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.
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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.