MICKY Adams, the Sheffield United manager, recently lamented his team’s failure to seize control of games.
“I’m getting tired of watching us give our opponents a leg-up,” he said. “I’d love to see what might happen if we actually got our noses in front rather than being forced to try and come from behind.”
Far from simply being the ramblings of a coach irritated by life towards the bottom of the table, research suggests Adam’s suspicions are correct.
That United’s ability to score the opening goal could exert huge influence over their battle for Championship survival.
Professor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, has recently completed a detailed analysis of penalty shoot-out competitions which reveals the outcome is skewed 60/40 in favour of the side going first.
Not only does this lend further weight to the argument that FIFA should investigate other ways of settling games which end in stalemate but, Prof Palacios-Huerta told The Star, could also shed light upon the forces which can prevent players from maximising their talents.
“What we find quite conclusively is that lagging in the score in the shoot-out hurts performance for psychological reasons,” he said. “Hence I would definitely expect that there will be similar pressures when a team is lagging in the score during open play.
“Of course there might be strategic reasons for this. That, for example, that when falling behind it might pay for a team to take greater risks.”
Speaking after the 3-0 defeat at Ipswich Town earlier this month, which heightened United‘s relegation woes, defender Neill Collins attributed their capitulation to over-enthusiasm and indiscipline.
United responded with draws against Millwall and Reading before a superb individual effort from Crystal Palace’s Darren Ambrose condemned them to defeat at Selhurst Park last weekend and left them five points adrift of safety in the Championship table.
“We went chasing the game at a stage when we should have been concentrating on just staying in it,” Collins said. “It cost us dearly.”
So how can Adams, whose squad return to action against Scunthorpe tonight, prevent a repeat occurrence?
Prof Palacios-Huerta, an expert in management, said: “It is impossible to say exactly what can be done but one could conceivably try to expose players to lag and lead in the score - perhaps in practice, perhaps during friendly games or not terribly important games where specific players could be fielded depending on the score.
“None of these settings would be identical to a real match but I would predict that it would help with the performance of the players or employees.”
Prof Palacios-Huerta chose the penalty shoot-out as a vehicle for his analysis, “Psychological Pressure in Competitive Environments”, because “it is an extremely clean setting which allows us to identify the effects quite precisely”.
His work concludes that “detrimental effects on performance become more pronounced as the potential final rounds are approached.”
United could find themselves contending with similar forces as what has been a crisis-ridden season also enters the finishing straight.
“Performance would be much harder to measure in relegation battles than in a penalty-kick situations but I strongly suspect that it’s the same,” the professor said.
Meanwhile, tomorrow’s totesport.com league fixture with Port Vale has been postponed because of a waterlogged pitch at Sheffield FC. The game, which could have seen Mark Smith’s side record their fifth straight success, has been rescheduled for Wednesday March 9.
Sunday’s fund-raising game, designed to help supporter and myoclonic epilepsy sufferer Karl Derby, also had to be postponed.
Tony Currie and Alan Birchenall are appearing at a ‘Legends Re-United’ evening next month. The event, at Firth Park WMC, takes place on Thursday March 3.