Issue #40 Michael Wood on Thin slicing and how it asks and answers questions about Christopher Routis

Preamble

Three weeks ago a tennis coach called Vic Braden died.

Author of a half dozen books that constitute the bible on how to play the game Braden would scare himself when watching professional tournaments. “I got so good at calling double faults, I never got one wrong, and not just on big name players but I could do it with Russian fifteen year old girls no one had ever heard of.”

As soon as the second service ball was thrown from the hand Braden could call a double fault every time. After watching thousands of matches for tens of years, Braden’s brain was programmed to look at a lot of information – the action of a player serving – and take from that the necessary smaller information – the precursors to a double fault – and give a result on the basis of that.

The name for this technique is “thin slicing“.

The two goals on Saturday evening

Sitting in the Oakwell away end as City struggled to contain Barnsley two weeks ago I heard a shout in criticism of Andrew Davies. “We’ve a better defender than you on the bench.”

It referenced Christopher Routis.

The Swiss defender has a growing popularity at Valley Parade and while those who would place him above Davies are in a minority his advocates seem to be growing and growing despite obvious mistakes like his failure to clear a nothing cross in Saturday’s defeat to Sheffield United which, because of the Swiss’ weak header, set up the first visitors goal.

Davies, aforementioned, made an error which led to the second. His self-focused tantrum after conceding was in contrast to Routis who is quick to point fingers around but seemingly not at himself.

All of which hints at my assessment of the newest Bradford City golden boy. So far, so so for Routis who has yet to show enough to set my heart racing.

“There is just something about him…”

This is unlike summer signing from Sunderland Billy Knott. Talk to many City fans about the midfielder and they will summon up the specific second of the goal he scored against Leeds – a fine lash from outside the box that turned around a local derby – and going beyond that they will start to be much more vague.

“There is something about him”, “He has something”, “He is always there”, “He has a great engine.” Probably every aspect is covered but not by any one person. You can sort these phrases into a life size drawing of the young midfielder’s game.

For me it took six minutes at Guiseley to be won over and everything I have seen from him since has underlined what those first six minutes of the second half at Nethermoor told me. I’m no better at putting into words what that was than Braden was at saying why he could call a fault on a tennis player he had never seen before.

The thin slice

Some City fans look at Billy Knott and – without consciously being aware of it – they see in him patterns that match other players who have gone on to be very good players. In six minutes of a friendly at Guiseley in which he enjoyed a few touches my mind looked at Billy Knott and pattern matched sub-consciously in some way to players like to Dean Richards, Peter Beagrie, and Gareth Whalley. Something in those six minutes – before I could consciously say he had done anything – suggested that he could and would prove a good signing for Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City.

Three months later he has and his recent time on the bench bemuses me. Watch the break-through goal against Crewe again then and it is Knott who edged the ball onto Mark Yeates before the cross that Aaron McLean scores from.

If you are convinced by Knott then it might be a moment like that – not allowing an attack to die for want of a loose ball – or it could have been that lash against Leeds or any other point of that “thick slice” of watching football but the concept of thin slicing says that you knew it subconsciously before.

The key word being “sub-conscious”. After weeks, months or years a person will be able to give a fulsome account of what made a player good but right now it is hard to put into full sentences what Knott offered other than “there is just something about him”.

“He is going to be good, you can tell from his central line.”

You will probably not have heard of Paul Travillion but if you are of a certain age you will know his work. His pen lines gave life to Roy of the Rovers and he is arguably the greatest sequential artist of football there has ever been.

Other artists can draw, but few can draw football as well as Travillion. His panels explode in a potential of movement and action. His players suggest dynamism and a burst of pace about to carry the golden haired Roy past a man or two.

At the heart of Travillion’s work was his drawing of the footballer in motion as this image of Bobby Charlton shows. That separated him from his peers. Travillion’s players took the form of real footballers hunched over the ball rather than poster art pictures of bodies near balls.

Travillion could watch a player, draw him, and from doing that know if he would dribble well. “You can tell from his central line,” Travillion would say, “and how he hangs his body over the ball.”

Chris Waddle had it and when asked about Ryan Giggs in the early part of the young Manchester United player’s career Travillion replied that he was the best dribbler of a ball he had ever drawn. As soon as Travillion drew a player he know where his balance was centred, and so he knew how good a dribbler he was.

When drawing a seventeen year old kid Travillion knew that Giggs would be – or possessed the assets to be – a great footballer. Travillion thin sliced Giggs on a single factor – his centre of balance – and extrapolated correctly about a player who is the most successful in the history of the English game.

A cultured defender

Perhaps with thin slicing in mind it is not difficult to see how some people have looked at Christopher Routis and been impressed enough to praise him above Andrew Davies.

On Saturday one ball Routis flighted to James Hanson verged on the sublime. He is calm on the ball and can make strikers look foolish as he flicks that ball over them and moves away. He looks like – which is to say he thin slices as – a cultured defender albeit one at League One level.

A thin slice of Christopher Routis is that he is the sort of defender who looks to play his way out of trouble rather than lump the ball into row Z. That he is more about timing than tackling and would rather intercept a ball than let the striker take possession and then take the striker. That he is not the sort of player who will put his head in where boots are flying because he plays the type of game popular on the continent where defending is about anticipation.

What need do Bradford City have of a cultured defender? Watching the more successful Bradford City teams of recent years has created a set of patterns – at least under Phil Parkinson – for successful players which one can compare against thin slices.

Which is not to pass judgement on if Routis is a good footballer or not. It is to look at his style of play. Nor is it to say that one style of defending is better or worse than another in the game in general. It is a comment on the aptness of a style of play at Bradford City, in League One, in Yorkshire derby games, in Phil Parkinson’s team.

And back to thin slicing

Vic Braden got to know tennis so well he could watch a fifteen year old he had never seen before and know if she was going to make a mistake before she did. Paul Travillion could tell by drawing Ryan Giggs that he would be a great footballer. I think I’ve seen enough midfielders for Bradford City to see that Billy Knott has the raw materials to be a success.

We’ve all watched Bradford City’s promotion campaigns, and those campaigns which falter and come to nothing. In that time have we ever concluded that the type of defender that Christopher Routis is the stuff of League One promotion campaigns?

Post script

Further reading on thin slicing: Thin Slice of Expressive Behavor as Predictors of Interpersonal Conseqences: A Meta-Analysis, Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal. Blink, Malcolm Gladwell.