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Friday, 8 March 2013

What Match Fixing Tells Us About Luck And Skill In Football.

How you identify and separate the contribution of luck from the component of skill in football has been a recurring theme on this blog and so it was refreshing to see the issue addressed during some of the discussion groups at Sloan earlier this month. The impact of luck on both player and team performance metrics influences how these metrics correlate across seasons and has implications if we then use these measurements in a predictive way. Modelling luck instead of likely skill can inflate the worth of the "good" but temporarily lucky at the expense of equally good, but latterly unfortunate. Recognizing that luck exists in a sporting environment, where cause and effect makes for a more appealing and satisfactory narrative, is half the battle.

Luck in the most rawest of forms was on show on Tuesday night, when Nani's dismissal for a waist high challenge after an hour not only reset the game probabilities to near pre kick off levels, but also split the opinions of Twitter users and former professional referees alike. Of the latter group, some thought the decision harsh and others sided with the call that was made on the night. Similar incidents have resulted in widely different outcomes for the perpetrator. De Jong's assault on Xabi Alonso in a World Cup final saw Howard Webb produce a yellow and last weekend, Peter Crouch's unintentional, full bloodied kick to the head of West Ham's Matthew Taylor merely saw the Hammer being led unsteadily to the dressing room and no further action being taken.

In each incident a whole raft of minor incidents ranging from the reaction of the players, the importance or otherwise of the match, to the the mood and viewpoint of the official, combined to produce three entirely different conclusions to, by the letter of the law, three near identical events. Holland and Stoke possibly got lucky, although both ultimately lost the game, with Stoke fortunate to remain with 11 players, only to be beaten by a goal from Taylor's enforced replacement, Jack Collison.

More often randomness in the process is harder to spot, a ball that could have beaten the last defender instead fails through a slight lack of zip on the pass or a goalscorer distributing his talent to produce consolation rather than match meaningful strikes. Single incidents such as these, if we are lucky enough to spot them, can influence the outcome of individual matches, but over a season the signal shines through enough for Manchester United to finish near to the top of the league and West Ham or Stoke to finish slightly above 18th spot. The good or bad random content, that was so keenly felt at the time in a single match is often forgotten because a team usually finishes close to where their talent levels decree they should. Although the bitter taste lingers longer in knockout football.

Which finally brings us to match fixing. Teams or individuals have little control over luck or Nani would have chosen to get sent off in the last minute rather than the 58th and Peter Crouch would have poleaxed a defender instead of an attacking midfielder with an able and talented young replacement on the bench.

In games of pure chance an individual has no control over the result. You cannot "fix" a fair coin toss by paying off the person tossing the coin because they have no (or very little) way of influencing the outcome in either the short or longterm.

But football is different, Nani was unlucky in the current environment where "intent" is tacitly acknowledged by many officials, even if it isn't written into the rule book. So reluctantly, he has become the standard bearer for random misfortune. Skill, however has a choice. A player can do his utmost to find the top left hand corner with a shot or if he wishes, harness his skill to deliberately hook the ball wide and the current Europol list of allegedly fixed games implies that some do.

The revelation that both skill and luck coexist in football shouldn't need constantly restating, but much of the current analysis ignores the latter entirely. If Nani's dismissal helps to reinforce an acceptance that some some events are beyond the control of the participants, then his sacrifice won't have been in vain.


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