How you can be a football “expert” just like everyone else.

By Tony Attwood

It was way back in 1966 that the defining research into being an “expert” was conducted.  Not in football but generally.  What does it take to make someone an expert in a particular field?

Since the media love phrases like “our panel of experts” and “our chief football correspondent” (which implies expertise), I have long wondered how people define themselves as experts.  

In this original 1966 research a group of 50 people, each of whom had just been involved in very serious car crashes (some of which involved fatalities) which were judged to be their fault (ie a car hitting a pedestrian, hitting the car in front etc) were asked by psychologists to rate their driving skills.  The vast majority of these drivers rated themselves as expert drivers.  None of them rated themselves as below average – despite the fact they were all now in hospital recovering from their accidents.

Surprised by these findings the researchers looked into the driving records of these 50 people and found many of them had been involved in major accidents in the past and some had even been banned from driving.  But they all felt they were expert drivers.

What is interesting about this experiment by Caroline Preston and Stanley Harris is that they began to look into the thinking of these people.  And what they found was that despite being in hospital with injuries that were caused by their own driving, they still all thought of themselves as expert drivers.

Even when asked about their driving at the time of the accident that had put them in hospital the overwhelming majority thought they were driving very well, or with particular care.   Yet this group included people who had been banned from driving, or had convictions for two or more infringements of driving law, had been consuming alcohol before driving etc, and yet they still thought they were expert.

Meanwhile a second experiment which ran at the same time as the first but which involved people who had not had accidents brought forth exactly the same results.  The drivers who had not had accidents rated themselves among the elite – just as those who had been involved in the accidents.  It was impossible to tell them apart.  Everyone thought they were better than average.

What this means is that when it comes to claiming expertise on football or indeed anything else, most people who speak or write on the subject will claim not just to be better than average in knowledge and skill, but actually a lot better than average in both of these attributes  Otherwise (according to their justification) they wouldn’t be in the media and called an “expert”.  And as far as anyone could tell, they all really believe it.

Subsequent research found that business leaders and management students were both found to have unreasonable and unrealistic positive views of their own competence.   The same is true of teachers and lecturers.  Everywhere we look in our society, most people believe they are better than average about most things whether they have any special knowledge in that area or not.

It only takes a nudge of this misreading of oneself to think that one is an “expert” which is what most football “correspondents” are now called.  They write on the subject so they must be experts.

What’s more these people are generally considered to be in good health and normal, even though they are behaving in a completely delusional manner in claiming this expertise.   For as Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton is quoted as saying (in “New Scientist” magazine which recently revisited the 1965 Preston and Harris research), this effect of believing oneself to be an expert is “the most well-used and best validated index of self-enhancement.”

As a result these football “experts” and “correspondents” and “pundits” all seriously do believe that they are better than the average person at understanding football.  

Which raises the question, how can we ever overcome this and, in the case of football, actually understand what is really going on, without simply believing that in this, as in most things, we are above average.  

The only approach – and the one that is most seriously rejected as a method of investigation by TV pundits, newspaper reporters and bloggers – is serious evidence which is properly analysed.

Because ultimately, having an opinion in football as in all life, counts for nothing unless and until one can bring some serious evidence to bear to back up the case.  Just like a person claiming to be an expert driver might say, “I’ve driven a million miles in my life and had no accidents and not be charged by the police with any offence.”  (Sadly not a claim I can make).

Sometimes yes the media can make such a claim as with the Guardian’s predictions last August as to how the Premier League table would look at the end of the season.  It was not 100% but it was certainly very good – and that sort of ability does need to be recognised.  But unfortunately they also veer off quite often into personal opinion which masquerades as knowledge and insight   A 3% accuracy level of predicting transfers across all websites for the last two summers does not smack of expertise but of self-delusion.   

So of course the question could be asked of myself: am I in the same category of people who are deluded about how good they are at something?   Probably so, but I would state in my own defence that I do try and publish on Untold articles that are either clearly personal opinions or which have some evidence to back up the points.

The referee analyses the team on Untold did were clearly one good example because they analysed games not just of Arsenal but all the PL clubs, and they provided video evidence.  Our work on injuries across many years presented detailed analyses of what the injuries were and separately, how many injuries each club had – something which Physioroom then took up (to save us having to do the work all the time).

Of course some of the writing here is highly speculative, but that, for me is not the point. It is whether one claims a special sort of inside knowledge or expertise in writing.  If one can avoid that, (and I know I often fail in this regard) while giving statistical evidence then one can get closer to the reality of what is happening in football matches.  And maybe from there one might be able to call oneself an expert.



9 Replies to “How you can be a football “expert” just like everyone else.”

  1. The myth that ‘What I see is what I get’ seems to have a strong hold on most who are in anyway involved in football from rich owner to the poorest fan.

    The truth is ‘What I don’t see is usually more important than what I see.


    We don’t see ( or even worse) refuse to see the influence that the closed shop PMGOL has on football and the results of matches.
    The PMGOL has kicked the lie, that ‘Ref mistakes even out in the end’ deeper into Fantasy Land.

    In my opinion open up the ‘closed shop’ and football in England will be a different ball game.

  2. I hadn’t run across an actual write up on a topic such as above before. It doesn’t surprise me.

    In terms of academic fields, the “definition” I had first run into was that one was considered an expert when you got to 10,000 hours of study. And the topic of expertice had to be somewhat focused. An engineer would not be expert across all of engineering after studying 10,000 hours of engineering. By and large, the individual fields (such as mechanical engineering) are also too large, to become expert across in 10,000 hours of study.

    To go to football, much of the time someone is involved in football, you can’t really say they are studying it. If 2 players are engaged in a passing drill, they would like have to be doing this single drill for more than 2 hours, before either had obtained one hour of study. There would be some length of time as a ball approached a player, that they are “studying” the ball: are they in the correct place, how fast is the ball travelling, where should they position their foot to receive the ball, …. Likewise there is some length of time when they are sending the ball, which could be considered studying: did they hit the ball hard enough, did they hit the ball in the correct direction, did they put the correct spin on the ball, ….

    Some adults directing “play” in children, would not be effective at teaching football, any time spent with them would have vanishingly little study time assigned to it. It may be possible for an astute student to derive some study time even from being in an environment where the adult is ineffective at teaching. It would be more efficient for an astute student to be in the vicinity of an effective teacher.

  3. Wellbeck is the only arsenal player in a terribly mediocre looking England squad.

    This is disappointing. what happened to the English core?

  4. And men are far more (56% more) inclined to cite themselves as experts than women.

    Men Set Their Own Cites High: Gender and Self-citation across Fields and over Time
    Molly M. King, Carl T. Bergstrom, Shelley J. Correll, Jennifer Jacquet, Jevin D. West

  5. In my time in the oil industry the common jargon was that an expert was somebody with a briefcase from 100 miles away.
    If for instance Arteta becomes the new manager it is all a matter of chance if it works. I darn well hope it works but one never knows

  6. Interestingly there are a few expert pundits that made a complete “car crash” of their minimal forays into club management but still see themselves as more than qualified to tell managers how to do things much better even though those being “advised” have actually been more far more successful in the role.

    Good piece Tony.

  7. Tony with due respect, your excuse that you, your ref review team etc should be excused from being seen in the same light you see the pundits becuse you give evidence is pure hubris. I listen to those pundits daily too and they also give their evidence, you just don’t accept it just as a lot of people don’t accept your evidence. Some of your evidence that’s total hogwash include statements like “arsenal only conceded 13goals less than Liverpool”. And how is that to be celebrated? When did Liverpool’s defence become the example of a good one?
    So in conclusion, just like you accuse the pundits of abrogating expertise to themselves, the same way you and your team abrogate expertise to yourselves in various areas. Kettle calling pot black it seems

  8. Since there are so many people with varying opinions and claimed expertise , could you tell me who you think will be the next Arsenal manager ?
    ( No reasons needed. No need to blow out the remaining brain cells ! )

    A. Some German
    B. Some Frenchman
    C. Some other European
    D. Some South American
    E. Some Englishman
    F. Someone else with no managerial experience.

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