Football betrayed: it’s a numbers game – unless you cheat

By Tony Attwood

The piece I published this morning (Incompetence or Collusion: football betrayed) resulted in a lot of comments to Untold that have been refused or deleted or edited, mostly because they were off topic.

This was frustrating because the essence of that article was that journalists, through their laziness, talk about the same old things over and over and rarely explore annoying facts (like why players who previously got few or zero yellow cards get carded regularly on moving to Arsenal) or the detail of what lies behind issues (such as the very low rise in Arsenal ticket prices since moving to the Emirates Stadium).

They have a fixed agenda, and their lazy approach means they drop back into that over and over again.  So when the Guardian pick up a story such as the rising cost of the cheapest tickets, they reprint the BBC headline (no action needed, the work is done), rerun a stock picture of the Emirates Stadium (ditto) and then re-run an old headline of their own about Arsenal’s most expensive seats which had nothing to do with the story (double ditto).

Just how lazy does a football journalist have to be before he/she is sacked?  The question can’t be answered.  All football journalists are lazy.

So it was indeed frustrating that a number of people who were kind enough to come to Untold and spend timee writing a comment, followed exactly the procedure I was criticising.  They didn’t respond to the piece I wrote, they returned to their own stock stories.  Lazy commentary.

Maybe the truth is that a lazy audience gets the lazy journalists is deserves.  But my view is that if you want to engage in the journalist approach of not considering the story but of writing about your own favourite issue, that’s fine.  But please don’t do it here.

Anyway moving on…

I want to talk about the statistics of football.  We’ve had Opta around since 1996 pumping out numbers – but only certain numbers.  No journalist has ever asked Opta why they only focus on certain things and not others.  Lazy journalism again.  But that’s how it is.

It would be dead simple for Opta to have a referee sitting on  their panels who could look at each ref decision and simply say “right”, “wrong” or “close call”.  But they don’t.   And to their eternal shame, the journalists don’t ask why Opta don’t.  They take the press release of Opta figures and treat it like investigative reporting.

Out of Opta’s involvement in football eventually came a book: “The Numbers Game” by Chris Anderson and David Sally.   On the cover of my edition there is a quote from The Times.  “The book that could change football for ever”.  More lazy journalism, because this book perpetuates myths, and no football journalist is ever going to get out of bed in the morning to ask “why does a book that purports to break back the old barriers, do nothing other than keep them in place?”

Asking that question means work.  And work and football journalism are never found together.   We know that when the chief football correspondent of the BBC reported yesterday at 6pm there was no booing at the end of the game he was either being utterly lazy (in that he didn’t bother to think) or was in the bar.  Or both.

I mention this book now for two reasons.  One because it is another perfect example of lazy journalism which utterly misleads, and the other because, as I will come to in a moment, Arsenal have had enough of lazy statistics, and are now working on  their own numbers.

But backto “The Numbers Game”  This is not a tiny volume – it is around 140,000 words long so it looks and feels like it is presenting us with the real deal.  The blurb on the back states that it is a “myth-busting book”, telling us that we need to dive deep into the data to “uncover hidden truths about what is really happening on the pitch”.

Which sounds good until we get to page 40 where this occurs…

“There are two routes to success in football, we have found.  One is being good.  The other is being lucky.  You need both to win a championship.  But you only need one to win a game.”

Now that little paragraph tucked away in the early stages of the books reveals a fundamental flaw in the entire book – a flaw that is never acknowledged, never considered, and which as far as I know has never been picked up by any of the newspapers that reviewed the book.   (“Rush to read this book immediately.  The game you love will take on new depth, colour and  subtlety”  Ed Smith.  The Times).

The fact is it is so easy to pass by that paragraph and believe that one is reading the real thing.  But journalists are supposed to investigate this type of stuff.  They are supposed to question, not pick up their free copy, write a couple of lines and nip out for a swift one.  In a democracy we rely on journalists to challenge.  But in football they don’t.

However there is a third way to success in football – and that is by cheating.  By doing what they did in Italy in influencing the refs in general terms, encouraging TV producers not to re-show certain elements within the game (sound familiar?) and so on.  By persuading players to throw a game.  By fixing for gambling purposes, or fixing so that your team wins or your competitors lose.

The arguments in this book all fall to bits if the corruption of players is considered a possibility.   Of course the authors could have said “assuming that there are no outside issues involved” but they didn’t.   They didn’t consider that a group of refs might be slipped a few pennies to let rough tackles against the players of another club go through with just a wag of the finger.  And in so doing, the authors whole approach falls.

I don’t blame the writers too much – they are professors in universities in the US doing their thing, writing a book and knowing that football journalism is so lazy in the UK at least that they can get away with it.

But through this we see the evil of lazy football journalism.  Not only does it make the world as presented by football journalists seem valid, it encourages wholly false points of view.  This is not to say that there is corruption in English football among refs, but rather that because it is never ever mentioned as a possibility, no one thinks it might be and no lazy journalist will ever consider it.  So when PGMOL do really stupid things like becoming a secret society and limiting the number of referees who can ref in the Premier League, no one on TV on radio or in the press raises an eyebrow.

Arsenal however have clearly had enough because they bought their own analytics company, so they can start to see what is really going on.  It is owned by Arsenal Overseas Holdings USA.

So why do Arsenal need their own statistical analysis company instead of using Opta?  Quite simply because Arsenal is now looking at exactly what is going on, not just in terms of who are the best players to buy, but also in terms of everything else surrounding a football match – the stuff that no journalist would tap a computer key for.

On the surface it is about scouting for talent, below that it is about how many players suddenly get a rash of cards on signing for Arsenal when before they got none.  Why players get injured more.  If more dubious decisions go against Arsenal than other clubs.

And what can be done about it.

So here we see a club doing what no journalist ever does.  Searching for new patterns within football, and leaving nothing out.

Part of the drive down this route came from Stan Kronke, who is said to be very positive about the work of Billy Beane, who is himself an admirer of Arsene Wenger.  Beane gave us Moneyball – statistics for baseball, taken to a whole new dimension.   Add to the mix Andries Jonker, head of the Arsenal Academy and his radical new approaches, and the recent comments in terms of why Arsenal get more injuries and more dubious decisions, and you can start to see the way the club is going.

Or put another way, if you have read this far I hope you can see where the club is going.  Journalists on the other hand, if they see anything, just see that Arsenal have bought a database and leave it at that.

But for those who want to see, there is a new world emerging.

Incompetence or collusion: football betrayed.

Back to the home page.

32 Replies to “Football betrayed: it’s a numbers game – unless you cheat”

  1. we can never rely on journalists to get the stats that show the referees are cheating Arsenal.

    It’s time the people that went to the games held up banners showing the world that we know what is going on and that we wont let them cheat any longer

  2. Lots of markets are rigged, and lots of Companies are involved in cartels and price-rigging etc etc etc.

    We could talk about energy bills, stock markets, high frequency trading, and so on. Some of these markets are massive, some perhaps smaller than the EPL.

    This site documents corruption in football going back 100 years. Was it ever thus? People were calling the stock market the greatest rigged casino 100 years ago also.

    Journalists lazy? Bah, humbug. Deviate from a set narrative and you’re toast is more likely the answer to that.

    Re AFC. The club should really be doing a customer satisfaction survey every year for its season ticket holders. The questions are not hard to imagine. Do you think you are getting value for money? etc etc etc.

    Such a survey would surely result in a large percentage of AFC supporters voting the refereeing on a scale of 1-10 at a round 1.

    So, let’s say 70% of AFC supporters indicate intense dissatisfaction with the administration of the game. Now you have the impetus for change at least. The club would be on the hook to its supporters.

    Does the club have such a survey?

    If not why not?

  3. My guess is that the book did not include “outside issues” such as ref rigging and match fixing as there was no evidence available to include.

    The clue really is in the name- ‘The Numbers Game’. I am sure the book explains that it is based on sthtistics collected by OPTA and thats what OPTA do, provide statistics, not opinions. Unless you want them to provide statistics on opinions or what they thought the ref should have done.

    Going by your logic every piece of football
    writing should be written including the assumption “all matches may or may not have been rigged”. Hilarious.

  4. Then we have Liverpoo at 0-0 with bottom side (QPR) until almost the 70th…and blow and behold an own goal!!! hang on someone didn’t read the script from QPR (Vargas) and goes and scores twice!!!!! Coutinho found the ‘resilience to equalize at the death…NO its not over yet!!! Guess what a SECOND own goal just to make sure all 3 points go to the POO!!

    You can’t make a movie out of these things!!! Its Scie-fi at its finest form!!!

    Rigged League!

  5. Opta stats hide many things such as the real definition of ‘possesion’ but a few years ago they revealed that Stoke City, famed for their use of the long throw, registered twice as many throw-ins as the next team in the rankings. From memory that other team was Blackburn and the numbers were over 600 versus over 300 throws in a season.
    In 2011 UEFA made Stoke widen their pitch to accord with their regulations which, I must admit, I thought were universally the same. As far as I know Stoke narrowed the pitch again after their ‘European adventure’ came to an end. However, since then and since the departure of Rory Delap (and the sacking of Tony Pulis) Stoke have significantly reduced their reliance on this very crude tactic to build attacks. Arsene Wenger, when he described Stoke as playing like a rugby team, was probably referring to this use of the sidelines to gain territory.
    Stoke represent that group of clubs (a safe half of the premiership) whose only aim is to stay in it and maybe get a bit of a cup run. Such teams will use any tactic they can to achieve their ends. Time wasting and rotational fouling are two of Untolds main bete noirs in this respect.
    In order to get change you need the EPL clubs to give (I think) a two thirds majority and that’s why I guess they don’t vote to approve a switch to multiball which would help to undermine so many clubs time wasting tactics. Data needs to be presented to persuade the doubters that things might need to be changed for everyones good – and to further clamp down on the curse that faces everyone, namely corruption.
    Might it just be the case that it was part of the deal that persuaded Wenger to sign on for another three years that the Club promised to bring its vast financial resources to bear on such matters? And might having an American owner who is used to statistical analysis to the nth degree be of particular use?
    I hope you are right Tony and in fact I’m confident that you are.

  6. Good point Marcus – maybe noone at the club has thought about it?

    It would be very useful if they did a survey of the fans attitude towards the referees and then they’d know that we are NOT happy

  7. Marcus (and Jon) I think you might be missing the point of Tony’s articles.

    Yes Arsenal could poll its ST holders (I’m one). Are you happy with the comfort of your seat? (I tend to stand), do you think it offers value for money? Well what is value? I pay £1,000 a year and I love it. Who should we have bought in the summer? Where should the manager play Ozil? You see it quite quickly becomes a pointless exercise.

    If I don’t like watching Arsenal I won’t renew my ST and someone on this comments section will most probably say “thanks very much, I’ll buy that”. IF there was no waiting list, IF the ground was empty week in week out THEN such a questionnaire might make sense.

    Arsenal are not Tesco and Sainsbury’s – I’m not going to go and start watching Sp*rs now am I?

    But journalists could start asking the Qs Tony’s suggests because they can then represent OUR views, gripes and concerns to the people that might hold the answers. The media COULD hold the PGMOL, FA, FIFA, UEFA and PL to account…but at the moment they are choosing not to. Tony is asking why and I think its a very important question

  8. Garry Monk from Swansea has jut been airing his views on his match with Stoke, but has gone further stating that he had previously sent complaints to Riley about the number of unfortunate decisions that have gone against Swansea this season.

    So – the door has been opened – Gazidis get in there – (as Mandy first suggested), use those persuasive oratory skills to get us some fair play.

  9. Tony, thank you for this really excellent piece.

    It resonates with the current attempt by the BBC to persecute Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. I am of course referring to the post Hull match interview in which the interviewer tries to attack on the ‘defensive cover’ point after a game where the defensive cover had absolutely no bearing at all on the game. Its a current issue to beat Arsenal with so to hell with the actual game I suppose, why miss an opportunity to push the anti-Arsenal agenda. Once again a complete abuse of power by the BBC, who are after all funded by us the tax payers.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely frustrated with Wenger right now, but after the game the really key issue was Hull’s first goal. Not a single question was asked about that in the BBC interview. In my view this is not lazy journalism it is corrupt journalism. IN every walk of life the media are no longer there to keep the public informed, they are there to push their own agendas. We don’t have journalism anymore – or it is very rare.

    In terms of the statistics in the game – I am glad that Arsenal finally seem to be compiling their own views which will hopefully lead to a case for the FA and the PGMOL to answer to. My hope is that the club publish this information. If I was in charge at Arsenal right now I would start revealing the insight at every opportunity – every press conference, every interview, piece by piece. No accusations, just facts. Turn the media airtime on live TV and press conferences against the media’s own agenda. Just bulldoze the points through after every question received.

    It really is time for Arsenal to stand up to what is going on – because something very serious is happening to the game. Too many big decisions are going against us for it to be coincidence.

  10. Liverpool’s first goal (an OG by Dunne) came from a free kick awarded to Stirling (the nation’s own media darling)
    from a pull on his arm by Traore. Before the pull Stirling had a chunk of Traores shirt so the free kick should actually have been in QPR’s favour. It was plain to see on the tele. This was totally ignored by G Neville. Why? He saw the pull by Traore so he must have seen the shirt pull by Stirling immediately before but not a mention.
    I watched three games this weekend, ours, Spurs/Man City and QPR Liverpool. All three had major decision cockups, two of which were very probably result changers. That is Hull’s first goal and Liverpool’s first, as I have just mentioned. The Spurs game had at least three bad/highly debateable decisions which all resulted in penalties and could have affected the result. It’s ridiculous when you think that all could have been cleared up by referring to the video evidence. How much longer are we going to put up with so many games being decided by the refs as opposed to the players.

  11. No,AFC are not Tescos or Sainsbury’s Blacksheep,but I am not sure you realize how ironic this statement is. AFC have just been pronounced the best run club in the EPL. Some say AW could be a CEO at a major multinational.

    AFC are not Tescos or Sainsburys, but they still have an annual AGM. I don’t get your point, if you have one.

    Bottom line – supporters can vote with their wallets and feet, sure. But proactive organizations like to get ahead of the game. If Arsenal really cared about the muppets, I mean supporters, who pour their salaries into the season ticket, they would invite their opinions, some constructive feedback (not the kind of idiotic wailing you envisage). But they don’t particularly care. The owners are making good profits, and the season ticket holders are the bag holders.

    Resolving the issue of the chronic morass of duplicity infecting the game is surely the agenda of most AFC supporters now. The infection is also spreading wider and wider.

    Garry Monk has put his balls on the line. We haven’t really seen AFC do that.

  12. Interesting, never gave that database acquisition much thought …being lazy! but why can’t it be used for the purposes Tony mentions in here?
    Hope Ivan does that Bjt. As well as our CEO, Ivan is a member of the Professional Game Board….PGB which apparently works closely with the PGMOL, he is on the FA Council, the premier league board for elite performance and the Chairman of the FAs international Committee. He also works on UEFA committees. In other words, he has clout, time to use it.
    There are times when I wish Wenger would be a bit more streetwise, use the black arts a bit more, some of his ex players certainly used to. But now, he seems to steadfastly avoid all such things, and be seen to do so. Maybe living up to principles, just setting a good example, but I wonder if he has been collating things. A man in his position will have been approached many times by those selling their various… I wonder if when he departs, he is going to write a book and blow the lid off the whole EPL PGMOL corruption fiasco.
    He could not do such a thing until safely away from Arsenal, if he did it while still here, the club, players and fans would suffer.
    Is this why he is feared and despised by so many? After all, he has form in helping to expose corruption.

  13. Tony, you have had a better response this time! So far!!!

    A article about lazy journalism, was seen as an opportunity to castigate Mr Wenger, in particular.

  14. Ah yes, the BBC. He is no longer there as Chief Sports Editor but when he was, I remember arch Spuds fan, Mihir Bose never missed an opportunity to knock the club and especially Wenger. I remember an especially acrimonious interview when Peter Hill Wood put him straight on a few things.
    He now does a lot of work for rather anti Arsenal Evening Standard.

  15. Arsenal has a plan, and Walter has insight. So much insight.

    Great days for Arsenal ahead, but first we’ve got to fight through the enemy and restore football to it’s future self. This is a campaign not a match.

    Love this article to bits.

  16. ‘In a democracy we rely on journalists to challenge’.

    But they don’t do they? And it’s not just in football. Journalists so often just play the game of whoever is most powerful.

    Very interesting article Tony. I hope Arsenal make use of their independently compiled statistics.

  17. ‘Gary Monk has put his balls on the line’.

    Arsene Wenger used to put his balls on the line frequently on the question of refereeing. It cost him quite a lot of money and appeared to do us no good because the media then targeted him as a whinger. They probably won’t do that to Gary Monk – him being English and that.

    But Arsene Wenger has not stopped mentioning referees. He mentions their wrong decisions against Arsenal at the end of practically every match, because that’s how often there are wrong decisions against Arsenal.

    I really don’t see how anybody can accuse Arsene Wenger of not doing his level best, within the means available to him, to draw attention to what is going on.

  18. Maybe Pat…

    The whole English game seems like a Lewis Carroll version of a curate’s egg, so it is hard to know what can be done.

    But what is for sure is that AFC have a horrible casualty list, as long as your arm and as broken as Eduardo’s leg.

    Corruption seems time-honoured and deeply entrenched, and it has just mutated the last few years into something competely virulent.

    It may be something so vast and with a grip like Japanese knotweed, against which someone ike AW is pretty poweless – so I take your point

  19. Corruption is entrenched Marcus but in some parts of the world , it is recognised for what it is, and there are attempts to fight it. But I don’t like the way it works in the UK, it is often establishment level corruption, which means it is protected by a veneer of respectability and it is very very hard to get at. If the EPL and it’s puppet body the PGMOL are corrupt, it will go into much higher echelons of UK society, and will include the police, media , our convenient channel island and Irish Sea banking bolt holes, and politicians….sounds far fetched? ..all will become clear when the full extent of the Hillsborough cover up,and Jimmy Savilles activities are finally revealed in their entirety. Some of these things go right to the very top. The uk is good at protecting those at the very top, quite a clever apparatus in place.

  20. Tony.

    We may disagree on Wenger and his approach to the club, but this is a clear reason why I keep on coming back to this site.

    Excellent piece sir, many thanks.

  21. I await the day when the truth comes out and the fixers get their just dues. There is something rotten going on in the EPL and this season the attacks against the club and AW seems to have intensified . Why ?
    I do hope the club have gathered the required ammo to shoot down these clowns .
    ” When You’ve Got Them By The Balls… Their Hearts And Minds Will Follow.”

  22. I am sure we have all listened and watched the after match interview by BBC with Garry Monk. The question asked (not in exact words) of isn’t he worried that after his comments he may get into trouble…he answered very clear with “what did I say wrong…”

    Now what I thought of, after listening to him is the difference in how a well spoken – with carefully selected English person puts his argument across!

    Good on him!!! And I personally look forward to the day where we here something equivalent from our higher-achy of the continuous bad and game changing decisions against Arsenal.

  23. Please excuse my spelling etc..above 🙂

    “…with carefully selected (words from a native speaking) English person…” is what I meant.


    “…where we (hear) something…”

    My above post is by no means looking to criticize our AW…but just saying how it is easier it is to bring a point across when speaking in your native language.

  24. Everything that Garry Monk said about the ref performances, could easily apply to what we have been experiencing…word for word!

  25. I had at look at OPTA some years ago and didn’t like the fact they had a Man United bias and avoided a very important set of statistics. The issuing of cards to black, foreign & England players. There is also the ‘conversation / a word with’ that needs to be included in stats. When Adams was playing for Arsenal he got away with many fouls that should have been bookings because he was England captain. The aspects I refer to may be unsavoury but are a relevant part of bias/cheating/incorrect officiating.

    The red cards issued to Arsenal players were always represented as Wenger getting a red card by the very racist media. Even today they refer to Wenger as the Frenchman & Jose as the Portuguese. There is no need to point out the race of the individual when his name is so well known. This reference by race goes on even when referring to players. In my opinion this is origins of racism in sport – differentiating players by their origins.

    Gary Monk is absolutely right in his criticism of the PGMOL official. Mark Hughes obviously prefers some of the illegal play that has become part of the game in England.

  26. HELP!!!!
    I can only reach Untold by logging on to Page 3.
    Why isn’t the current stuff on the first page of Gooner News.
    I’ve not been singled out for treatment, surely.

  27. Still cannot log on to Untold via the pages of Gooner News. Slowly going mad with frustration.
    Why only me? No-one cares.
    Seriously considering transferring loyalty down the road……it’s that bad. 😉

  28. Nicky what happens when you go straight through to UA ( ie whats coming up on the screen)?

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