The dark arts in the age of VAR - 2023 Advent Calendar Series

Celebrate Advent with excerpts from Scott Martin's top articles on Total Football Analysis. Head to or Scott's LinkedIn profile each day through December 24th for the next installment. 

Today's featured excerpt comes from August 2020. It's called, "Tactical Theory: The dark arts in the age of VAR.”

“Is there any place for the dark arts in the age of VAR?”
I was stunned by this question. Can you have football without gamesmanship? That’s like having hockey without a goon or basketball without the dribble/drive guard who gets 60% of his points from the free-throw line.

In this tactical analysis, we’ll investigate the underhanded tactics at play in the age of VAR. Gamesmanship is not dead, but it has certainly evolved, mostly out of necessity. Our topics are tactical fouls and rotating fouls, discovering the “where” of yellow card offenses, finding our modern enforcer, and looking at the impact of simulation. Remember the full article will have much more detail, as well as a section on the usage of screens.

Tactical fouls and rotating fouls

To determine how clubs use and value tactical fouls, the first task is to find the sides that most heavily rely on this dark art and if there is a trend in the data. Going into the data analysis, the working theory was that clubs with high foul frequencies and a high number of yellow cards on a per-match basis would rate either near the top (foul well) or bottom (foul poorly and often) of the table or have a distinctive possession-based attacking philosophy.

The rationale behind the latter theory is that possession-based clubs, often committing numbers forward to counterattack the opponent’s low block, would rely on tactical fouls as a means of denying counterattacking opportunities.

In addition to those extremes and the possession-based attacking teams, clubs with a top PPDA (passes per defensive action) scores would feature in the list. This includes teams with direct and indirect attacking styles. Covering La Liga for Total Football Analysis, I knew Getafe would rate highly in nearly every dark arts metric. Their high pressing, narrow defending, and direct attacking style meant opponents struggled to beat the press and contain Getafe’s numbers near the ball. When opponents did find an outlet, Getafe was quick to close the window with a clattering challenge.

Sure enough, Getafe are the stars of our first chart, fouls P90 x yellow cards per match + PPDA. Leaders in fouls and yellow cards P90, they also rate among the best-pressing sides in Europe’s top five leagues.

This chart, just like the one after it, features every club from Europe’s top five leagues. All statistics are from the 2019/20 campaign, so I’ve filtered the results on a per 90 basis to account for the variance in games played.

Beyond our outlier, we find a mixed bag in that upper right quadrant. In fact, if there’s any notable correlation, it’s that the teams keeping Getafe company were mostly either battling for European play or fighting relegation. Very few of those sides were middle-of-the-table type teams.

Interestingly, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and a number of other top clubs are in the lower left quadrant, meaning they commit fewer fouls and pick up fewer yellow cards than the rest of the sample. Among the teams in this quarter of the chart, you’ll find that they either have exceptional rest defenses or leak goals like an uncapped fire hydrant.

The next metrics considered are xGA per match x shots against P90 + xG per shot. This chart gives a really nice few of the elite defensive teams. With a few exceptions, that upper right quadrant features the top clubs across the Big 5.

In addition to identifying top defensive sides and seeing if any clubs made a second appearance in the top right quadrant, we also wanted to identify which sides needed tactical fouls most. Identifying these clubs is helped by our color variants.

Clubs with a deep blue point hold their opponents to low xG per shot averages, which means they typically concede low-quality shooting opportunities. The burnt orange end of our scale highlights teams that give the opponents more high-quality chances.

Of note, Manchester City, which fell in the few fouls and yellow cards portion of the previous chart, typically conceded higher-quality scoring opportunities to opponents than Real Madrid and Getafe.

Meanwhile, a side like Norwich City had few fouls and yellow cards, allowed a high xGA and shots against, a high xGA per shot, and too few points to avoid relegation.

The Enforcer

Speaking of enforcers in the age of VAR seems like a misnomer. Compared to the bone-crushing tackles of decades past, being an enforcer in today’s game is like being the alpha puppy in the litter, more of a cute role than a terrifying one.

Fewer Gennaro “Rino” Gattusos, Vinny Joneses, and Nigel De Jongs exist in today’s game, which has certainly lengthened careers. Even though fewer enforcers exist in today’s high-tempo, attacking football, the role will never die off. Rather, it will adapt to the new constraints, taking on a less malicious form, and moving more towards pragmatic, disguised aggression.

While researching this analysis, I came across the research paper of Emily Zitek and Alexander H. Jordan entitled: “Anger, Aggression, and Athletics: Technical Fouls Predict Performance Outcomes in the NBA.” In this study, the researchers concluded that aggression took two modes, instrumental and hostile. The former serves the purpose of the big picture, winning the game, whereas the latter is more reactive and a response to a perceived threat rooted in a high-arousal state.

Before VAR, the referee crew’s eyes were the only resources for interpretation. Now, with the application of VAR, acts of hostile aggression are reduced simply because there’s no hiding them.

However, one thing the study notes is that the middle and long-term impact of hostile aggression is negative as the high-arousal state impairs judgment and performance. Rather than helping, it’s actually a distraction from the task at hand. As the study notes, even instrumental can detract from the performance of high-level tasks where precision is critical. That said, instrumental aggression is a common trait in elite performers.

Instrumental aggression seems like the best categorization of the modern enforcer. Rather than a brute, he’s an intelligent player with the ability to quickly access risk. The greater the threat, the more likely he is to foul. When forced into a fouling situation, you’ll still see him sending a message with hard contact, but it’s measured to protect himself from red cards.

The Madrid Derby provides a perfect example.

In the 110th minute, Real Madrid was caught going forward. It was one of the Twins of Tactical Terror, Pepe, hacking Gabi at the knees. With Real Madrid disorganized and Atlético shifting into a higher gear, Pepe sacrificed himself and committed the tackle foul, though something tells me he wasn’t particularly bothered by it.

Though some tackles give the impression of recklessness, and Sergio Ramos does at times cross the line, the modern enforcer is more measured in the tackle. Take Pepe as an example. Ask the common football fan how many red cards Pepe has picked up in his career and you’ll likely hear a Ramos-esque number. However, according to WhoScored, Pepe only has four red cards in his career at the time of writing (though he’s working hard to catch Ramos with 17 now). The early and mid stages of his career are a brilliant example of instrumental aggression in an enforcer in today’s game.

Simulation and initiating contact

In a 2019/20 season that featured 14 penalty kicks for Manchester United, 15 penalty kick goals for Lazio, and 152 Serie A penalty kick goals on 187 attempts, red flags were waving. With the strict enforcement of the handball rule, a combination of clever flicks, simulation, and unrelenting officiating saw the number of penalty kick goals skyrocket.

Another area impacted by simulation is zone 14. Just beyond the box, this zone is a hot spot for simulation. Clubs with great direct kick takers can afford to play more centrally, looking to either slip a runner into the box or draw contact to get the foul.

The sequence below is even more indicative of the dark arts at work. As the ball is played back to Lionel Messi, he has a clear running lane forward, but a conservative touch doesn’t take him into the space.

Instead, Messi literally jumps into Kevin Gameiro to draw the foul. It was so obvious that both players could only smirk at the absurdity of the action. The below image shows Gameiro decelerating while Messi’s weight is on his right foot, which is launching him into Gameiro.

Fortunately for Valencia, Messi didn’t convert the direct kick, but the manner in which Messi forced contact and simulated the extent of it offers another insight into how players can escape the authority of VAR to gain an advantage.

Intrigued? The full article offers much more. Head to Total Football Analysis.

Here's the link to the article.

Read and share with someone who would find this analysis interesting.

Come back tomorrow, either on or my LinkedIn profile for the next installment of the Advent calendar.

Day 1 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite attackers

Day 2 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite midfielders

Day 3 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite defenders

Day 4 - Tactical Theory: The intelligent movements of elite goalkeeper

Day 5 - Superiorities-based training for possession dominant teams

Day 6 – Cues for progressive actions

Day 7 - Data Analysis: The art of overachieving

Day 8 - Data Analysis: The art of underachieving

Day 9 - The re-emergence of man-marking in a high press

Day 10 - The Regista: How to control a football match

Day 11 - Identifying the best moments to engage opponents

Day 12 - Exploring innovative throw-in routines and principles from Europe’s best

Day 13 - Ideologues vs Tacticians: The battle for domestic and continental titles

Day 14 - Resurrecting football's 2-3-5 pyramid

Day 15 - Timeless lessons in defending from Paolo Maldini

Day 16 - A comprehensive guide to direct possession

Day 17 - Do Golden Generations live up to the hype?

Day 18 - Training runs behind the backline in a three-forward system

Day 19 - Training runs behind the backline in a two-forward system

Day 20 - How short centre-backs have a big influence

Day 21 - Creighton University: An inside look at NCAA Men’s Soccer’s most data-driven team

Day 22 - The dark arts in the age of VAR