The recently retired Thierry Henry failed to score in his first eight games. He then adapted, and the rest is oft repeated history. What Henry typifies is a footballing wisdom, that players often take 6 months to truly become adapted to a new league. This hypothesis, like many, has a grain of truth. But I would like to briefly make the inverse case. What if maladaption caused success. It is this I investigate below.
The thesis already stated, that each player has an adaption period, essentially relies on two logical claims, of which if either is false, the argument is invalid. First is the claim that a player will incrementally become better as you get to know your team-mates better, as you learn their habits, you understand the movements that the existing team already makes, they begin to understand your game and how best to utilise assets. Henry typifies this, changing position, and becoming truly successful with the purchase of Robert Pires, a player whose movement naturally complimented Henry (as Henry drifted wide, Pires cut inside with the ball, a combination especially effective with Ashley Cole’s latterly rampaging overlapping runs). A player such as Xabi Alonso, different in nearly every respect, also benefitted from this, he gradually began to understand the runs made ahead of him, and with the purchase of Mascherano, became infinitely more effective with a player whose defensive positioning and aggression nicely complimented his own more cultured game. This premise then, seems to be true, time aids collective understanding. The second premise would be that maladaption is of severe detriment to your own team. This, again, seems to be a reasonable premise. Luka Modric was awfully malused in his early spell at Tottenham, and was a factor in the teams fairly dramatic slide down the league, being expected to play as a wide midfielder is a 442, despite his lack of any pace, nor being sufficiently close to the hub of attacking movement in the team, which had previously centred around the front duo of Berbatov and Keane. There are numerous other examples. Fundementally, both of these propositions seem sound. So what is wrong?
Well, I would suggest that it fails to take the opposition into account. If you are unknown, or known only in a totally different context, then your abilities as a player, and how they best be coped with, are not thought about. Should this be the case, moves you may excel at are not deliberately prevented by prior planning. Hence, more potential goalscoring opportunities. Look at the goalscoring charts from most seasons. Featured are players like Marlon Harewood, Benjani, Benni McCarthy, John Carew, Mikael Forrsell , Henri Camara, Marcus Stewart, Michael Bridges. Nobody, I hope, would claim that these players were excellent, capable of sustainnig such a run of form. And in nearly all of these cases they were in the first season either in the league, or at their club (Benjani was not, but had not been integral up until that point). I would suggest that they are all players who benefited from this, either from their runs not being well known (Forrsell, Camara), to no-one knowing how to stop the players height (Carew). As soon as strategies were thought up, the players ceased to be effective. I think this is no coincidence.
And moreover, I think that this is at least as important as those players who do benefit from adaption. If your teammates do not know what you are going to do well, your opponents will know even less, given they have no contact with you, and are relying on analysing your performance in a previous context. So, assuming a clever manager who can observe even a vague strength of his new player, he can be disproportionately effective. This is demonstrable by the typical drop-off in goals scored by strikers new to clubs in the second half of seasons. Nikica Jelavic scored buckloads in his first 6 months at Everton, but, as Michael Cox astutely noted, mainly off a few movements. Since then, teams have found him out, and he has been unsuccessful. Graziano Pelle, additionally benefitted from a manager who knew him, has excelled early this season, and slowed up dramatically in recent months. Leonardo Ulloa has been similar.
Of course, this hypothesis is incredibly easy to test with strikers, far more difficult with the other positions on the field. Midfielders and Defenders are ultimately far more collective in nature, movements and interactions far more complex. It is combinations that are prevented, rather than mere movements (though this is true in every context, ultimately). Defenders are even more unit based, a goalkeeper so isolated it is difficult to appreciate the role in such a way. Indeed, I would be dubious of the applicability of my suggestion to these other positions, by very nature of their collectivity, a midfielder relies far more on collective relationships that ultimately have to be worked on, rather than mere physical assets or rather more obvious tendencies of strikers movement. Even here, a player such as Dusan Tadic (who may just end up to be quite good, as one suspects), has done incredibly well, perhaps because of his appreciation of certain spaces that opponents haven’t realised he continually chooses to take up yet.
Patterns of movement can also be analysed in such a way, even if a highly limited one. Chelsea, as outlined in my earlier article for this website, created a relatively complex pattern of movement between Matic, Fabregas and Oscar. As Oscar drifts left and backwards, Matic moves to offer passing options and press, and Fabregas moves forwards. With a team being unwilling to sit deep because of Fabregas’ passing incision, any team that pressed exposed themselves to early passes to Hazard and Oscar. As time has gone on, this has been noticed by more astute coaches, leading to Van Gaal man marking Fabregas with Fellaini and isolating Matic. Pochettino successfully attempted to play out of Chelsea’s intense pressing, and counter-pressed them even harder, in a way that has not been expected by Chelsea. This unfamiliarity succeeded. This was the same as at Pochettino’s Southampton, he pressed larger teams who had not anticipated such a strategy, and ran out victorious. Atletico Madrid were immensely successful through the variance of free-kick and corner taking routines, to keep the opponents guessing, so that rigourous planning could not be enacted. Jose Mourinho himself remarked on the decreased effectiveness of his midfield triumbrivate of Makelele, Tiago and Lampard once teams recognised that by man-marking Makelele, Chelsea could not distribute the ball into forward areas as easily.
So, though the proposition that adaption is beneficial and takes time is not wrong, I am unsure on if it is the right framing of the question. Some players inevitably need to adapt to new systems, this much is true. However, many teams, structures and players regress in their effectiveness by the very nature of their construction, systems are analysed, their successful parts deconstructed, and plans put into place to prevent their actualisation.