I gave up trying to talk to people about randomness in football about three years ago. Rationally we know that in any given season the same Fulham team might finish 7th or 17th without changing a thing (injuries, bounces of the ball, etc) but we’re not interested in this. In this game everything must have a reason and a culprit and there’s no point trying to suggest otherwise. Random? Pah!

Anyway, Ed Smith has written a good book on luck recently, and followed up with a better column on randomness – here.

The best coach I’ve ever worked with constantly used to ask if what everyone else was calling “form” was in fact randomness. When my team was bowled out for a low score, he’d say, “Did you actually bat badly? Or did you just nick everything?” He meant that sometimes the ratio of edges to plays-and-misses is unusually high. The underlying logic is important: it is a sign of wisdom not to draw too many conclusions from a small sample of outcomes.

If this coach sounds like a soft touch, don’t be fooled. He sometimes asked the same question in reverse form when we won. He would shock me by saying, “You won, but for much of the game you were outplayed. I think you need to consider changes.” The point – a point that most students of sport entirely miss – is that the foundations of lasting success are built on the correct assessment of a team’s fundamentals: its ability, its cohesion, its discipline and preparation. Those fundamentals change slowly, and it is easy to misinterpret a random fluctuation as a fundamental crisis.

Look at other sports. Last autumn, after a string of defeats, Arsenal languished at the bottom of the Premier League. There was a clamour for Arsene Wenger, their superb manager, to be sacked – despite his stellar record of producing successful teams while also balancing the budget. Does anyone now believe that Arsenal would have recovered so brilliantly (they are third in the table and set for yet another year of qualification for Europe) under a different manager? No, what was required was for Arsenal’s board and fans to hold their nerve instead of over-react to a small sample of poor results.

 YES!  (incidentally, does that coach sound like anyone we recently knew?)


5 thoughts on “Randomness

  1. “Plus one”, times a hundred million.

    Over the course of just 38 games it’s ludicrous arguing that a midtable side (or any side, probably) has over or under performed, really, it’s a tiny sample size and the difference in points is often quite small between league positions.

    I read a stats book that started a chapter with a league table which they later reveal to be a “flipping a coin” league – but it looked near identical to a football end of season table “30 wins and undefeated, manager X must be talented…” (and so on).

    1. Smith mentions a similar study in his book. Basically if you run an american football season with each game 50/50 the difference between that and what you actually get is not dramatically different (or something). he’s effectively saying that the role of chance is massive over 16 games.

  2. Agree to a point. But then we also know how hugely significant psychology is in sport – so I’d venture to suggest that results do carry a bit more weight than the above might suggest.

    Players need to have confidence in themselves and also in their leader(s). Wenger is lucky in that he holds God-like status at Arsenal, so he was (just about) able to pull through. But for other managers – Jol at Fulham, for instance – it might be all very well (and strictly speaking correct) for him to say “Don’t worry, we’ve got the right systems in place but the ball just isn’t rolling for us”, but if the players don’t buy it then confidence-levels will become low and performances eventually suffer. Then it’s no longer bad luck.

    In that instance, might there be some validity in making changes during a bad run – say, swapping Baird for Kelly or altering the formation slightly – IF ONLY for the sake of giving the players the feeling that something is different and might be better this time around?

    By the same token, might it also make sense for a manager to stick with a player who he thinks is being ‘lucky’ (i.e. not actually performing that well but things have fallen for him – the Pog, perhaps) IF ONLY because the team’s impression is that they’ll do better with that player in the team, therefore they will actually do better because their confidence is higher?

    1. absolutely agree.

      Another interesting angle is in managers like Allardyce slowing games down. They know that if the ball’s in play for 50 minutes against a superior team they have a better chance of getting a result than if its in play for 70 minutes. The shorter the time period the more chance of something odd happening to result in the lesser team getting something from the game. Ditto his reliance on set pieces, the one area where chaos could be manufactured and big teams had less control over what was happening.

  3. The form guide is definitely misleading. It drives me nuts when I hear commentators talk about team X having not won for 4 games but not mentioning those games were all away at top 4 clubs.

    Jamie put’s it nicely, there’s definitely randomness in football but I think good managers find a way to even things out, or at least minimise the impact of these events. Hodgson & Ferguson are masters at this.

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