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?)