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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Carlos Carvalhal is a wise old Owl with words as graceful as a Swan

More wise words from the Soccer Boffin

Swansea boss Carlos Carvalhal
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I really like Carlos Carvalhal, manager of Swansea. He seems to be a nice guy. He also seems to have watched and thought about things other than football, which may have helped him to become a better football manager.

People say you have to be dedicated to succeed in any field. I think dedication can include learning about your field from other fields. If we can learn about life from football – and we can – then we can learn even more about football from life, which is much bigger and therefore has more to teach.

There are three things in particular I like about Carvalhal.

First, he can think in terms of chances. When he was manager of Sheffield Wednesday in 2015 he tried to quantify the prospect of beating Arsenal in a League Cup tie. “We have probably a ten per cent chance of getting through,” he said. “It is not very much but it is better than zero.”

I have heard Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal, talk of chances, and one or two other managers, but not many.

Most managers and players are like most pundits and most people with any other calling. They say this will happen and that will not happen. They talk of a certainty or an impossibility. Nearly always, though, an outcome is neither certain nor impossible but to some degree possible.

Human minds do not naturally think in terms of possibilities. To do so requires an effort. We should make that effort, if not for all things at least for things such as betting and football.

Football is a game of skill and chance. By my reckoning a team get the ball roughly 100 times per match.

Every time they get the ball they should do anything that will improve the chance of that possession reaching the final third, from where they might be able to have a shot.

Teams with better players should be able to reach the final third more often. Then they should have more shots and score more goals.

Uefa’s Champions League statistics confirm that good teams reach the last third more often than bad teams, more of their last-third possessions finish with a shot and more of their shots go in the goal.

Good teams score from a higher proportion of their shots than bad teams. A middle-ranking Premier League team will score from about one in every ten shots. That ratio expresses the skill of their players – better than some, worse than others. When their shots go in according to that ratio is down to luck.

They could have ten shots in a match and not score. They could have ten shots in another match and score twice. How often they win, draw and lose in a large number of games is determined by skill. When they win, draw and lose will be decided by luck.

Another thing I like about Carvalhal is how he accepts one of the inevitable consequences of the role played in football by luck. Something bad can happen to you because somebody else makes a mistake over which you had no influence.

Kevin Pullein's Saturday advice was a 5-4 winner this week. Read him in Racing Post Sport every Saturday and Monday

Carvalhal’s second game as manager of Swansea was in January in the Premier League against Tottenham. When a linesman watched television replays afterwards he realised Tottenham had scored a goal he should have flagged offside. Carvalhal said: “The linesman apologised. It’s part of the game. I do make mistakes also.”

At university in his homeland of Portugal, Carvalhal spent a year studying philosophy before he switched to sports science. His favourite philosopher is Rene Descartes, a 17th century French thinker.

Carvalhal’s acceptance is worthy of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, who said: “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know what’s capable of happening – and none of this will give rise to any protest on my part. I’m ready for everything.”

The third reason I like Carvalhal is that he recognises that things are inter-connected, in football as elsewhere in life. “I understand that football is a complex phenomenon,” he has said. “If we understand the complexity, we will understand football a little better. Everything is connected.”

Teams try harder to score when they need a goal and ease off when they do not need a goal. When teams are losing they commit more players to attacks, so their possessions last longer and go further.

While teams are losing they have more shots, but also more of the other things that can happen in an attack, such as corners, free kicks and throw-ins.

More from Kevin Pullein

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Follow the money to find the winner, just as they did in ancient Greece and Rome

The gambler who cured an archbishop, wounded a politician and counted the odds

Silva praised too quickly then sacked too soon

A spell cast by the magic wand of money

Let me give you an example for possession times, from which everything else flows.

Good teams generally have longer possessions than bad teams. But in any match a good team will tend to have even longer possessions if they are losing than if they are winning. And a bad team will tend to have even shorter possessions if they are winning than if they are losing.

I looked at Premier League games from the last 15 seasons – 2002-03 to 2016-17 – between teams who finished next to each other in the table. Some teams will have been in a false position but most of those games will have been between teams of similar ability. Overall, therefore, we should have expected the teams to have the same share of total possession times, 50 per cent.

But teams who happened to win averaged nearly three per cent less than teams who happened to lose – 48.6 per cent compared with 51.4 per cent. And remember: the difference will have accrued mostly while the eventual winners were ahead, which on average was for little more than half of the match.

Swansea play Sheffield Wednesday in an FA Cup fifth-round replay on Tuesday. Carvalhal – now manager of one, previously manager of the other – knows that anything that happens in the match will be a consequence of whatever happened earlier and will influence whatever happens later.

He will have thought about the chance of different outcomes and will accept whichever he gets. I like him.

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While teams are losing they have more shots, but also more of the other things that can happen in an attack, such as corners, free kicks and throw-ins
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