Decisions imply tradeoffs. Sports economics provides so many clear examples. Often, these tradeoffs are awefully hard to judge accurately because they require speculation about what would be rather than reliance on observed data. As the World Cup has proceeded, the English and U.S. press have centered more and more on the walking tradeoff named David Beckham, England’s rock star-esque captain.

ABC soccer analyst and former player Marcelo Balboa alluded to the tradeoff during the Ecuador game. Soccernet’s Richard Jolly implies it in an article leading up to the game:

And the introduction of a five-man midfield would help that. Dropping Crouch, too, may act as a deterrent to anyone intent on another aimless 40-yard ball while, with three central midfielders, Gerrard and Frank Lampard could be accommodated without either taking the restrictive brief of the holding role. But it is a formation that puts the onus on the players on the flanks to supplement Rooney. Joe Cole, who also showed the difference a player with the ability to run at, commit and elude defenders can make, is accustomed to that responsibility. Indeed, it would be closer to his remit for Chelsea. In contrast, Beckham’s lack of suitability for the right winger’s berth was shown by his inability to make any headway against Erik Edman. While Cole glided past Niclas Alexandersson at will, Beckham thudded into the Swedish left back with a monotonous inability to escape him. Unleashing Aaron Lennon, like Rooney before him, could add a touch of the unexpected.

These kinds of decisions are tough. Beckham’s set piece and crossing abilities are legendary, scoring on two set plays during the World Cup (one counting as an own goal). On the other hand, during the run of play, he is deadweight on the right side of the field as Jolly mentions. For the short stints when Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon has come into the game to play the right wing, the difference couldn’t stand out any more.

Commonly, decision makers — whether politicians, business executives, or club managers — ignore one side of the tradeoff, at least in their public statements. Sometimes, this may result from just incompetence. Other times, it merely deflects criticism and tries to legitimize the decision. “Hey, this project will result in 1000 new jobs, who wouldn’t want that?” England’s coach, Sven Eriksson has taken this tack on several occassions. After the Ecuador game, he said

“I have stopped saying anything to the critics about David Beckham. He is the best player at set pieces in the world and he is still criticised. I think he worked very hard today.”

Okay, so that covers half of the Beckham equation, but what about the other half, Sven? Another important, but less discussed element of this issue is the key distinction between total and marginal contribution. While Beckham, along with Ronaldinho, is probably the best in the world at free kicks, it is not whether he his better but how much better than alternatives that really matters. On a team with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Wayne Rooney, one might not miss Beckham’s free kicks very much… but, one goal from a set play might be the difference, so back to those @*#$%* tradeoffs!

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Author: Brian Goff

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