The importance of mental attributes: keeping possession, making passes, scoring goals

In 2006, a 17 year old Theo Walcott was taken to Germany as part of the final 23-man England squad by Sven Goran Eriksson. The decision was greeted with surprise and amazement by the footballing world in Britain as the winger had still not played a first-team match for his club side Arsenal and seemed to resemble more of a greyhound than an international footballer. Four years later, as Walcott fought for his 2010 World Cup place, it seemed he had experienced very little development, leading to Chris Waddle who claimed the Arsenal man “doesn’t understand the game”. Now, 6 years after he was included by Sven, it seems Walcott is still little more than a sprinter and probably the most prominent case of a player with no ‘footballing brain’.

Why did we prioritise pace so readily?

Considering Walcott’s lack of intelligence, it is easy to question why Arsene Wenger – who has got the best out of Dennis Bergkamp, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry over the years – dipped into his club’s coffers and bought Theo for £12m. The same mistake, however, is made by tons of real-life managers and tons more Football Manager players every year – we see 18 pace and acceleration and our eyes light up thinking of the possibilities. This is partially due to our natural fascination with extraordinarily fast runners (everyone loves watching Usain Bolt!) but also a by-product of the physical nature of such an attribute. Because it is literally ‘physical’, we see it much more obviously in the match engine than mental and technical attributes, and thus we feel it has much higher importance. Look closely, though, and you can see mental attributes playing their part in every run, every pass, every action.

What do the mental attributes do?

As you can suspect from the name, mental attributes are the ‘thinking’ characteristics of a player. They are paramount to most positions, primarily centre midfielders and defenders, and a player without good mentals will struggle to understand the tactical elements of how a match is progressing, where his teammates are, where to run and when – so pretty much like Theo Walcott. One of Walcott’s issues is that he seems confused as to when to cut inside or when to go down the line, when to pass, when to run or when to cross, and this has a big effect on the fluency of Arsenal’s play. This is reflected in FM12:

His mental attributes are what you’d expect from a second or third tier footballer. He has terrible Decisions, Composure, Off the Ball and Anticipation for the level of team he plays for, and if you can’t see this in the ME – it does take a lot of effort to tune your brain out of physicals and into mentals – then we can have a look at the statistics to see how this affects his play.

Walcott hasn’t played much so far in this campaign (he’s mainly come off the bench) but already you can see that those stats aren’t completely what you’d expect from an Arsenal player. Arsene Wenger’s team keep the ball and don’t try anything risky unless it is outbalanced by reward, but Walcott doesn’t seem to reflect this- he has a poor pass completion ratio (as a result of  his 9 Decisions), ridiculously bad cross completion ratio (12 Anticipation, 9 Decisions, 11 Composure to blame) and a fairly low distance covered per 90 minutes. Compare this to Gervinho and Perotti, his two rivals:

Player Anticipation Composure Decisions Teamwork Pass completion % Cross completion %
Walcott 12 11 9 14 72 12
Perotti 13 13 12 8 75 10
Gervinho 13 14 12 11 80 23

I selected these attributes from the ones I mentioned above, and then added Teamwork on as it was another attribute that plays a key part in player relationships on-field, and these three had varying levels. None of the alternatives are perfect polar opposites of Walcott, but we can see how they improve where they are better than little Theo. Gervinho is the superior winger here, and it’s reflected in his higher pass/cross completion – he is more composed on the ball, doesn’t lose his head and makes the correct decision most of the time (12/20 of the time if we want to theorise). Walcott, in comparison, struggles to relax on the ball and rushes his decision – if you watch him carefully he’ll probably look for the wrong option most of the time.

In terms of crossing, teamwork and anticipation come into prominence a little more. Teamwork is a little ambiguous but it definitely affects how a player contributes to the team effort, and the fact that Walcott overcomes his other inferior mental attributes to better Perotti’s cross completion suggests that it is important to finding a teammate in the box. The difference in anticipation is negligible between these players and we can hardly learn anything from it in this instance, but I did think it important to point out that anticipation is important when predicting the movement of teammates.

Such a small statistical example should show how the mental attributes affect simple actions like crossing and passing. But it can go much deeper than this; we have attributes like creativity, off the ball and flair which are much more thickly cloaked in the Match Engine. Luckily Ryan Giggs has all of them.

In the ME

If there was ever someone to prove the importance of good mental attributes, it’s Giggs. The guy has been around for two decades and has undergone a renaissance recently as a central midfielder thanks to his reading of the game and tactical awareness. From being a winger who played with his feet, he’s become a playmaker who plays with his eyes and his mind – making him the perfect partner for Carrick in a match of modern midfielders, United vs Chelsea.

My gameplan for this match was to play football around Chelsea. Whatever team they put out, Chelsea always tend to have an aggressive, hard-working defence and midfield and I was more than willing to let them do that so long as we could find the space they left. Giggs and Carrick were perfect for this game since Chelsea’s midfield triangle of Meireles, Lampard and Mata had little more to hit me with other than work-rate – I needn’t worry about Ramires or Essien putting a foot in. This made it fundamentally a game of mental attributes vs physical attributes, if ever there was one.

Giggs ran 6.1 miles in this match, a figure which hardly stands up to the 7.3 miles ran by Lampard and the 6.8 miles ran by Malouda, but his 92% passing completion is surely unsurprising. Look at the passes he did complete:

There are a number of key points to answer from this image-

1. For a deep-lying playmaker, this is an extraordinary spread of passes. He’s made nearly 1/3 of his passes in his own half, in a position where you’d expect him to focus his play in; the other 2/3 are spread around Chelsea’s half. Some of those positions he has absolutely no right to be in. From his miles run stat, you wouldn’t think he’d ever have ventured much from his position; apparently so.

2. DLPs automatically receive mixed passing from the TC system, the reasoning being that they can choose whatever pass they wish. Giggs has ‘only’ 14 decisions but it seems he has made the perfect choice nearly every time here.

3. Most of Giggs’ passes are short, very short. He knows that Chelsea are pressing like bulldogs, he knows that all he has to do is pass it around them to a young whippersnapper like Nani or Valencia.

All of his passes are controlled by mentals. He has transformed a fairly creative, free, role and put a very clever spin on it – he’s been in the right place at the right time, understood what the game needs and adapted to that. Quite simply, I can give Giggs the freedom to do what he wants, and he’ll know.

The combination

I’m not urging you to sell your Walcotts and buy wily old birds like Ryan Giggs – you do need a balance. A quite basic tactical principle is to place your creative players near to your fastest players, the assumption being that they can work to each other’s strengths. I abide by this like law.

This is a side full to the brim of intelligence, panache and craft. Carrick has 18 positioning, 15 creativity and 18 anticipation, Berbatov has 19 composure, 17 creativity and 16 off the ball, and Rooney has 19 bravery, 16 flair and 19 work rate. Clearly, though, they have little physical to offer (Rooney aside, but that lad’s a bit special), and getting behind the defence looks like a very distant impossibility. That’s why Nani and Valencia are there – I could’ve played Guti and Park on the wings, but then we wouldn’t be able to play at lightning speed and stretch Chelsea. You always need a Walcott, a Valencia or a Nani, otherwise you won’t have anything to your attacks, but they should be given roles that suit them. Nani in the middle would be pretty disastrous, he’s not cut out for cutting out attacks before they begin, and he’s certainly not cut out for being the fulcrum of the team. Our third goal was courtesy of Nani, and substitute Danny Welbeck.

Nani is pressuring Paulo Ferreira, and pushing him back as far as he can. There’s not a lot of thought behind this action, but he has enough intelligence to realise the possibilities. His role dictates that he makes plenty of runs from deep to get behind the opposing full back, and it is this that is mainly forces Nani to run. His pace means he will surely reach this pass quicker than Ferreira, providing it is a good pass.

He does. Welbeck, too, is fast enough to get in front and away from his markers. A clever player would just lay it back to Welbeck for a tap-in here, but not Nani, who shoots.

Fortunately, Cech can only parry it into Welbeck’s path and the striker finally gets his goal. This move could not possibly have happened without these two pace players in the side – the lesson being that you always need pace, no matter how many Giggs’, Scholes’ and Carricks you’ve got in your side. If you can put pace near to intelligence, you can destroy teams from through balls like this. Best of both worlds.

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