By Tim Charlesworth
Human beings talk a lot of nonsense. And nowhere is this more true than football (hello Robbie Savage). We are basically ‘pattern seeking-apes’. We are genetically programmed to look for causes and effects. This is actually our finest feature. It drives things like curiosity, reflection, imagination, and ambition. Basically, these are the things that make us unique, and have enabled humans to develop technologies that have allowed us to dominate our planet.
Wonderful though they are, our pattern-seeking instincts are a little crude and impatient. They occasionally misfire. In our hunger to understand, we naturally reject ‘random chance’ as an explanation for anything. When we can’t explain things we use our imagination to make an explanation up. We are quite good at this. This phenomenon can be seen most clearly in the case of religion. Early human societies imagined gods who controlled natural elements such as rain, sun, the moon and the seasons. These things are crucial to primitive farming groups. More sophisticated societies made more sophisticated gods who concern themselves with love, justice, death, and other imponderables. These ideas feed the illusion that everything in our world can be explained, and that allows us to continue in our amazing quest for eternal truth.
Things imagined by Arsenal fans
In football, like every other walk of life, we seek patterns that aren’t really there. Arsenal fans are prone to the idea that the club is deliberately seeking ‘top four finishes, and nothing else’. This is patently ridiculous – such an ambition would be idiotic, as well as virtually impossible to achieve.
What we are actually trying to do is to win the league, we just happen to keep falling short. Of course, finishing in the top four is a valuable objective, but it is not the starting point. The reason we keep falling short is actually not the same every season, and there is not a single cause. Of course there are similarities – after all it would be surprising if some things didn’t stay the same from one season to the next. But the idea that we don’t ‘want’ to win is clearly silly – even if you are very cynical, coming first is worth a lot of money!
Recently I have heard people speculate that we are ‘bottlers’. This is possible, but serial bottling is actually quite rare in sport. I find it hard to buy the idea that both our current team and the 2008-9 team are both ‘bottlers’. Only Theo and Wenger have featured in both teams, and if you think Wenger is a ‘bottler’, I don’t know what to say to you.
The suspicion that we are deliberately aiming for fourth place arises because we keep finishing in the top four without wining the league, which is a statistically improbable outcome. It is too important a phenomenon to ignore, and simply put down to chance, so we need to imagine an explanation. This is really no different to ancient humans imagining a god who made sure that the sun rose every day to keep them alive, having abandoned them the night before. We are pattern-seeking apes and we are pre-programmed to seek explanation for what we see. If you are in any doubt about Arsenal’s strategic intentions, just look at Arsene’s face when he is questioned on this subject (top four, not sun-gods) – he can barely disguise his contempt for the question.
The fallacy of form
The most common fallacy that arises in football is the ‘fallacy of form’. Daniel Finkelstein writes an excellent series of articles for The Times (called the Fink Tank). His basic proposition is that football is a game of statistics. The more shooting chances you create, the more you will score. The more chances you deny your opponents, the less they will score. Better strikers and better goalkeepers will slightly alter the ‘conversion rates’ both for your shots and for your opponents. The more you score goals, and concede less, the more games you will win.
He suggests that over-analysis of an individual shot or save is pointless. You need to look at a bigger data set. Messi does not score with every shot, and Giroud doesn’t miss every time. However, Messi’s average is better. You cannot necessarily tell this from one game. It is quite feasible that next week Giroud will score from a single chance and Messi will score none of three. That doesn’t make Giroud the better player.
In fact, there are a number of statistically based football betting systems that can beat the bookies consistently. This is interesting because ‘experts’ like Mark Lawrenson consistently fail to beat the bookies if you follow their tips. The systems in question slavishly follow statistical principles and ignore considerations of ‘form’ or other similar ideas. These statistical systems almost always outperform ‘expert’ analysis. Football is not a game of certainties, but one of statistical probabilities, and this is much more true than we think it is.
Note – Before you get excited, these systems are not a route to easy riches, and require degree level statistical knowledge to operate them properly. Your return will only be slightly better than 100%, so you will need to lay a lot of bets and have big stakes to make any kind of money. Oh, and by the way, if you see someone selling such a system on the internet, be very suspicious – if it really works, how could the seller gain more by selling it than by using it? Modern bookies are also quite capable of monitoring online accounts and are not shy of banning players who consistently make money at their expense, so you might spend as much times setting up new accounts, as laying your bets.
How is the form illusion created?
If you take a coin and flip it 38 times, you will get a few runs of consecutive heads and consecutive tails (I tried this and got one run of five consecutive heads). The coin will appear to have ‘form’. Of course it doesn’t, but we humans look for patterns, even when they are not there. Runs of wins and defeats will take place in football as a result of exactly the same effect. This is not ‘form’, its just chance. You can improve the odds of victory with better players, good teamwork, fitness, training etc. But all you do is improve the probability of victory. You simply cannot draw reliable conclusions from a single game, or even a run of games.
A football match is a highly complex probabilistic phenomenon. Its outcome is dependent on all sorts of random variables. One obvious variable, that is often analysed on Untold, is the referee. Single mistakes can easily change the outcome of a game. Football is a low scoring game, so a single kick like Martina’s Boxing day goal for Southampton can completely change a match. This sort of shot will succeed one time in 100, but the fact that it succeeded that day, made all the difference.
Luck is a major consideration. Does your shot hit the woodwork and go in (Kane in the NLD) or bounce out (us 3 times v Swansea). Post strikes are rarer than goals, and the bounce off the post depends on considerations of millimetres, way beyond the direct control of even the very best players. A pass can hit a divot in the grass that puts it the way of the striker, or puts it just out of reach. The random elements in a football match are huge, and affect the game all the time. That is partly what makes it worth watching. Every Swansea has a chance to get a lucky win, even if they are outclassed.
Of course, not all variations in performance are random. A player may be carrying a niggling injury, and this may cause a dip in performance that lasts for a few games. Fatigue may have a similar effect. Players returning from injury will lack full match fitness for a number of games. A personal mental state may affect performance. Footballers rarely suffer from depression because the constant exercise that they do protects them from mental illness. Nonetheless, they will have ups and downs, and these can affect them for a number of games.
So is Theo going to hit form?
As a result of all this, I generally ignore discussions of the ‘form’ or ‘confidence’, either of players or the team as a whole. However, I couldn’t help thinking about form when I watched Theo playing against Hull. Theo is one of the great enigmas of English football. After an incredibly inconsistent and injury ravaged career, I got really excited about him earlier this season. Very briefly, he looked like the best no 9 in England, fulfilling a long-held promise. Then it all went wrong. He picked up a bizarre hamstring injury in the CC against Sheffield Wednesday, and has not recovered his ‘form’ since.
I think Wenger understands better than most that the concept of form is really nonsense. This is why he sometimes sticks with players that everyone else has lost patience with. Of course, this strategy doesn’t always come up trumps (Denilson, Eboue), but is also one of the things that marks him out as superior to his peers (Coquelin, Ramsey and many others owe their careers to this approach.)
The interesting thing about Theo was that he had another poor game against Hull, right up to the point that he assisted Giroud’s second goal. The assist seemed to bring him to life. In fact the transformation was almost miraculous. Suddenly he was a menace to the opposition defence, making runs and making the defenders nervous. At one point, he went on a mazy run into the box that nearly ended in a penalty or a goal.
I can’t remember the last time I saw Theo run at defenders like this. And they hate it – he is a walking invitation for them to make fools of themselves. His particular combination of pace, skill and finishing is absolutely terrifying for defenders.
His first goal was stunning. It was a great run, into an imaginative position. He then controlled the ball and beat the keeper. It all looked so easy. It reminded me of two things: This is the kind of thing that Messi does (also making it look easy) and this is what he looked like during the brief ‘best no 9 in England’ phase earlier in the season.
So even an arch-cynic like me found it difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘confidence’ had made a difference to Theo’s play, and even to hope that he might be ‘coming into form’. And its not just Walcott. I had the same thought when Sanchez scored against Tottenham.
Do we have vulnerable players?
Wenger has talked a lot about Sanchez’s ‘risk-taking’ and his need to be successful. The finish against Tottenham was a great example of exactly this. It has been commented that he didn’t hit it very truly, and that the goalkeeper should have saved it. This is true, but what Sanchez did was take a risk. Contrast his finish to Ramsey’s miss (tackled) at the death of the NLD. Ramsey took an extra touch and allowed the defender to make the tackle. Sanchez didn’t. He hit the ball early. As a result, he wasn’t quite ready. His weight distribution wasn’t quite right as he was sprinting on to the ball and he slightly mis-hit it. However, the goalkeeper also wasn’t quite ready and the defenders weren’t quite ready to make the tackle, and that’s why he scored.
Sanchez and Walcott are both players who take risks on the field. They both lose the ball quite a lot because they take players on, they try flicks and dribbles, they try to do the unexpected. This is quite different to a defender. A defender is risk averse and tries to execute his skills simply and reliably (midfielders are somewhere in–between). Risk taking does require a certain level of confidence, and this is difficult to sustain when your risks keep failing to come off and the crowd gets on your back.
So is there something in the ‘form fallacy’ after all?
So maybe ‘form’ is real for attacking players, and particularly ones that take lots of risks. If Walcott and Sanchez don’t take risks, they are both quite ordinary players. Their passing ability is not exceptional and they are not very physically imposing. Walcott is 5’9” and 10st 7lb, Sanchez is 5’6” and 9st 8lb. They may be quick, but you wouldn’t be very perturbed if you bumped into them in a dark alley.
Sanchez and Walcott are particularly significant players because we have basically lost both of them for the best part of four months. They were lost to injury, but when they returned they were both useless for a further two months. The loss of these two players has played a major part in our poor performance in recent months.
Mesut Ozil is also a notable risk-taker on the football field, albeit one who tends to try risky passes rather than risky one-on-one movements. The battle with Ozil seems to be to get him to try the risky passes. When he plays poorly, you will often observe that he has high ‘pass completion’ statistics, suggesting that he hasn’t tried the difficult passes.
Are Arsenal mentally fragile?
All this makes me wonder if Arsenal, with Walcott, Sanchez and Ozil, are unusually vulnerable to ‘confidence’ issues. The atmosphere for the Swansea game was incredibly difficult for the players, and I find it hard to believe that they were not affected by the environment in which they had to perform.
Its difficult to imagine mental fragility in Sanchez, who seems to have endless reserves of determination. But actually, determination like that usually masks some kind of ‘need’. Ozil and Walcott are less mysterious. Both are clearly sensitive and gentle characters, verging on shyness. They seem anxious to please. They are natural team players, who want to help their team mates and seem to care deeply what people think of them.
It is not difficult to imagine that both could be affected by criticism. In particular, they might become more risk averse. The home crowd can be very harsh on players who lose the ball. The ‘Emirates groan’ is a peculiarly vicious rebuke, and it is not difficult to imagine that risk-taking players might become risk-averse in the face of it.
So usually when people comment after games like the Hull game that ‘so-and-so player has played themselves into form’ or ‘that will help their confidence’, I ignore the comment. In this case, I wonder if there is some truth to it. Walcott visibly grew after his assist. Bellerin might gain some confidence from his assists against Spurs and Sanchez should gain confidence from his risk-taking goal. Giroud may be more relaxed now he has scored a couple of goals and his baby has arrived. Truly great sportsmen will tell you that you need to be ‘in the zone’ to get the best out of yourself. And part of this skill, is being relaxed. Our players don’t need to ‘try harder’, ‘run harder’ or use more adrenalin, they need to relax (especially our attackers).
So maybe, as winter gives way to spring, our players and our fans will relax a bit. Maybe we really are about to hit ‘form’ and put together a wonderful run to the end of the season. Maybe the ‘players meeting’ that Theo described after the Hull game will be a bit like the famous ‘Sopwell House meeting’ that galvanized the 1997/8 double team. I might be clutching at straws, but .
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The Untold Books
The latest Untold book is Arsenal: The Long Sleep 1953-1970 with a Foreword by Bob Wilson, available both as a paperback and as a Kindle book from Amazon. Details of this and our previous and forthcoming titles can be found at Arsenal Books on this site.
- 11 March 1911: League debut for John Peart; Arsenal 1 Everton 0. Also Mr Bateup plays his penultimate game. The game was also the start of an 11 match sequence without defeat which saved Arsenal from relegation. And it was the last time Arsenal won a home league game on 11 March!
- 11 March 1922: Joe Shaw’s last league game as a player – a 1-0 defeat to Man U. He went on to manage Arsenal’s reserves before taking over the first team on the death of Herbert Chapman and leading the side to another League trophy.