The meaning of aggression
Professional sport is full of buzzwords and banalities, perhaps the most common of which is the demand to be “positive” or “aggressive” in one’s approach. Indeed, men’s tennis’ world number two Andy Murray spoke about this type of analysis last week:
A lot of commentators say you have to be more aggressive. Does that mean you hit the ball harder or play closer to the line or serve and volley? Does it mean you have to stand closer to the baseline? At the highest level you can’t just say: ‘Be aggressive.’ You need a proper strategy. José Mourinho wouldn’t send his team out against Barcelona and just say: ‘Be more aggressive.’ It’s a lot more complex playing the best in the world.
As Murray suggests, at an on-field level it’s now widely accepted that strategies need to be coherently formed and articulated. However, at a boardroom level – where there is less visibility and therefore less obvious accountability – there is still the tendency to slip into generic turns of phrase.
This particularly applies in devising and communicating a philosophy. We’ll often hear of a club’s commitment to “developing young players” or “playing exciting football”, without knowing how to actually translate these notions into a ‘proper strategy’.
This is where data can be our best friend, a means to assess and validate what we are and aren’t seeing with our own eyes. It is also a way to create joined-up thinking, as disagreements over semantics can be clarified and agreed through numbers. ‘Exciting football’ may require a certain level of expected goals per game, ‘youth development’ a proportion of homegrown minutes in the first team; these are quantifiable metrics.
So while “aggression” or “excitement” may be a starting point for discussion, it certainly isn’t a strategy. For that, well-thought out measures can help to crystallise ideas and create accountability.