The dark arts: how football is not quite what we think

By Tony Attwood

Arsenal master the dark arts: How Arteta’s side wasted almost 17 minutes at Newcastle

That is the headline in the Daily Telegraph, and it seems to confirm what many Newcastle supporters have been claiming.   Indeed the subsequent note, “The ball was in play for just 51 minutes and nine seconds of the game at St James’ Park” really makes it sound as if Arsenal are not exactly playing the beautiful game.

However all is not quite as it seems for in the fourth paragraph of that article we get this statement:

“With a ball-in-play time of 51min 9sec, Arsenal’s win at Newcastle was not especially egregious, ranking as 69th lowest ball-in-play total in a Premier League game this season. The average ball-in-play time in the Premier League this season is 54min 44sec.”

So just to be clear, in this particular match that Newcastle United supporters and their pals in the media have been making such a fuss about the ball was in play 3 minutes 35 seconds less than the average.  In fact over a fifth of all PL games are worse.

Of course, for there to be an average, some games have to be below and some above average, and it seems this one was a bit low.   But the way some of the media has been talking about it, you could imagine in this game the ball was hardly in play at all.  And yet this game was hardly out of the norm.

But having started on the theme the Telegraph then say, “Arsenal certainly engaged in some dark arts to ‘manage’ the game.”  In short a 5% disparity from the average time of ball in play means “dark arts” were used!!!!!

And this was not the lowest ball in play game, but the 69th lowest.  So 68 other games have had the ball in play less time.   But unfortunately, the newspaper fails to tell us which matches had the ball in play less than the Newcastle v Arsenal game.  It would be nice to know.

So why is the newspaper running this story?    Well, the answer to that is rather revealing: it is easy to write.  Research takes about 30 seconds, and every club has fans complaining about other clubs so picking up such a story is simple. 

In short, this article shows it is possible to get a piece out of a few fans complaining, and with no reference to the facts.  

If the newspaper had wanted some facts they might have chosen to have a look at this point:

The ball-in-play time in the Premier League this season is the lowest for 12 years

That headline came from the Daily Mail in January, but I am not sure that Newcastle fans would really want the answer that the Mail suggested.  For earlier this season the Mail ran the story, 

Time wasters! Matches are the LONGEST they have ever been, but the ball is in play for the SHORTEST time ever… could cutting games to 60 minutes be the radical answer?

(These random words in capitals is the Daily Mail approach.  It’s nothing to worry about.  It is just something they do for no particular reason except I think it gives them a sense of power).

And to be fair to the Telegraph they did actually say in a recent piece, “They are not bottlers or chokers. Arsenal showed they are fighters in what was arguably their best and most mature performance of the season.”

In fact, to see what we really have here, all we have to do is to take one statement from the Mail, which happens to be true: “Data analysts at Opta have shown that Premier League matches are lasting longer than ever but that the ball is in play for the shortest time since records began.”

Yes, it is not an Arsenal thing, it is a Premier League thing, and the Premier League could deal with it if it wanted to.  But whether they would do anything to make matches better is hard to say.   The League referees have already extended matches by adding on more time at the end of games, and the players have responded by slowing things down a bit more. That’s all that has happened.  That Newcastle fans don’t realise this is a reflection on them, nothing else.

Changing what one does, in response to new laws is what many people do.   Put in a speed camera somewhere and motorists slow down to stay within the speed limit past the camera and speed up again after.   Have regulations about tax payments and firms of accountants help companies and individuals reduce their tax burden.  

In short it is life.  But not quite something that some Newcastle fans have quite managed to grasp.   And yes there are dark arts out there, but they are being used by newspaper headline writers to manipulate fan anger, and there’s nothing new in that. 

4 Replies to “The dark arts: how football is not quite what we think”

  1. Dippy Teletubby deals in the Daft Arts , recent comments see them take pole position on the Economical with Facts journo league table .
    The Eclipse , the misty Mirror and the Dozy Mail , et al are tabling plans to overcome this late surge of tripe and balderdash from the Teletubby.

  2. During the West Ham vs. AZ Alkmaar match list night, Ian Darke and Robbie Savage somehow contrived to bring up the subject of timewasting, in a thinly vailed dig at Arsenal. The very same Ian Darke and Robbie Savage tag-team who were howling at the referee over his failure to award a free-kick to West Ham during the build-up to the Alkmaar goal. They didn’t want to let it go, even though the replay showed that no contact during their alleged foul, and the studio pundits admitted at half-time that no foul had been committed.

    You’re better off turning the sound off during BTSport’s televised games. What do they have to gain by employing these people? They’re certainly destroying their own credibility.

  3. Seismic – actually I leave the sound on, and make notes as they always give us a few ideas for the occasional piece on the insane things that commentators say and claim.

  4. Tony, I imagine that the notes would be copious, but 100 minutes of Savage and Darke fries my brain. They can be relied upon to provide a Smörgåsbord of drivel and disinformation. Their failure to understand the rules of the game should be ringing alarm bells at BTSport, but year after year they are given a free pass.

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