Seeking glory? Minimax is your least favorable option. Ask Luis Enrique.

Minimax (loosely defined) is a strategy in game theory, representing the choice of cautious moves that allegedly have greater chances to reach the minimal criteria of victory in a situation where your options are win/lose. It’s actually choosing the minimum, in a maximum (win) situation, i.e. minimal victory.

I want to demonstrate why I think choosing minimax may mitigate some risks, but needs to be carefully chosen, and more importantly, one needs to realize it almost completely denies his chances of glory, for those interested. 

Full disclosure first, I’m a die-hard Barcelona fan since childhood, let’s hope it doesn’t compromise my judgement (too much…).

Intro

Last night, Luis Enrique (Barcelona’s coach for those who haven’t been living on earth since 2014), decided to choose the minimax strategy against Atletico Madrid in a 2nd leg of the champions league quarter final, after having won 2-1 in the previous game at home. Basically all he needed was a draw, any draw. And since the Champions league is a knockout-based cup, there is no draw. Ultimately, one team HAS to prevail. i.e. win/lose.

For those of you who don’t know how the system works, you may close your browser tab now, as I won’t be explaining what away goals mean 🙂

How did “Lucho” (Luis Enrique) play minimax?

Easy. He instructed his players to maintain control of the ball as much as they can (nothing new here to fans), only this time, not for the purpose of scoring a goal, rather than just keeping the ball by passing it from side to side, mainly behind the half-way line therefore denying Atletico the chance of goal scoring opportunity (under the somewhat controversial notion: if you don’t have the ball, you can’t score). 

Also, he instructed his players to narrow the gaps, and the offense to help on defense (when was the last time you saw Messi chasing somebody tenaciously all the way to his own box, only to just barely steal it and not even gaining control over it?). 

Why was the strategy minimax?

Because Lucho reckoned that since he did have the (slightest) advantage thanks to the 2-1 win the week before, and due to Atleti’s defensive reputation (which is a very shallow observation), playing a “mid court” game will kill their enthusiasm, silence the fans, help Barca defend efficiently and therefore not concede the dreaded goal that would disqualify them. And, as a bonus, once Atleti goes all-in, he has the best tools in the world for a lethal counter attack to seal the deal.

So what went wrong?

He made 2 fundamental mistakes:

  1. Assuming an excessive possession game with no goal-bound inclination can do the job: the core of Barca’s DNA is indeed possession game, but never for the sake of possession or time wasting (except for specific tactics in the final stages of important games). The possession game has to serve the goal scoring process. That’s what it’s there for. It’s meant to find that precise moment of defensive vulnerability, where you can strike quickly and most effectively. In fact, this strategy is so well-embedded in Barca players, sometimes they don’t even need the brilliance of Messi or Iniesta to score or make an incisive through pass. It has to be said, of course, once the opponent is well trained, it does require moments of genius. By neutralizing the end-game of the ball possession strategy, Lucho immediately called for misfortune and confusion to happen, especially with a team coached by Diego “El grande jefe” Simeone, that thrives on fear (on the other side).
  2. He didn’t fathom or couldn’t cope with the fact that his 3 aces (Messi, Neymar and Suarez) are out of shape/form for whatever reason, therefore he couldn’t rely on them to shine on the counter as much as he did in the past year. With roughly 1/3 battery power on the attack and a confused midfield, you’re in fact miscalculating your odds.

What should he have done differently?

Yes, I know decisiveness in retrospect is the easiest. However, I’m not claiming my solution would have surely brought it home, it could probably just increase the odds.

Traditionally, Barca is an all-or-none team. It crashes and burns the same way it emerges victorious: gloriously. Barca doesn’t know how to deploy minimax because it’s not in the club’s and players’ DNA, the same way it can’t execute an ultra defensive (i.e bunker) strategy, like Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the  2010 semis. This is empirically proven. It’s the blessing and the curse of that club, and a part of its unique magic. Lucho should have trusted his players to try and play the same way they’re used to: possess and progress. That was their only chance. It was never a done deal at the Calderon with such a fragile advantage, but it’s what brought them to this place, specifically and in general.

I’d be a fool to finish this post without expressing my awe, respect and admiration for Diego Simeone. If there’s any proof that a soccer/European football coach can make a huge difference, it’s him. Took a mediocre+ team to great success, and with admirable continuity. In my book, he’s a hero, and he deserves to finally win the European title. Chapeau, Diego.

F U, Minimax!

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I don’t like minimax. Best case scenario you win small, but you’ll never know what it feels like to REALLY win. Acting as if you have nothing to lose (not extremely so, but mainly not being dominated by the fear of failure) could be surprisingly rewarding, and if you haven’t yet tried it, I think you should. You too, Lucho.