February 11, 2011

The Sporting Life

A couple of sporting things caught my eye this week . . .

Robert Kubica, the lead driver for Renault's Formula 1 team, suffered a horrible crash last weekend.  As a result, he suffered serious injuries (including to his hand) that will keep him out of F1 for a while, if not forever.  But Kubica's accident didn't occur behind the wheel of his Renault R31 during testing for the season opener.  It happened in a minor rally in Italy in which he was competing.

That Kubica was doing something other than driving an F1 car have led some to question Renault's judgment in giving him the freedom to race in other venues:
'You've got to look after that investment,' triple World Champion and former team owner and boss Sir Jackie Stewart told the Telegraph. 'It's quite a challenge to stop drivers doing the things I believe are unwise leading up to a F1 season.'

* * *

Former BMW-Sauber team boss Mario Theissen told the Associated Press: 'What's the point in pushing hard for the highest safety standards in F1 if a driver is then seriously hurt in other racing activities?'

The German said he always had 'sympathy' for Kubica's passions, but 'the driver is key to success in F1. Only he can turn the tremendous effort of several hundred equally determined people into results.'
However, one of the reasons Kubica has enjoyed his move to Renault is that they allowed him to compete outside of F1:
Renault chief Eric Boullier, however, said the freedom to rally is so important to Kubica, who for years was not allowed to according to the terms of his BMW contract.

* * *

To L'Equipe in France, however, Boullier defended Kubica's freedom to rally on the basis that 'he could also have been run over by a bus going to get his bread.'
Such concerns aren't unique to racing.  Years ago, when Major League Soccer was just getting going, EPSN did a segment in which Brian McBride, then playing for the Crew, went sky diving.  As a result, he got fined by the league (remember, MLS owns all the player contracts) for engaging in dangerous activity that could lead to injury without permission.

It was not always such.  Back in the "golden days" of racing, aka the 1960s and such, top drivers regular competed in different kinds of races.  AJ Foyt, for all his dickishness, won the Indy 500, Daytona 500, and the 24 Hours of Lemans.  That's impressive.  Although the only one to complete that trio, he was not the only one who tried.  Of course, you also have incidents like the one that took the life of Jim Clark, who died at Hockenheim in 1968 in a Formula 2 ("minor league") race.

On a completely different note, a professor of management and operations at Villanova has undertaken a statistical analysis of substitutions in soccer, trying ti figure out when they are most effective.  In top level soccer, each team is only allowed three subs in each game, so their timing and purpose are critical.  According to the study, teams that made their three subs at 58, 73, and 79 minutes were "successful" - they scored goals - 36% of the time.  That's twice as often as teams who didn't follow that pattern.

It's a neat study, but it has some methodological issues.  For one thing, it defines success in terms of goals scored, but sometimes subs are made for defense.  Those would appear to fall through the cracks.  For another thing, there's no way to distinguish between purely strategic subs and subs made for other reasons.  Yeah, OK, a team that subs offense for defense and doesn't grab a goal doesn't succeed.  But what about just subbing in fresh legs for a tired player?  Or replacement due to injury?  Or to keep a starter from getting a second yellow card?  There are just so many variables, I'm not sure you can draw hard and fast rules.

But my biggest problem with the survey is it's basic assumption:
The pace and flow of soccer generally make it difficult for managers to affect the outcome of a match once it begins.
I don't think that's quite right.  One of the differences between good and great managers is how they take the resources on the field and shift them around to deal with changing conditions.  Bob Bradley, for instance, is notorious for not changing things on the field, even when his first design isn't working out.  Yeah, OK, they can't call timeout and chalkboard a trick inbound play, but there's more to it that that.

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