Why do football journalists always get it so totally wrong?





By Tony Attwood

I have often mentioned that after last season I predicted Arsenal to come third this season, based on the fact that for the last 35 games of the previous season Arsenal were indeed the third best club.  I thought the next task for Arsenal was to maintain that position, recognising that we would have a very young team, and a lack of experienced players who could step into the team as injuries or loss of form struck.

I’ve now been back checking, with the help of an article in the Athletic, what others said at the time, and the Atheltic article confirms that “none of the BBC’s panel of 12 predicted they (Arsenal) would finish higher than fourth” and that “only six (out of 42) people working for the Athletic had Arsenal third.    Their regular writers on north London affairs, all put Tottenham to finish higher.

Tottenham in fact are 22 points behind Arsenal, both clubs having played the same number of games.  Their goal difference is 36 worse than Arsenal, so to get to above Arsenal’s total they need 23 points.  Which means seven wins and two draws, or eight wins.  Oh but look, they only have six games left.  St Totteringham’s day is here.

Now we do have to be very careful of the Athletic, in that they, in common with quite a few “journalists” actually believe that supercomputers are being used to predict football results.    Even min-supercomputers still cost $50,000+, they are not easy to come by and they are not really supercomputers in the normal sense.  (Can you imagine the fuss if the Russians attacked, our defences failed to spot the attack, and the excuse was “sorry, the supercomputer was being used to predict the football results for a bunch of sports writers?)

But still the Athletic tells us that “Opta’s supercomputer … gave Arsenal a 0.13 per cent chance of winning the title, a number lower than all of their ‘Big Six’ rivals, and just a 22 per cent chance of even finishing in the top four.

So far, so silly, but it is what they say after this that makes the article so interesting.  For they say, “Arsenal’s potential passed everyone by” followed by the thought that one explanation of why this happened would be to say, “Well, that’s just the crazy unpredictability of football. Look at Leicester.”

Now as you may know, one club that we have undertaken a lot of statistical research into, other than Arsenal is indeed Leicester, and although it is true we didn’t predict them going down this season, the only reason we didn’t, was because we assumed the PGMO League would continue to let Leicester get away with a modified version of what it had been doing.

Now that may not be true (we are waiting for the season to be over to start doing those analyses about the way referees treat different clubs again), but certainly after we revealed Leicester’s tackles, fouls and yellow card data, things changed and referees reigned them in.  Likewise, after our article about Leicester heading for the greatest number of penalties ever, and how that was happening, Leicester were again reigned in.  It must have been coincidental. Or rather two amazing coincidences.

The Athletic article continues that Arsenal “made significant progress in coming fifth last year,” and “clearly they had not yet hit their ceiling and there were pretty obvious ways they could improve.”

And we might agree with that, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was that the overwhelming majority of commentators said that Arsenal would not improve enough to finish above fifth again.  In short, while a tiny handful of people (including me) thought third was the likely finishing point, the overwhelming majority went for fifth.

OK all that is known, but I run this again because it is at this point that the Athletic makes a key point, saying, “That these signs were largely ignored is partly, in my view, because in an age of increasingly micro-targeted content, a large number of football watchers only really pay attention to the team they support or have a particular interest in.”

Now I would agree that this is true, but it is only part of the story.  For the other key factor is that all football journalism all seems to focus on the same issues.  So instead for going for their own scoops, football journalists now do the opposite.

Thus they ignored our Leicester research, and indeed our regular highlighting of the fact that some referees are home-biased and others away-biased, and why the PGMO simply will not adopt the most obvious policy of reducing referee bias by ensuring of no club has the same referee more than twice a season (once home once away).  The Athletic is as guilty as all the rest.

So when criticizing the other media (as when the articles suggests the general consensus in the media before this season was that “Arsenal were doomed to an eternity of Europa League purgatory”) they see the reason as being journalists focussing on micro-issues surrounding their favourite club.  That’s true, but they ignore the much more important question of “why this is happening”

So they note the nonsense, as with Neville saying that even if Arsenal were to finish fourth, manager Mikel Arteta should consider leaving as he’d never be able to achieve anything more,” but ignore the reason why most of the media follow the same line.

Of course the reason such gibberish gets published is either through a deliberate attempt to mislead, or through a total ignorance of the fact that Arteta’s first success was to move Arsenal from being the most yellow carded club in the league to one of the league.  And my suspicion here is that although the writer recognises the results of the work of Arteta, he doesn’t quite understand the enormity of what Arteta actually did at the start, and why.

So the Athletic’s article does ask “why do we [journalists] keep getting these things wrong?”  and this is a great step forward, because I can’t remember any journalist asking this before.  And the writer provides one answer in saying “As well as the trend of increasingly focusing on one’s own club, I think part of it is our deference to the status quo and prestige managers.

That is a good start but there is so much more to say, as I’ll try and show in the next article.



5 Replies to “Why do football journalists always get it so totally wrong?”

  1. Some media people (eg Sherwood) still talking of Spurs as a great club with tradition – the display today described as below the standard set by Spurs over the years, or Spurs fans demanding high quality, stylish football to which they are accustomed. So, whilst being unable to deny that Spurs heavily outclassed today, they still present this as an aberration and out of character with their true identity.

    I do remember their 1961 double team and subsequent stars such as Greaves, Jennings, Hoddle, Ardliles etc. Besides these occasional highlights they have been an average team at best for decades, but the media seem unable to acknowledge this truth and persist in their false notions of Spurs grandeur.

    As one comment today pointed out, England has won the World Cup more recently than TH have won the league.

  2. John, I take your point, but there is also the fact that historically Tottenham have nowhere near the achievements of other clubs. As I see if their achievements are

    Football League Champions: Twice, last time 1961
    The FA Cup Winners: Eight times, last time 1991
    Football League Cup Winners: Four times, last time 2008
    European Cup-Winners Cup Winners: Once, last time 1963
    UEFA Cup Winners: Twice, last time 1984

    17 trophies in their history, the last in 2008, the one before than in 1991. It’s not that major a setup, but they pretend to be one.

  3. I was mischievously asked today by a Spurs supporter who was my favourite Spurs player . I said ever ? he said yes , I replied John White , he looked confused.

  4. I remember John White as a talented player, who was killed in a tragic accident when playing golf.

  5. John L

    “I do remember their 1961 double team and subsequent stars such as Greaves, Jennings, Hoddle, Ardliles etc. Besides these occasional highlights they have been an average team at best for decades, but the media seem unable to acknowledge this truth and persist in their false notions of Spurs grandeur.”

    And this love of Spurs still filters in to how they get refereed and treated by VAR. Referees seem utterly incapable of seeing them for what they are. Kane gets away with murder, as does Romero. But they are just the 2 stand out examples.

    2 weeks ago against Brighton they only won thanks to VAR failing to do their job. This from SKY:



    Then on Sunday yet again we had another massive VAR decision go their way.


    “It seems as though referee David Coote and his VAR team may have made a notable error in the Tottenham Hotspur thrashing as he failed to send Dejan Kulusevski off for a poor tackle.”


    Not only this but somehow Romero remained on the pitch, yet again getting away with ridiculous challenges.

    Early in the match he he got away with a clear Yellow card foul on the edge of the box because Newcastle had an advantage that was hit over the bar. Coote went back for a word and no more, but it was a clear yellow. Romero eventually received his deserved yellow but it should of been his second, so another red card spurs avoided.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *