was probably best suited to the central attacking midfield role but he could not play there because, well, that’s Gerrard’s position. And he most certainly could not occupy one of the two wing positions — he was born and raised in a country where wingers are long extinct.

On the infrequent occasions when Lucas did get the chance to start, it was typically as a holding midfielder in place of Mascherano or Alonso — that was the case that chilly November afternoon against Fulham as Benitez opted to rest Alonso, a man in the form of his life. Lucas struggled in a new and unfamiliar position. He did not seem to know how and when to tackle or where to position himself as a holding player. He picked up a lot of yellow cards and gave away unnecessary free-kicks in dangerous positions. He struggled to move the ball out of defence, often passing the ball sideways and/or backwards rather than forward.

During this difficult early period in Lucas’s Liverpool career, it was difficult to see what, exactly, his strengths were, but, even then, they were visible if one looked hard enough — pace, stamina, work-ethic, mental fortitude, reservoirs of self-belief and crocodile-thick skin. Unfortunately, much of the time, he employed these abilities to run around like a headless chook making poorly-timed and awkward-looking challenges.

So, yes, some of his early performances in a Liverpool shirt were objectively poor and, like any player who delivers such performances, he was fairly criticised as a result. But the criticism of Lucas, as the Fulham game example above illustrates, went much further than this. Even at a club as successful as Liverpool, there have been many players who have performed poorly — it happens, even when players giving it their all. Names such as Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Jan Kromkamp spring to mind as obvious examples. None of them were booed by their own home fans like Lucas was.

So performances alone, no matter how objectively poor, cannot fully explain the vehemence of the criticism directed at Lucas.

The answer can be found in the theory of rational expectations — the simple-sounding but powerful idea that people’s behaviour is determined by their present-day expectations of the future and those expectations are formed by people constantly updating and reinterpreting all available information.

When Lucas first arrived at Liverpool, many fans expected the new Kaka; instead, they got what initially looked like an undersized, wannabe Gattuso trying to fill the boots of the world’s best deep-lying playmaker. Hence, the depth of their disappointment which in turn fuelled the vehemence of their criticism. By contrast, with respect to the likes of Traore, Biscan and Kromkamp, the fans never expected very much in the first place and hence were not especially disappointed when they delivered very little.

So, with respect to Lucas, what’s changed between then and now?

The short answer: newly available information has caused fans’ expectations to adjust in a rational fashion.

Initially, fans had very little empirical data on Lucas (because Brazilian football is not widely televised in the UK), therefore, mistaken expectations, perhaps better described as stereotypical perceptions, were formed. People acted on the basis of these mistaken expectations: this explains the Fulham game. However, as time has passed, Lucas has played more and more games as a holding midfielder in a Liverpool shirt following the departures of Alonso and Mascherano, allowing the fans to gather more empirical data on him. They have seen him improve as he has learned to adapt to a new and unfamiliar role by both applying his pre-existing strengths (for example, his mobility and work-rate) to that role and working to acquire the additional abilities required to excel in that role, most notably, a vastly improved tackling technique and quicker, more incisive distribution. All this new information has been taken into account by the fans and expectations have adjusted accordingly.

Now, rational expectations align with reality — the fans expect and receive one of the most effective holding midfielders in the Premier League. Fittingly then, it was another Lucas, a Professor Robert E Lucas Jr of the University of Chicago, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for “for having developed and applied the hypothesis of rational expectations”.

Looking forward, the rational expectation now is that Lucas, already an outstanding stopper, can and should get even better once he recovers from his knee injury. In acquiring the defensive steel required to succeed in the holding role he now fulfils with such distinction for both Liverpool and Brazil, Lucas had to shed the goal-scoring prowess he showed in his youth. If Lucas can somehow marry the defensive steel he has learned in England to the attacking powers he showed in Brazil (assuming that Kenny Dalglish and/or Mano Menezes give him the tactical freedom to do so), then he has the potential to become, not just one of the most reliable stoppers in England, but one of the best all-around midfielders in the world, a box-to-box colossus who combines the defensive acumen of Busquets with the attacking verve of Gerrard.

Brazil, Dunga, Self-Destruction: The Keys to the Unlikely (and Fortunate) Dutch Win, or “Whatever Happened to Samba-Futebol?”

July 2nd, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Dunga handed in his resignation immediately following the 2-1 loss to the Netherlands, citing that the blame was “his and everybody else’s”

To some extent, he was right. If, by “everybody else,” he meant Felipe Melo. And to a lesser extent, Julio César, trumped as one of the best keepers in the World Cup despite not having to do anything in the whole tournament, and failing the one time it mattered.

1. Melo’s case is more clear-cut as a reason for this shocking loss: his pass created the 1-0 as the Dutch defense failed to show up; his incisive pass, which a good defense would never have allowed, gave Robinho a cakewalk for the opening goal.

However, a long ball into the box in the second half showed a tactically unaware Melo, who impeded his own keeper (who probably should have called him off anyways) and headed into his own net. The worst was yet to come. When Brazil were down 2-1, his stupid and deplorable stomp on Arjen Robben deprived Brazil of an even handed contest.

Obviously frustrated, Melo had been the victim of numerous fouls, which brings me to a second point:

2. The Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, was inconsistent in controlling the match. Moments before being sent off, Melo received a particularly brutal hack from behind from Mark Van Bommel. Amazingly, Van Bommel was fouling with virtual impunity throughout the second half, and in my neutral eyes could have gotten at least 3 clear-cut yellow cards.

It was a mystery to those watching that, for example, Michel Bastos would receive a yellow for persistent fouling, yet Van Bommel, fouling even more flagrantly and frequently, escaped booking.

Of course, none of these are excuses for Felipe Melo’s temper-tantrum and dirty kick. This side of Melo was obvious against Portugal, though in that case Dunga subbed him off before he could do himself (or an unfortunate Portuguese player) more damage.

3. This brings us to the third key in this self-destruction of the Brazilian team: Dunga. It is simple to see that in this specific match, he was all wrong in his changes; he really should have seen Felipe Melo, already visibly frustrated, off when they were drawing 1-1. Taking off Michel Bastos gave the Dutch loads of space to exploit on that side of the field, freeing them from his incursions down their own right channel.

Secondly, taking off Luis Fabiano and introducing Nilmar did not make much sense when they were 2-1 down. A forward-for-forward swap only makes sense when you are winning or drawing a very tight game in which a forward is seriously not functioning.

This last swap demonstrates one of Dunga’s biggest mistakes in the end: a lack of attacking and creative depth in the squad.

With the 1-0, Brazil did not dominate as they should have; their team was set up to play against a team that would attack them in the manner of Chile. In contrast with Spain, who held a masterclass of how to play with a 1-0 against Portugal, they were unable to keep meaningful possession. Unlike Argentina, who when winning 1-0 against Mexico went for the jugular, they lacked ideas and incisiveness when leading.

When tied 1-1, even more when they were losing, there was no go-to player that could come in and make an impact. This lack of an impact sub drastically limited the tactical options of the Brazilians. The conservative double-holding formation anchored by Melo and Gilberto Silva makes sense in a tight match in which limiting the opponents options takes precedence over creating chances.  Counterattacking is essential in such a system.

But when Brazil were desperately needing a goal, they had to take more risks, and simply did not have the resources to create them. Robinho and Kaká were exposed in a poor performance from both of them; by the time Holland scored, their defense showed itself to be more than apt in 1-on-1 situations, man marking tightly and pressuring the creators every time they had a touch. As a result, there were no options for either of them, and Luis Fabiano received no supply whatsoever all game.

At this point, Dunga’s great flaw of not calling up more attacking players is glaringly obvious. There was much controversy in Brazil at the repeated omission of players such as Juventus’s Diego, a brilliant midfield orchestrator; Alexandre Pato, who was injured until late April, yet still is a brilliant and irrepresible forward; and the old dog Ronaldinho, whose experience and vision might have changed things for Brazil.

And this is still overlooking attackers such as Hulk, who has been absolutely outstanding for Porto in the last couple edition of the Champions’ League.

For a time, these failings on Dunga’s part were overlooked. The world, and Brazilian fans, seemed ready to overlook the increasingly distant ideals of jogo bonito (which the British press, no doubt swayed by Nike, have perverted to Joga Bonito) in favor of a physical, low-risk battling squad.

In the end, the abandonment of jogo bonito was more than risky: it was disastrous. Dunga, and Brazil’s, negation of their stereotypically skillfull and swashbuckling game was a practical and tactical error too large to overcome against a rather fortunate Dutch side.

White Elephants: World Cup Anti-Climaxes

June 20th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

Ivory Coast- Brazil

Well, I am comprehensively disappointed by the match I was most looking forward to this weekend.

On paper, and judging from a solid performance against Portugal and a questionable Brazilian performance against North Korea, there were high expectations for this match, with Ivory Coast rightfully being touted as the Great Hope for Africa.

Nevertheless, from the get-go things looked dim, with master of underachievement Sven Goran Eriksson opting to start Gervinho, easily the best Ivorian against Portugal, on the bench. What’s more, we were surprised again by the presence of a midfielder like Zokora in the middle of the defense.

The match was absolutely toothless at the outset, with the Ivorians content to let their rivals do whatever they wanted. A good goal put them 1-0 down, and a ridiculous 2nd by Luis Fabiano, which should have been whistled out twice, virtually sealed it.

On said play, the Brazilian handled the ball, not once, but twice, in the same play, in clear view of the ref and his linesmen. Amazingly, the French official seemed to tease Luis Fabiano after the goal for having used his hands to control. Intentional or not, the goal should not have stood; his arms were above his head in both instances, thus rendering the ball dead and a free kick for the other team.

Overall the standard of officiating was extremely poor, not only allowing such a goal but also permitting shameless gamesmanship from the Brazilians, and later, horrific tackling from the Ivorians. We hope that Elano is not seriously injured, as the challenge that took him out of the game was enough to break my leg just from seeing it. Same goes for Michel Bastos, whose ankle was ironed out shortly after.

In the end, Kaká, dismal except for a combined total of 1 minute in this tournament (fortunately for Brazil that total minute led to two assists, one permitted by nonexistent defending), was sent off, helped by some Ivorian acting. Somebody must have shown them Rivaldo’s 2002 performance.

The match leaves a bad taste in the mouth, unless you are Brazilian and don’t care about anything besides Brazil winning.

Not only has the officiating question continued to taint this World Cup (changes NOW please!) but the Ivorians were atrociously dire. No fire, no energy, nothing at all besides a lay-down-and-die attitude from the very beginning.

As far as the officiating, I am ready for some basketball-style interventions. I am sick of the idea that football is some pure structure that mustn’t be tainted by any technology. Do we forget that the rules of this game have been modified hundreds of times since its inception? Why should we not take measures to ensure a more just contest?

We take for granted relatively “young” rules such as offsides, yet couldn’t bear the thought of instant replay. We complain that it would slow down the game, yet people won’t entertain something similar to a shot clock to cut down on the rampant time-wasting every time a team uses a small eternity to execute a throw-in or goal kick. Of course, bad calls will always happen (the NCAA Final Four is a good example), but I would love to see changes made for the good of the sport. At least in the NCAA Basketball Tournament we don’t see disgraceful gamesmanship, time-wasting, cynical fouling, and petulance towards offcials, because such actions are not tolerated, and furthermore, a careful system of referring balance ensures that such elements are at least minimized.

Italy “Falls” Against New Zealand

While a dramatic match, I believe that the commentators in general have lost sight of a couple of things.

1. Italy could have lost and STILL go through, if they beat Slovakia.

2. Slovakia have been abysmal and I fancy Italy won’t be too troubled by them, even if they do park the bus. What’s more, there is the possibility of Italy drawing and still going through if Paraguay beat New Zealand. This latter possibility seems strong considering the effort expended by the “Kiwis”. What’s more, Slovakia is currently a contender for dullest team in the tournament.

Lastly, how many times does the ESPN commentator have to say “The flightless Kiwis have taken flight” before being silenced by his own ironies?

Sacre bleu!

The unprecedented walkout on their own training by the French squad has made for great entertainment. The footage out there shows the French physical trainer throwing his badge in anger after being informed by Patrice Evra that the team refused to train in protest of Anelka’s firing.

Most entertainingly, a French journalist, L’Équipe’s Erik Bielderman, reported, LIVE on ESPN, what Anelka really said to Domenech, in a thick French accent: “he said to him go fuck himself, you son of a bitch.”

Saturday

Unsurprising results all around, though many would have fancied Ghana to defeat a 10-man Australia.

Which brings up the question: why on Earth would anybody include Harry Kewel in their squad? Was his 20-odd minute cameo scripted, as it is hard to remember him every playing more than 20 minutes in any match, ever.

World Cup Diary, Day 4: The Ultimate Anti-Climax; Bloody Anthems; Look Ahead to Better Days and a Smaller Tournament

June 15th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

National Anthem Battles

Finally some interesting anthem contests have come up. The Serbia-Ghana matchup featured two of the better anthems we’ve seen so far. Though the Ghanaians might have won the actual match, I give the edge to the Serbs with a somewhat sinister-toned national anthem that perhaps carries over some notes from the crazy times of civil war. Ghana’s was a close contender, though they lost some points for sounding too much like Germany’s “Deutschland, Deutschland”.

Australia vs. Germany: The Australians started off weakly with a piece that sounded like it was off the soundtrack of Titanic 2, before the vocals kicked in and almost saved it for them. The Germans, despite some umph being removed from their anthem due to some post-WWII forced lyrical edits, ended up on top as they always do (or so the stereotypes say). Puzzling considering some of the horror material out there–the Marseillaise to give one example (that line about  “may an impure blood / water our furrows” is rather scintillating). My decision here might also be based on the fact that the Australian anthem was not, in the end, “Waltzing Matilda,” currently a hit on youTube and with my 2 year-old.

Other Kinds of Matches

The Holland-Denmark match, regardless of its result costing me a bloody fortune, was anticlimatic to say the least. One expected a contest worthy of the Laudrups and the Cruyffs and instead was handed, well, a footballing slog of Bendtners and Van Bommels. If they weren’t still alive, the aforementioned legends would roll over in their grave and root for Germany. A comical own-goal sealed the fate of a hapless Denmark, who had less ideas than they did natural brunettes.

A major reason this match promised so much before it actually occured was considering the history of the total-footballing Dutch sides. There was once a time when they thrilled the world and reached all the big finals. In the past few tournaments though (‘98, ‘02, ‘06, and especially in Euros 2004 and 2008) they stormed through the group stages like banshees. Who could forget how they thrashed the Group of Death in 2008, beating world champ Italy 3-0 and making them look like an amateur team from a pasta factory. Then tearing World Cup runner-up France a new one 4-1, while making them look like [insert stereotype here] a local bakery Sunday team.

The Japan-Cameroon, while a great match, reinforced stereotypes about the Japanese being lightweights and the Cameroonians being hapless despite possessing an island of world-class football in a player like Eto’o. In the end, there were enough dramatics to satsify, with exhausted Japanese players looking like they were playing a man down, while Cameroonians used their cliché superior athleticism to knock balls too far in front of themselves. I could imagine what Eto’o might have been thinking: “Cameroon needs 10 more Eto’os”.

And finally, no surprises in the Italy vs. Paraguay. The Paraguayans seem to enjoy their self-made image of utterly empty football based on defending in numbers and hoping that the opponents’ shots hit off of one of their ten defenders and out of play. Despite this, an early goal set up some dramatics made worse by the “typical” Italian slow-motion start to the World Cup. Of course, in the end, those darn Italians did what everybody knew they would do, and tied the game, then nearly won it, while playing shite football.

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Things Can Only Get Better, Tomorrow

One awaits the result of the miracle surgery of Drogba. Surely, his reappearance after a broken arm would rank up there with the return from the dead of Garrincha in the 2002 Brazilian™ run to the title. Portugal, meanwhile, after nearly a decade of  persistent “Golden Generation” rhetoric, seem to have assembled a squad of also-rans and ineffective forwards, plus the Poutiest Lipped Footballer of All Time™ Cristiano Ronaldo, whom the Madrid press still tout as the “Best in the World” despite being shown up by Lionel Messi approximately 20 times in the past 2 seasons at various competitions.

And finally, in the ultimate battle between Southern Hemisphere capitalism and North Korean communism, we have the old dogs of Brazil featuring one of their least Brazilian teams ever (only 2 of their squad are Brazil-based). They take on, well, North Korea, about whom little is known besides the fact that April 25th is the date of the founding of their military, as well as the military team that their manager also manages (not to mention a number of their players). That, and their intriguing star, Jong Tae-Se, who despite being known as the “People’s Rooney” back home would rather be like the aforementioned Zombie Drogba.