Big and fast

In football, normally we see two kinds of strikers – small and quick or big and slow. About twenty years ago, when 4-4-2 was the dominant formation, it was common for teams to deploy a strike partnership with one of each. Liverpool, for example, played with Michael Owen (small and quick) and Emile Heskey (bit and slow).

While strike partnerships have gone out of fashion, you still see these two kinds of strikers in modern football. The small and quick striker usually “plays on the shoulder of the last defender”, looking to beat the offside trap and score. The big and slow striker holds up the ball in an advanced position, waiting for teammates to go past, so that the team can then attack in numbers. The big and slow striker is also usually good in the air and can convert crosses.

For a long time, I was wondering why there were no “big and fast” strikers in football. It isn’t as if bulk / size is negatively correlated with speed – there surely must exist big guys who are also quick, and I was wondering why there weren’t so many strikers like this.

That, of course changed last year, with the arrival of Erling Haaland, a striker who is both incredibly quick and incredibly big, and who has dominated the Premier League like nobody’s business. Similarly, there is also Darwin Nuñez, who can both play off the last defender, and head crosses towards goal, and hold up the ball. Then again, I can’t think of too many others in contemporary football.

This morning, I got a hypothesis on why this is so – the big and fast guys are all in rugby! I was watching highlights of the quarter finals (England beating Fiji and South Africa beating France), and what I noticed was that the rugby guys are all both big and fast.

You need to be fast (and agile) to skip past the opponents to do a touchdown. And then you need tremendous upper body strength to be able to take down an opponent, or resist when an opponent tries to take you down. From that perspective, being big and being fast are both non negotiable for you to be a top rugby player.

I know there is a class difference in places like England between those who take up football and those who take up rugby (football is working class, rugby is upper class), but could it be that most people who are big and fast, and want to take up professional sport, choose rugby rather than football? And is this why you find few big and fast players from countries traditionally good at both games – such as England and France (and maybe Argentina)?

Haaland is from Norway, which doesn’t really play rugby (again, his father was a footballer). Nuñez is from Uruguay, which is a massive football nation, but not much in rugby (they made their rugby debut at this world cup, i think). And so despite their physique and speed, they chose football.

Had they been from England or France, it’s likely they would’ve played rugby instead!

The Problem With American Sport

There was a basketball epidemic when I was in high school. It was probably a result of two things – we used to play basketball regularly in school, and Star Sports (or was it still Prime Sports?) had started showing live games from the NBA. Everyone in school would talk about basketball. Your knowledge of basketball went beyond the Magic Johnsons and Michael Jordans. You learnt about teams with wonderful names such as “Utah Jazz”. And for reasons completely unknown to me, despite having never watched him play (I still haven’t) Patrick Ewing became my favourite player.

So one morning I decided to see what the fuss about NBA was all about, and watch a game. It made for horrible viewing. There were great plays, of course. It was a great spectator sport in that sense. But what annoyed me endlessly were the time outs and consequent advertising breaks. Just when I would get settled into the rhythm of the game, someone would call a time out and for the mid 90s, two minutes of advertising was a really long time!

I still continued to watch, for “pseud value”, so that I could talk about it in school. However, I could never get the kind of engagement that I could get with cricket (then) or football (now). The game was simply way too discontinuous. A game of basketball is supposed to last 40 minutes, but these things would last three times as long. I don’t think I watched more than 2-3 games.

As everyone on my facebook timeline talks about the Super Bowl, the only thing I can think of is how unwatchable American Sport is. I understand that you need the ads to fund the game, and that greater advertising revenue means greater revenue for players and hence greater quality of sport. What irks me however, is that these ads end up causing much discontinuity in the sport.

So this morning I was thinking about why I get irked so much about ads in American sports (basketball, american football, etc.) while I can still watch cricket, which has a fair share of ads. The answer lies in randomness. I know when a cricket telecast will switch to ads – at the end of every over, at the fall of a wicket, or in an innings break. When an advertisement comes in a cricket broadcast, I’m prepared for it (except of course, when greedy broadcasters cut to ads before the full over is bowled). It is a similar case in tennis, where I expect to switch to advertisements after every two games – there is a rhythm to it.

In American sport, it is not so. That teams can call for a timeout at any point in time, and that can completely put you off. The game cuts to advertisements at moments when you least expect it, and that can be a huge challenge for someone not used to it!

A year or so ago, I had attended this lecture on sports analytics in Bangalore, delivered by a University of Chicago professor. He said that the reason football hasn’t taken off in the US is because it is not television friendly. “Split a game into four quarters, introduce two time outs in each quarter, and you will see Major League Soccer taking off”, he said. The problem, however, is that this would simply ruin the continuity of the game – which is what a lot of people love about football. And looking at the funding of the clubs in the major European leagues, it is clear that football is making sufficient money from television in its current form, without any gimmickry.

An American colleague at my last job offered another perspective. “How can you watch a game continuously for 45 minutes”, he asked. “We are so used to breaks in play every few minutes that we can’t watch continuously for so long”. If I can extrapolate from this one data point and take it with conjunction with what the professor said, you know why football is not popular in the US.

When I woke up this morning I wanted to check if the Super Bowl was being telecast in India. Then I remembered my earlier experiences of trying to watch American football, and decided against it. It is too discrete a game for my liking. There are too many breaks in play. I’d any day watch rugby instead! It is a similar game but so much more elegant and continuous!