By Tony Attwood
I’ve been trying to unravel the issue of why football journalists and pundits constantly publish or say either misleading or on occasion wholly untrue statements about football and in doing this I’ve given a range of examples.
But yesterday I was reminded just how far away I am from explaining to many readers quite what I am talking about. The occasion of my gloom arose when a correspondent wrote in to Untold pointing out that
“When we used to challenge for the title we had world class strikers. Spot the link?”
That I found slightly worrying, not least because it was sent in from a correspondent using the email address of an academic institution that I know rather well. I am hoping the writer was not teaching or studying one of the sciences. Or come to that philosophy.
The fact is of course that cause and effect needs to be shown with some evidence before we can say there is a connection. I stick my hand in the fire and each time I do so, I get burned, so after coming out of hospital for the eighth time I conclude (with the aid of the doctors) there is a causal link between the fire and pain.
But I see it rain and hear it thunder – sometimes together, sometimes one without the other. On the basis of those observations, rain might cause thunder, thunder might cause rain – but clearly not always. More evidence is needed.
I go dancing and coming back from the gig experience a pain in my Achilles which stops me dancing for a month. Does dancing cause Achilles injuries – there’s no telling on the basis of that one experience although the fact that it had never happened before to me suggests, “normally no”. My therapists answer of “don’t you think you are getting a bit old for this jiving lark?” didn’t help much either.
I drink a pint of beer of a variety that I’ve never had before and that night am sick. Do I conclude that this beer makes me sick? All beer makes me sick? It was an off pint? Or I had some other illness that just happened to coincide with that beer drinking? Cause and effect can be complex even in simple things like having a dance or a pint, and needs to be treated carefully.
But although all that is obvious people make statements like the “spot the link?” one above. So I’ve also been trying to understand why issues that are really not very complex such as the link between buying goalscorers and winning the league cause such a rumpus.
If we take the issue of the transfer for a high fee of the high scoring centre forward, there are various bits of evidence we can seek
- a) Do high cost transfers normally deliver in their first season?
- b) What happens if a high cost transfer doesn’t deliver in his first season?
- c) What is the relationship between the top scorers in the league and league positions that season?
- d) What is the relationship between the amount of money spent in the summer, and the position the league club reaches at the end of the season?
Now I have been through these issues so many times before that I don’t want to bore you by stating them all again – you can look up the answers on this site if you wish. But the simple answers are…
First, high cost transfers only deliver the goods in their first season about 25% of the time. Although this improves in the next two years the damage done in the first season can be enormous.
What happens if a high cost transfer doesn’t deliver in his first season is that the club tends to keep playing the player because of the commitment the manager has to him and the fear of ridicule from the media if he drops the high cost player a short way into his expensive long contract.
Worse, this move blocks the arrival of other transfers (in the winter window) and the promotion of youngsters. “He spent £30m on a player and now puts a kid in.” Also some of the high cost transfer players demand contracts that include a commitment to play them when they are fit and indeed one of the reason why some players are on the radar and then don’t go to certain clubs is because some clubs won’t give that agreement.
As for the relationship between the top scorers in the league and league positions: much of the time the winners of the league don’t have a top scorer, but actually tend to spread the goals around. Of course sometimes they do but it is not an obvious link even when we look at the top three.
What is the relationship between the amount of money spent in the summer, and the position the league club reaches at the end of the season? Two of last summer’s top spending clubs got relegated, and two that spent modestly came first and second. The average position of the top ten spenders in the league was 9th. But it wasn’t just this last season that happened. Here’s an article from 2014 running the same theme.
So with evidence like this around why do people continue to believe that the solution is to buy a top goalscorer? Obviously the people who make this claim watch football, and therefore they must know that a lot of the time top teams have not one goalscorer but two or even three. Arsenal were trying to do this last season but their three main contributors all had injuries and/or long periods out of sorts. The fact that the club scored only three fewer than the league winners shows that the number of goals scored was not the key issue – but still the theme is repeated over and over.
And the other great danger of placing a lot of emphasis on one player to get 25 or more goals a season is that if that one player has a down time or an injury the bulk of the scoring goes.
But despite these fairly logical explanations, the papers and their coat tail hangers on, won’t have it. And I wonder why.
Stefan Stieglitz, professor of professional communication in electronic media at the University of Duisburg-Essen hit on the point when he was quoted in the Guardian saying, “If people get new information that is in contrast to what they believe then they tend to neglect this new information for as long as possible.”
In a 2013 report on how emotions work in contemporary media, Steiglitz discovered that simplistic, emotionally charged messages tend to be retweeted more often and more quickly. It is a process called emotional contagion.
It has been around forever: one individual’s emotions trigger similar emotions in others and is the basis of mass hysteria – whether it be hunting witches or propagating false notions about football.
“There is a pressure on people to react instantly as this can enhance a person’s popularity within a group,” was the comment of psychologist Jacqui Taylor at the University of Bournemouth. “This pressure exacerbates groupthink as there is no time to check facts or consider other explanations. If people think others have similar views or emotions then hysteria can result as they confirm the accuracy of each other, and so emotions spiral.”
“This sort of thing has always happened in human history,” said John Suler, author of Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric, “but cyberspace speeds up the process because these like-minded people can easily find each other and easily target someone.”
At the moment we have but one hope. That Arsene Wenger holds true to his knowledge and doesn’t have a Twatter account. From what I am told he does and he doesn’t.
We might buy a new player if Mr Wenger is convinced that player can deliver and won’t be the handicap that 75% of high cost strikers are in their first season. But if we don’t it will be for all the right reasons.
Here’s my hint of the day: ignore the hysteria. You might get burned.