Many football people (players, managers and owners) believe that if they work hard they will reap the rewards. The secret of success is a good long term plan, the right people and a bit of money to spend on players. As the season approached its finale, it seemed, to some, that all that hard work was about to pay off. Between them and success was just one more game; 90 more minutes. All they needed to do was get through the play off finals and the promotion, they had worked so hard for, would be achieved. The one thing they wouldn’t have focussed on, though, and that would also play a major role in their destiny, was whether or not they felt lucky
I dont know if you saw the play-offs. On Saturday it was League Two, with Newport playing Tranmere, on Sunday it was the turn of League One with Sunderland and Charlton and on Monday it was the big one, as Aston Villa vied with Derby for the right to play in the Premier League next year. The Championship play off is commonly referred to as the biggest match in football, with the winner set to make well over £100 million from promotion. In each of the games, though, for the winners there’s the excitement of new adventures in a higher league and probable pay rises, and for the losers, another year of drudge and, for many, the end of their contracts.
These games are often tight and nervous affairs and so it was again this year. Tranmere won their play off with a goal in the last few minutes of extra time, Charlton won with almost the last kick of the 90 minutes and Villa won having survived Derby’s late onslaught. And, sure enough, these big games, with so much at stake, were decided to a large degree by… sheer luck.
Here’s a re-cap…
League Two Play-off. On 86 mins the Newport striker Jamille Matt is upended in the penalty area. Surely it’s a penalty! The TV cameras certainly showed that it was. But, no, nothing is given. Was the referee unsighted? Did it look like a dive? Was he cautious about settling such a close match with a late penalty? Had the penalty been given, and Newport scored, then there was little time for Tranmere to respond. It was likely to be the defining moment of the game. As it was Newport then had a player sent off a minute or so later, leaving them exposed in extra time, and Tranmere took full advantage. I would say, undoubtably, Newport were unlucky.
League One Play-off. 5 mins in and the Charlton defender Naby Sarr passes back to his goalkeeper, Dillon Phillips. The goalkeeper is distracted for a second and doesn’t move his feet quickly enough, to the ball. It rolls past him and slowly into the net. No one could have predicted such a thing could happen. Sunderland have just been the recipients of a huge slice of luck. But wait, one of their key players Max Power is injured in an early tackle and, before ten minutes are up, has to be replaced. Was that where their luck changed? Or do we go back to January, when they lost leader goalscorer Josh Maja for the rest of the season? Or Aiden McGeady’s injury, late in the season? What might have happened had their appeals for handball, in the box, been approved by the referee? Charlton pushed on and created the best chances in the match and ended up winning thanks to two well crafted goals, with the winner, by Patrick Bauer, coming four minutes into injury time. After Bauer saw his the first attempt on goal blocked, the ball fell back perfectly for him to smash the rebound into the net. It was a good goal and some quick thinking by Josh Cullen contributed, but the run of the ball certainly favoured Charlton. You’d have to say that luck played a part.
Championship Play-off. On 59 mins the scorer of Villa’s first half goal, Anwar El Ghazi takes a shot from the edge of the area. It is blocked but the ball loops into the air. It looks like it is the keeper’s, but as Kelle Roos comes for it, John McGinn nips infront of him and deflects the ball into the net. As McGinn’s head touches the ball it is virtually in the keeper’s hands. Was this clever anticipation on the part of McGinn? Or a large slice of good fortune? Had he arrived a couple of seconds later, the ball would have been in the keeper’s hands. One thing is sure, the deflected shot that led to the goal was not intentional but the result of good / bad fortune. Derby then made changes and came at Villa. The best goal of the game was their’s as they tried to find a way back into the game, but they were already too far behind. Perhaps the injury, in the move, to Villa’s centre back, Tyrone Mings, might have been a factor (and possibly bad luck for Villa). The first Villa goal also had an element of luck. It was a good move and cross, but El Ghazi’s attempt at a diving header was only successful because the ball struck his shoulder.
Many goals have an element of luck, but sometimes we can also credit the attacking team for making this. For example, the cross into the middle that is so well placed that any touch can take it into the net. I think this is the case with the first Villa goal (let’s say 90% skill and 10% luck) and perhaps the Derby goal. However, the decisive second Villa goal, was more like 70% luck and 30% skill by McGinn. The £100+ million game was, therefore, largely determined by luck.
The assertion that many goals are lucky should come as no surprise, though. People have been talking about football and luck for a few years. ESPN and Uni of Bath developed a luck index for the season 17-18, which showed that luck was responsible for helping Huddersfield avoid relegation and Man U finish second in the table. They looked at every game and recorded “incidents that were impacted by luck”. In their view this included refereeing errors, goals scored outside the allotted time and deflected shots. Had they looked at the Play-offs, they might have considered the Newport penalty decision, as an example of an error by the referee, and the Villa winner as an example of a deflected shot.
Another study by two academics at Queensland University (Page & Gauriot) analysed 13,000 shots that hit the post. They found that in 10,679 cases the ball bounced away, but in 2,387 cases it deflected into the goal. They then compared where the shots were taken from and the technique involved and concluded that there was no “visible difference in the player’s skill or performance”. The difference between the ball going in or staying out can be a matter of a cm one way or the other.
However, even more important in analysing the importance of luck, was the work of Anderson and Sally in their book The numbers game. They argued that winning a football match is 50% skill and strategy and 50% chance. They came to this by analysing a large number of games and noting the number of goals that came from an element of fortune that they defined as ball redirections, lucky bounces and blocks that return the ball directly to a goal scorer. In the case of the play offs, this would certainly include the Charlton and Villa winners. To back this up they also noted that the winning percentage of the favourites in a football match, was lower than any other sport they looked at. Whereas the win rate for the favourite team in the NFL is 68%, in football it is under 55%.
Who can say exactly how important luck is in winning football matches. Despite the relatively low win rate of favourites, football can still be quite predictable. At the start of this last season, I wrote down my predictions for the premier league standings for when the season was over. As I review them now, I must say they are not bad. I correctly predicted the champions and the runners-up, I predicted the teams who would finish in the top six, I was correct in saying the teams who would finish between 7th and 10th and I got two out of three of the teams that would be relegated (the one I got wrong was Fulham, as I thought they would be better than they were). I didn’t always get the order correct but the rough positions were pretty good. However, I have to acknowledge that this involved less insight than it might seem. Let’s face it, the same teams will finish in the top six next year, it’ll be pretty much the same teams between 7th -10th and at least one of the promoted sides will probably be relegated.
The relative cost of your squad has a big effect in the Premier League. Even if we accept Anderson and Sally’s assessment that only 50% of goals come from skill and strategy, that is still enough to allow for the best players to have the edge. If Manchester City played a team from League Two (like Newport) then the best team would win. However, when Man City did play Newport in the FA Cup the match was closer than anyone expected. There were the familiar FA cup upsets, such as Newport beating Leicester, West Ham losing to AFC Wimbledon and non-league Barnet winning at Sheffield United, but inevitably the big teams ultimately win through. Luck plays a big part (perhaps up to 50%, but skill and tactics most often win through).
So, even though players, managers and owners do their best to eradicate chance, it’s not possible to do. Over a season, on the whole, it evens itself out (although the ESPN survey of 17-18 suggested that it was chance that saved Huddersfield and relegated Stoke). Nonetheless across a season the best teams have plenty of opportunities to recover from setbacks to still come out on top (e.g. Crystal Palace’s shock win at the Etihad). The owners of the big European clubs want to change the Champions League to ensure they always qualify, but that would eradicate one of the things that makes football the best sport in the world – the unpredictability. The Premier League is loved the world round for great football and the atmosphere in the grounds, but also because it is so competitive. The hope for those of us who support teams in the second division of the Premier League (7th-10th), is that one year the luck might go in our favour and we will qualify for the Champions league or even do a Leicester and win it. Should we be concerned about luck playing such a big part of our game? I dont think so. Let’s celebrate it (unless, that is, you support Newport, Sunderland or Derby).