SUPERSTITIONS, TRENDS AND PROBABILITIES
 
Amongst the hype that surrounds the latter stages of the World Cup, there seems to be a rabid hype for ‘trends’, masquerading as entertainment. The use of statistics, past records, first ever achievements and any old past events is funny at first, but when you realise that some people actually believe in this gibberish as a predictor of future events you realise that whoever is generating it is simply feeding the mouths of anticipating fans with their favoured meal.
There are a couple of different type of nonsensical observations, passed off as statistics or a trend analysis.
One type are relatively harmless, favoured approach of match commentators, that passes the time without raising an eyebrow.
“Before today only Argentina in 1990 have won 2 shootouts in the same tournament. Croatia have now matched that!”
Another type is firmly in the realm of horoscopes, superstitions and pixies.
Would some omnipotent power or the universal forces only accept the assembly of these chance coincidences to be the conditions that allow England to win the World Cup? This is of course utter nonsense, but I was shown this tweet on a phone a few weeks ago and asked, “You’re a scientist, how true is this?”, “Er, not at all”. Anything like this adds to the speculative, ignorant, guesswork that so commonly erupts when football reaches fever pitch!
In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.
Hypatia
Another is a predilection for the past to dominate the future. For example, “Sweden are England’s bogey team”.
No, Sweden are not an unlucky force that have held England in a hex. They are and have almost always been a well organised team that uses positional control and discipline as a way of achieving performances that exceeds the collective talent of the individual players. Therefore, the ‘bogey’ hasn’t been in playing Sweden, it has been the lack of a play-maker to unlock defences, applying pace down the flanks to open up opportunities, tactics to shift and stretch the disciplined structure or increasing the efficiencies of converting set-plays. ‘Bogey team’ descriptors simply suggest, that a team hasn’t worked out how to beat their bogeys yet (assuming that you might have the resources to actually do so).
I do wonder whether the rise in the Stato-generation of Sky TV led, post-match analysis and punditry has driven the appetite for number generated insight which has spilled over into guesswork dressed up as statistics.
Though we’re drowning in superstition based trends, sense can be found, but it takes a little work to find it and it’s not nearly as catchy, in fact it’s quite dull. The usual response to logical analysis in a sport as open as football is a nod of the head and a, “Yeah that makes sense, but it depends”.
For example, a quite obvious prediction is based on the number of goals scored by teams as a predictor of chances of advancing further into the World Cup.
“That’s the first time since 1966 that England have scored more than 11 goals.”
A simple comparison from a gilded year. Though let’s be clear it is just saying that England’s ability to score goals is as high as when they were previously successful! You nearly always have to score goals to progress into the latter stages, therefore the teams that are in the final four are far more likely to have higher goal scoring records. The inclusion of 1966 just adds sensational interest.
A very slight upgrade on this is the observation that a better goal difference might predict chances of progressing. Yes, that’s right folks, scoring more goals and conceding less goals and you’re more likely to keep winning matches!
Then if you dig a bit deeper and ask what determines goals scored, you might be looking at number of chances, shots on target etc. Then if you ask what creates chances and shots on targets you might be looking at passes or dribbles completed that are made in a forward direction and importantly how many opposing players this bypasses – known as packing!
If you want to step it up though you are into the realms of probability mathematics, most of which is beyond me but safe in the knowledge that it is extremely sophisticated owing to the fact that most of it has been driven over the years by the betting industry, who don’t like to get things wrong.
The FIFA rankings are often banded around as being farcical as they regularly maintain poor teams higher up the rankings and good teams lower down. Take a look at the ELO rankings for an interesting comparison. These take into account not only recent form (though for the validity it needs to stretch back quite far – which prevents it fully representing current form, e.g. “Ratings tend to converge on a team’s true strength relative to its competitors after about 30 matches”), but interestingly adjusts for importance of tournament, the goal difference, the outcome of the game, adjusted by the predicted result.
The current table suggest France (52 vs 48%) have a slight greater probability of beating Belgium and that England (56 vs 44%) have a slightly better chance of beating Croatia. This demonstrates the difficulties in predicting. Which is probably why people don’t tune into it because it suggests it could easily go either way. All this means there is very little certainty in an uncertain sport. No revelations then?. So what do people want, more certainty…so they go betting on mystic octopuses instead.
When all said and done, players, coaches, scientist and commentators can say all they like but when it comes down to predictions you are only ever able to take steps towards increasing the probability of success – never guaranteeing it.
Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.
Mark Twain

About steveingham

Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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