Why “Team Chemistry” Is Football’s Biggest Scapegoat


Team chemistry is an interesting beast. Along with “clubhouse culture” and “the will to win”, team chemistry has been used to explain everything from why the striker missed to why your midfielder slipped.

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Former major league baseball player and broadcaster Dirk Heyhurst recently examined team chemistry from a baseball perspective, and it really got me thinking of how the idea of team chemistry has become a lazy excuse in football.

As a sportswriter, if I simply said something along the lines of “we don’t know why (insert team) beat (insert other team)”, you would probably think that I’m a crappy writer. Thus every analyst seems to say something along the lines of “this reminds me of (insert match from a long time ago)”, or “I saw the exact same thing during my playing career”. But when the result is truly unexpected, the explanation usually ends up as “the team lacks team chemistry”.

Let’s actually deconstruct the results of match. Consider the Everton vs West Ham match on November 23, Everton won 2-1. Why did Everton win? Everton moved the ball into the West Ham net 2 times, whereas West Ham only moved the ball into the Everton net once. Going deeper than that, Everton has more possession, but West Ham was more successful in the air. Ask a sports writer to explain the result, and he’ll probably just pick out a West Ham mistake, or a moment of Evertonian brilliance, and say that the play was the game changer.

Unlike say baseball or gridiron football, soccer is still for all intents and purposes, a black box. Throw in 22 players and a ball, and out comes a score line. There is very little academically-rigorous research into the inner workings of the game. In other words, sometimes it is very difficult to explain why these 11 guys kicked the ball into the net more times than those 11 guys.

During the Everton vs West Ham match, there were 1167 touches. The 22 men on the pitch had 1167 opportunities to influence the result, and to be completely honest, nobody can truly explain how the game was won. The extent of our football knowledge allows us to barely record and analyze more than the three scoring plays in the form of the goal, and the play that led directly to the goal in the form of the assist.

Outside of a few obvious noticeable touches, the other plays that aren’t goals or assists are barely understood. Besides obvious first principles like “move the ball closer to your opponent’s net”, and “block your opponents’ shots”, nobody knows how to evaluate the touches that do not directly lead to a change in the score line.

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  • Now traditional wisdom gives us a basic idea on how to influence a match. For instance, shots, possession, and winning tackles are good. Cards, conceding penalties, and fouls are bad. When the results of a match coincides with what is generally agreed upon as positive, we simply point to it and say “that’s why this team won!” But when the team that “looked worse” somehow won, outside of pointing at luck and shrugging, nobody really has an idea on what is going on.

    Of course, in this era of fantasy sports and money-ball, shrugging and saying “I don’t know” is no longer an acceptable form of footballing discourse. This is when we start introducing ideas like “mental blocks”, “clutch”, “big game choker”, and “grittiness.”

    Every fan in the stands somehow turns into a psychiatrist, and start throwing psychological explanations around to explain why his favorite team isn’t performing up to scratch. If the striker misses a shot, he has to be “non-clutch”. If a goalkeeper somehow magically saves a goal that would have equalized for a fierce rival, he is a “big game performer”.

    The biggest and most commonly used of these unquantifiable and inexplicable explanations is the concept of “team chemistry”. The concept of team chemistry is thus used to provide and explanation of the inexplicable. When a team isn’t performing at a standard that one would expect from players of their caliber, it has to be because of team chemistry right?

    As someone who has spent a few too many hours in sociology class, I see parallels between “team chemistry” and “hegemony.”  If you can’t explain a sociological phenomenon, the lazy sociologist always says it’s because of “the hegemony.” If you can’t explain why a team is performing poorly, the lazy sports writer almost always points at “team chemistry.”

    To be honest, in this era of PR-experts and media training, nobody outside of the players and coaches really know what is going on inside the locker room. Outsiders like us don’t know really what the relationship between the players are like. The only source that we have into the player’s personal lives are the tabloids that probably made up their story anyways.

    And thus the idea of “team chemistry” (along with its “grittiness” and “the will to win”) is the ultimate example of fans grasping at straws to explain the inexplicable. Why can’t this team of highly paid superstars win? They lack team spirit goddamnit! How did the minnows beat the evil big team? Its because they have the will to win!

    Nobody wants to admit that they don’t actually understand what actually goes on in a football match. Nobody wants to admit that their favorite team is crap. Add the two together, and you get concepts like “team chemistry”. Team chemistry is thus in most cases a creation of the narrative.

    Your team can’t win? Well it can’t be because they are terrible, it has to be because of “team chemistry” of course! Don’t like the new superstar signing despite the fact that he is very good? Just say that he is bad for team chemistry. Nobody can disprove you, and all you need is to pull out some (probably made up story) from the tabloids to prove your point!

    I’m not saying that team chemistry doesn’t exist, nor am I saying that team chemistry doesn’t affect performance. It is simply that 99.999% of fans and 99.9% of sportswriters don’t actually know what is going on inside the clubhouse or the relationship of the players. We just make up explanations like “team chemistry” to explain why the table doesn’t look the way we expected it to look, based on of a few made up stories from the tabloids.

    So the next time you hear a pundit talk about how a team isn’t winning because of “poor clubhouse culture”, or when a friend talks about how his favorite team “just needs a bit of team chemistry”, understand what it actually means. Nobody wants to admit that they have no idea what is actually going on the pitch, and “team chemistry” is just the easy cop out.