Analyzing the way coaches from other sports balance the decision-making paradigms of their players to produce improvements in performance has a lot to do with how we make decisions in poker. In this article, Matt Hunt parallels the decision making abilities of two of soccer’s greats with how to make better decisions in poker.
Guardiola & Dyche: The EPL’s Masters of the Game Tree
You can’t go anywhere online as a soccer fan these days (sorry fellow Europeans, I live in the US now, so I’m calling it soccer) without reading some kind of discussion about Pep Guardiola. Whether it’s his stances on Spanish politics or his tactical innovations, every fan has an opinion.
The most commonly-asked question regarding the man himself is fairly simple – what makes him so successful? How has he managed to consistently build teams that dominate so comprehensively in some of the world’s top leagues?
The cop-out answer is that he’s had a lot of money to spend, and that’s obviously true. With a net transfer spend approaching £400 million so far in less than two seasons at Manchester City, it’s hard to deny the impact of those resources. But I believe the key to his success lies in another area – you might call it ‘game tree management’.
As a former defensive midfielder (or ‘regista’ to use a more specific, more modern parlance) during his playing career, Guardiola possesses an extraordinary tactical understanding of the game.
More specifically, he understands the value of a player who can make the right decisions on the field – after all, skills like positioning, ball distribution and tackling are largely a matter of decision-making rather than technique.
By granting his players a mental framework to facilitate better decision-making, Guardiola allows individual players at his disposal to fully utilize their respective skill sets. This is in contrast to having them suffer from ‘decision paralysis’ when presented with too many options (as is often the case with teams suffering from a lack of tactical organization), or forcing them into an overly-rigid system, something of which Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has often been accused.
Another EPL manager whose success has been built on a foundation of tactical simplicity – albeit with far fewer resources at his disposal – is Burnley’s Sean Dyche. Let’s take a look at some of the commonalities in the approaches of these two seemingly very different coaches.
The secret to Pep’s success
Guardiola’s deep understanding of soccer’s game tree is one many coaches might possess, but it’s doubtful whether any of them appreciate the value of simplified decision-making in the way Pep does. Thierry Henry, the Arsenal and France legend who played under Pep at Barcelona, offered a glimpse of Pep’s tactical philosophy during a 2016 appearance as a Sky Sports analyst.
In the video above, Henry breaks down Guardiola’s tactical approach towards ball possession during his years at Barcelona as having been separated into two parts – a strategy for the first two-thirds of the pitch, and a strategy for the final third. Not only does this allow training sessions to be clearly and coherently structured around implementing one specific part of the system (as Henry explains), but it also provides two specific decision-making paradigms in which the players can operate.
If they’re in the first two-thirds of the field – often referred to as the ‘first phase’ of possession – their priorities are simple; stay in position and trust their teammates to give them the ball when appropriate.
If they’re in the final third, they’re operating in a paradigm of creative freedom – they can make whichever run, pass or dribble seems instinctively correct to them, based on the movement of opposition defenders and the skill set of the player.
While the defensive aspects of the game would undoubtedly require a separate approach that would complicate the overall tactical plan of a Guardiola team, the key is that in each specific situation where a player is forced to make a decision on the ball, or a decision as to how to react when a team-mate has the ball, their options are clearly delineated by which phase of possession they’re in, and where they are on the pitch.
The specifics of what each player’s position is can then be rehearsed in training, and the natural creativity and talent of Pep’s attacking forces takes care of the actual goal-scoring in the final third.
This approach is manifestly present in Pep’s current Manchester City side – watch Fernandinho stay within the same twenty-yard circle for the entire duration of a City possession phase, or watch Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones instantly split to opposite sides of the pitch whenever City’s ball-playing goalkeeper Ederson gains possession, trusting him to avoid the pressing of an opposition striker and pull off a difficult pass.
Then watch the way Kevin De Bruyne consistently locates near-invisible passing lanes in the final third, or the havoc that’s created in an opposition backline every time Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling switch sides unexpectedly.
The clear division between structural solidity in the first two-thirds and creative freedom in the final third is evident. It is on this foundation that Guardiola’s domination of the EPL has been built, just like his domination of the Bundesliga and La Liga before it.
The foundation of Burnley’s rise
It might be easy to assume that Sean Dyche, the unpretentious and seemingly uncomplicated Burnley manager, falls squarely into the age-old stereotype of the English coach – more preoccupied with tight defending and ‘getting stuck in’ in midfield than with tactical innovation.
This is true to an extent, but Dyche’s ability to ‘do more with less’ and take a team with few star players and limited resources into within sight of 6th place in the Premier League table owes more to his understanding of how to limit his opponents’ decision-making options than anything else.
As identified in the video above, Burnley’s success this season has been built on a defensive foundation, with their ‘low block’ system conceding only 26 goals in 29 games to date – just six more than Guardiola’s Manchester City.
They find themselves only five points behind an under-performing Arsenal side at this stage of the season, and have comfortably secured their Premier League future for next season with nine games left to go.
The foundation of Burnley’s tactical system is an ability to effectively funnel their opponent’s attacking options into one specific area – the central region of the field, roughly 30-35 yards from goal. After funneling their opponents into this area, Burnley’s narrow defensive unit leaves few gaps for the killer pass to be played, instead encouraging or even forcing their opponents to shoot from distance through a crowd of players.
The game tree of the situation is condensed – certain decisions are no longer available, and a player in possession of the ball 30 yards from goal is forced to choose between a sideways pass, and a low-percentage effort on goal that might be easy for Nick Pope to clean up in goal.
While this approach does occasionally concede the odd long-distance strike (such as Danilo’s worldie in the recent game against Man City), it is remarkably effective at neutralizing teams whose offensive capabilities rely on being able to find space inside the final third.
Neither Ben Mee or James Tarkowski will find themselves the subject of a £75 million bid this summer given their technical limitations, but under Dyche’s management, playing Dyche’s system, each of them has been extremely effective, with Jack Cork also playing a far more significant role in midfield than he ever did during his time at Southampton.
It was no shock that Burnley did manage to earn a draw against City in February, or that they have managed to pick up points this season against other top-six sides like Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool
Their ability to neutralize these teams’ attacking options by funneling them into less dangerous areas means that a game between a Guardiola side and a Dyche side really does turn into an ‘irresistible force versus immovable object’ scenario – Guardiola’s teams seek freedom of decision-making in the final third, while Dyche’s team specializes in giving the opposition as few attacking options as possible. They are, in many ways, polar opposite approaches to the same concept – management of soccer’s game tree in a way that benefits the team.
Translating these insights to poker
It may not be evident why I’m publishing any of this on a primarily poker-focused site – it’s a valid question to ask. The reason, in truth, is that analyzing the way coaches from other sports balance the decision-making paradigms of their players to produce improvements in performance has a lot to do with how we make decisions in poker.
In many cases, the reason why poker players struggle with getting to grips with the game in the early stages of a career is simply because they are presented with such an infinitely complex decision-making paradigm that it becomes hard to know how to implement any strategic concept they might come across.
Each individual technique they learn about might only be implemented in less than 1% of the hands they play, so how could they ever learn these techniques to a very high skill level without taking the time to play millions of hands of poker?
The answer lies in truncating and condensing the poker game tree in order to facilitate learning, exploration and study, while also using this truncation as a tool to restrict an opponent’s options.
Removing portions of the game tree that don’t contribute significant amounts of EV to our strategy – such as removing a preflop limping option, removing a flat-call in the Small Blind versus a raise, or removing an out-of-position c-bet on a disadvantageous board texture, can enable us to operate in our own chosen portions of the game tree, rather than force us to adapt to our opponents’ choices.
Similarly, we can use standardized bet sizing approaches if we feel a greater simplicity is required; however, in instances where we are the aggressor and maintain an uncapped range, we may decide to take the Guardiola approach of allowing ourselves maximum offensive flexibility, while reverting to the Dyche approach of funneling our opponents into specific options when we’re the defender.
The No-Limit Hold’em game tree is vast, and even subtle variations in the early portions of the tree can produce an entirely new subsection of the tree extending outwards. This is one of the reasons why our approach will tend to be more standardized in the early stages, although it is only in recent years that poker theorists have truly begun to understand why this is necessary.
The process of understanding how our own range might be interpreted when we add increasing complexity to our preflop or flop strategy can be very difficult to manage, and thus the earlier portions of the game tree are the ones where we benefit the most from simplicity.
In this way, an optimized approach to poker strategy mirrors the Guardiola approach to soccer strategy – our choosing a singular raise sizing preflop or a singular flop c-betting approach is our version of Pep’s plan for the first phase of possession, while our ability to adopt flexible approaches to targeting opponents’ ranges on the turn and river is how we exercise our creative freedom.
It could be said that a successful poker player needs to be Guardiola going forward and Dyche in defense. The more we embrace the idea that there are significant commonalities between the decision-making paradigms of almost any competitive enterprise, the more we can use our understanding of other fields – whether it be soccer, another sport, business, economics or something else – to help us become better players. If you’re both a sports fan and a poker player, then next time you watch a game, think about how the relevant tactical approaches might help you build a new poker skill set.