Data – the double-edged sword of football. On one side, it allows for the identification of potentially missed players as well as the verification of a scout’s report. On the other side, it often dehumanizes players and can easily trap someone into an assumption that may not be fair to a player. One thing data is yet to account for is team chemistry. While the notion of team chemistry has doubters (most famously the analytics hero of baseball, former Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane), studies have repeatedly verified the correlation between strong dynamics and chemistry to strong performances.
So how do we consider team chemistry? While most of it can only be done on an interior/reflective basis, it can be one of the many ways we evaluate a club’s performance and identify the bright spots or the problems.
The Individual Aspect of Team Chemistry
To come together as a team, one must have the right balance of individuals. While the psychological profiling of players is becoming more and more common during the scouting process, the examination of dynamics is still in its infancy. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with team chemistry expert Joan Ryan (see final notes for more on her) on how she believes players fit certain roles of a team. These dynamics are fluid, and a player may find him/herself in a different role on different teams. These roles are:
The Sparkplug: The sparkplug is a player that gives teammates a sense of purpose and a selfless mentality
The Sage: The sage is a veteran that can lift anxieties and make a loss feel a bit better because chances are.. the sage has experienced it before. I think a prime example of this role would be James Milner at Liverpool
The Kid: As the name suggests, the kid is the opposite of the sage – the young player who brings energy because everything is new and exciting
The Enforcer: The enforcer (most likely the captain) is the one who holds everyone accountable – they make sure the energy stays high on a cold morning of training and the focus remains sharp
The Buddy: The buddy is… well… a buddy – the friend of everyone, no one will be isolated when a buddy is around
The Warrior: When you have a warrior, you know you have a good chance of winning – this is the superstar of the team
The Jester: The jester could also be called the shapeshifter in my opinion, because that is what they do – they can be the enforcer, the buddy, or the sparkplug on any given day. They are rare because they can identify just what the team needs and perform that role
Now, these roles are all at a smaller level, but players can also be a super-carrier or super-disruptor to a team’s chemistry. However, there tends to be a norm for super-carriers and super-disruptors. The super-carrier would tend to be classified as the sage because they bring a track record of being an amazing teammate, but they often find themselves as players who either are not in their prime anymore or simply were never that great – they stay at a high level because what they bring off the pitch is worth shortcomings on the pitch. On the opposite side of things, the super-disruptor tends to fit the mold of the warrior – someone who gets to remain as what we would call “a cancer” because their performances are so good, it is worth the risk of hoping the player can remain isolated enough rather than spreading the bad traits to the rest of the team.
The “Team” in Team Chemistry
With the individual roles defined, we now must look at how it all comes together. There is no magic number of roles that are needed for a certain team to achieve success, but there can be a lack of balance that leads to shortcomings. I feel the easiest way to consider a shortcoming is by looking at a “super-team”, one that has multiple warriors brought together. Everyone is afraid to play this team, but something just doesn’t click in reality. The problem is the warrior is used to being “the player” that everyone looks at to win the day, but you can’t have three or four players who consider themselves the hero. It leads to breakdowns and tension. Consider Paris Saint-Germain in the 2021-22 season, the year they acquired Messi. The team struggled to reach expectations despite having an attacking trio of Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé– reports came out of high tension in the team and fans even booed Messi and Neymar. Therefore, it is absolutely critical to remember that sometimes the best player isn’t the one that is best for the team.
For a team to truly reach optimal chemistry, you want as few isolated groups as possible. This is true for any performance environment, not just football, but specifically for football we can consider the position grouping of the player, similar ages, and backgrounds (nationality, language spoken, etc.) While we cannot define who the enforcer or who the sparkplug is for a team without being inside the team every day, we can map out a speculative version of team chemistry and see how well it fits. These maps would include demographic information (what age profile is the player, what nation is the player from, etc.) as well as tactical information (what position does the player train with, etc.) with connecting points to each aspect.
Team Chemistry is a science that can be underappreciated in an age of data-driven insights, but it is a science that cannot be forgotten. Studies have shown there is a positive correlation between team chemistry and team performance. To bring the best out of your player, consider who is around your player.
This post was largely inspired by Joan Ryan’s book “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry”. Joan spent nearly a decade interviewing hundreds of athletes, coaches, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, business leaders, and even military generals to write the book and I am incredibly grateful for her willingness to sit down and have a conversation with me for me to gain further insights, especially those on the profiling of players.
If you are looking for more, Lotte Branson and Jan van Haaren of SciSports wrote a brilliant paper that looks to quantify player chemistry titled “Player Chemistry: Striving for a Perfectly Balanced Soccer Team”, which you can read here: https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2003/2003.01712.pdf. For a more data-focused approach to roster building, Holly Wiberg of MIT presented “An Optimization Approach to Roster Creation and Game Scheduling” at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which you can view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eBk1bSjDs8&list=LL&index=7&t=6s
If you would like to see more of my work, consider following me on Twitter @ARDataAnalysis. Thanks for reading!