Manchester United vs. Chelsea: Game Theory, a Basque economist and John Terry’s tears

Manchester United vs. Chelsea: Game Theory, a Basque economist and John Terry’s tears

The general feeling surrounding Chelsea’s 2008 Champions League run is that it was done in spite of Avram Grant, rather than because of him. Perhaps it was, however his networking could well have tipped the balance in Chelsea’s favour should their final game against Manchester United go to penalties if any footballing knowledge he may possess did not (it didn’t, of course, but I digress.).

A friend of Grant’s was also a friend of Basque economist Ignacio Palacios Huerta and, realising that the latter’s work could help his friend win the Champions League, he put them in contact. Ignacio had written a paper, entitled “Professionals play Minimax“, examining the ways penalties were taken and used his research to create a report for Grant.

The four main points were:

  1. Edwin van der Sar dove to the kicker’s natural side more often than most keepers. Facing a right-footer, he would dive to his right; for a left-footer, his left. Chelsea’s takers should shoot to their unnatural side.
  2. Most of van der Sar’s penalty saves were aimed mid-height. Chelsea should strike their’s low or high for the best chance of scoring.
  3. Cristiano Ronaldo “often stops in the run-up to the ball. If he stops, he is likely (85%) to kick to the right hand side of the goalkeeper.” Ronaldo was also adept at changing where he would place the ball at the last moment, making it crucial for Petr Cech not to move early.
  4. Go first – teams going first win 60% of the time.

Now, with these rules in mind, watch the shoot-out again and it’s even more fascinating:

Man United win the toss and Rio Ferdinand turns to the bench to ask what to do, John Terry offers to go first but is wisely ignored. Despite Terry’s best efforts, Law 4 is broken. And so the shoot-out begins.

Carlos Tevez scores. 1-0 Man United.

Michael Ballack (right-footed) strikes it high to van der Sar’s left. 1-1.

Michael Carrick scores. 2-1.

Juliano Belletti (right-footed) scores low to van der Sar’s left. 2-2.

Cristiano Ronaldo stops in his run-up, but Cech doesn’t move – Ronaldo hits it to the Czech’s right. Cech saves. Still 2-2.

Frank Lampard (right-footed) scores low to van der Sar’s left. 2-3.

Owen Hargreaves scores. 3-3.

Ashley Cole (left-footed) hits it to van der Sar’s left, breaking Law 1, but it’s struck low and goes in, although van der Sar gets a hand on it. 3-4.

Nani scores. 4-4.

John Terry (right-footed) strikes it to van der Sar’s left, but due to an, ahem, unfortunate slip, it cannons off the post and goes wide. Still 4-4.

Anderson scores. 5-4.

Salomon Kalou (right-footed) scores to the left of van der Sar. 5-5.

Ryan Giggs scores. 6-5.

Nicolas Anelka (right-footed) strides forwards and van der Sar points to his left, he’d noticed a pattern in Chelsea’s kicks – all went to the left thanks to Cole’s transgression of Law 1. Anelka now faces a tricky situation; he too should kick it to van der Sar’s left, but the Dutchman knew that. Anelka hit it to van der Sar’s right – this might have been okay, but he struck it at mid-height too. Van der Sar saves; Man United win; John Terry cries.

Post-match, Alex Ferguson said: “That wasn’t an accident, his penalty save. We knew exactly where certain players were putting the ball.”

Somewhere Ignacio Palacios Huerta was cursing Anelka, the only Chelsea player not to follow his advice, for robbing him of his own part in a Champions League victory. Still, he had managed to pick the numbers for the supposed shoot-out lottery.

5 thoughts on “Manchester United vs. Chelsea: Game Theory, a Basque economist and John Terry’s tears

  1. Brilliant article, I was not aware of any of this. Good game theory has to assume that the other player will notice what is going on and change their strategy accordingly. A flaw in the plan there.

    1. Indeed. Later in that chapter they mention that Franck Ribery doesn’t even know himself where he’s going to put the ball when he’s running up to take a penalty – that’s the ideal.

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