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On protecting that lead

Pep Guardiola said that his failure to convince his Manchester City players to attack in Monaco was the reason for their recent Champions League elimination. “I tried to convince them in all the meetings we had to come here, try to attack and score,” said Guardiola. “My mistake was being not able to convince them to do that.”

In the context of the tie, City were 5-3 ahead after the first leg at the Etihad Stadium. Guardiola’s post-match comments suggested that he was all too aware of the perils in trying to protect a lead.

We see this in football all the time. When a team goes ahead, they often sit back and try to defend their winning position. The problem is, they don’t tend to do it very well: our analysis shows that teams concede goals at a higher rate per minute when leading in matches than when level or behind. As a result, teams relinquish leads more often than we would expect.


Our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains – loss aversion – is prevalent in all walks of life and leads to risk aversion. For example, a risk-averse investor might stay away from adding high-risk stocks or investments to their portfolios (and often lose out on higher rates of return). Similarly, a golfer may avoid the possibility of loss by playing more conservatively when they have the opportunity to make a birdie, yet will be more aggressive if they are at risk of of a bogie (costing the golfer shots and reducing their earnings potential). Psychologically it hurts more to lose something.

So, is there anything we can do to get past our aversion to loss?

The natural tendency is to throw money at the problem – “what if we were to incentivise the players (and the head coach) to keep attacking, even when the team are already ahead?” Yet you have to wonder whether – in the heat of battle – top players are really thinking about money, especially when their earnings are already relatively high and their will to win (by trying to protect their lead) so strong.

So how about non-financial means? Apparently when at Manchester United, Rene Meulensteen developed an end-of-training game whereby competing teams would each draw a playing card from a randomly shuffled deck, and the card number would dictate how many goals each team needed to score to win. Not knowing your opponent’s hand forced each team to keep attacking, irrespective of whether they were already ahead.

Loss aversion is deeply ingrained in our psyches, hence why Guardiola found it tough to “convince” his players to keep attacking against Monaco. Changing this mindset is easier said than done, yet the team who finds a way will have uncovered another small edge on the road to overachievement.

About Blake Wooster

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