Black Swans, Purple Patches and Blueprints (Part 1)

Black Swans, Purple Patches and Blueprints (Part 1)
September 28, 2014 Tony Mckenna (Macattack)

By Tony McKenna (TTT Subscriber Macattack).


This summer it allowed ITKs (In The Knows) to correctly predict 50,000 of the top 10 transfers that actually occurred…when three football matches flapped their wings in Africa it caused a perfect storm in North East England…it proved that not all injuries are necessarily a bad thing…even though it makes injuries all too often the worst thing that can happen…it wins awards and contracts that possibly should not have been won at all.

It can make two events – impossible to occur at the same time…actually seem to occur at the same time. It grows £50 million quid out of sight…and it did what the Apple Shuffle i pod did – for customers who bought it – what a computer did to the manager of the reigning Champions…it causes unholy argument and debate on an issue that has less predictive value than a coin toss…since the last Black Swan piece a book about football dedicated a whole Chapter to it…yet many still deny its influence.

Plans and Predictions:

Since the top 4 that would never be broken, Liverpool Chelsea and now United have all finished outside the Champions League zone. Opinion and theories take hold because we are powerfully seduced by current events as our minds become fixed in the present tense. Yet, the future is infinite and change highly probable. Even Michel Platini relented and quietened his contempt for English clubs dominating the latter stages of the Champions League. Citing an injection of unfair monetary advantage, little did he realise that, historically, all successful eras potentially come to an end.

It is only when change actually occurs when a new future is deemed possible. This truism applies when the ‘greatest teams ever’, Barcelona and Spain to boot, were looking unlikely to be eclipsed. Until, that is, a shock 7 nil trouncing over a two-legged Champions League affair raised a Bayern blip on football’s radar. Then, during the 2014 World Cup, a Spanish sun sank untraceably below the horizon – possibly disappearing for a long time. Now many Spanish football ‘experts’, have removed all references to ‘Tiki-Taka’ from their Twitter bios and blogs, all to do is to reflect on the power of fashionable phenomena. In this sense, all sports are susceptive:

“Every year, someone wins the World Series and the twenty-nine other teams try to figure out the latest winning formula and copy it.”

Mind Game by Steven Goldman

No model or blueprint can be perfectly replicated anyway because so much, being unplanned in the first place, is beyond the scope of cultivation. Randomness and luck are the twin engines that propel unplanned events, good or bad, beyond human control. A team that plays superior exquisite football is one thing; this can be planned. But when three of the proponents happen to be Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, it becomes quite another thing. Such quality, it appears, will never always be found in your own backyard.

Given Barcelona’s high-ended summer spending spree, including the purchase of a certain Uruguayan, the thought occurs that maybe even the Catalan production line has a finite collection of elite playing staff. Alas, for all the envy La Masia gleaned, it remains that Barcelona’s best player, the greatest in the world no less, had to be obtained from another continent – far removed from the Camp Nou base. And not once did Platini refer to Barcelona’s debt pile despite a flourishing Academy.

And for those who stake a claim to have been aware of the Barca revolution from inception, embracing the Tiki-Taka possession game from embryonic state then ‘congratulations’ are in store. You should be in the game itself. The thousands that had first glimpse of the philosophy unravelling were unimpressed, needing an injection of success in order to acquiesce:

“Cruyff and Rexach were involved in missionary work. Initially, the possession game they introduced was met with jeers inside the Camp Nou, but they educated their public and the trophies that followed made a convincing argument”.  

The Making of the Greatest Team in the World – Barca.

Football: The Knowledge:

If you know what time your train is due to arrive it is unnecessary to have a running commentary of its progress some way down the line. Just wait until the allotted time of arrival; if it is late, or never arrives at all, you will soon know why.

The perfect analogy for the transfer market and the baying expectancy that riddles supporters once ITK’s link their club with any particular player. ITKs denote the train’s journey at innumerable junctions; recipients of the ‘heads up’ news are grateful as if it was an essential public service but it is all totally unnecessary in the end; it serves no meaningful purpose. Everyone eventually gets to know whether the train arrives or not; it is called ‘Transfer Deadline Day’. The rest is foreplay.

Granted, some ITKs are better than others and may have some genuine inside knowledge. The vast majority, however, utilise an old trick practised by Stock Market Tipsters: send 1000 people a tip, split them into two groups of 500, one group gets a bullish recommendation, the other bearish. Whatever the market actually does, the Tipster is right in the eyes of 500 people and he reminds them of how right he was. Or in the modern age, re-tweet your old Tweets that look amazingly prophetic, discount the ones that floundered. Here, you can make your own luck -just wait for randomness to conclude.

Heaven forbid the debate that ensues on the value virtue of any player purchase. As well as ITKs, Twitter is populated by too many YKFAAFs (You Know Fuck All About Football). Feel free to tag an ‘M’ at the end of YKFAAF, because – and somewhat paradoxically – many will call you ‘Mate’ after insulting you: You Know Fuck All About Football…mate.  Cheers.

Express an opinion, positive or negative, on any player and someone, somewhere, will hit you with the YKFAAF mantra because he or she has far superior knowledge than you. But if Tomkins’ Law holds and only approximately 40% of Transfers work out then we are posited in a game where the outcome has less predictive value than a coin toss; you may not get to break even over the course of time and may even have better odds in a game of ‘stick a pin in the donkey’s ass’. Not a deterrent for the YKAAFs, however, who also practice the art of re-tweeting a positive comment when a player they eulogised does well: “I told you so; aren’t I a genius?” Delete, or conveniently forget, the Tweets that make for more opaque crystal balls.

All too often, assumptions made in the present tense make us err greatly: it is easier to score in the Dutch League. An old adage pummelled to death on Twitter when Suarez’s scoring prowess regressed from the mean. And all the time, a future outcome pended, growing £50 million out of sight – the approximate amount Barcelona added to the original sum Liverpool paid for the same player. 31 goals in one season is enough to make opinions change, but no one predicted that.

Football Theories: When Coincidence becomes Illogical:

They often cause disagreements. But sometimes a theory enjoys general acceptance: like David Moyes failing at United because the players did not want to play for him. Not many disagreed with that. After all, the proof is in the proverbial pudding: the reigning champions became ailing performers to the point that a top 4 finish was a concern before the season finale. Besides, Moyes’ valedictory statement said as much; or rather it is what it did not say: expressed gratitude to all bar the players sanctioned evidence of bitterness and bad blood; the theory holds.

But there is one problem.

Toss a coin. It can only land on one particular face because two cannot be an outcome at the same time; the faces are mutually exclusive. The players did not want play for Moyes; or they wanted to play for him. Toss another coin; but this time each face bears the opposite entities of ‘Home’ and ‘Away’. This time ask yourself this ridiculous question: did the United players only want to play for Moyes ‘Away’?

During Moyes’ short tenure, United actually were one of the Premier League’s better teams when playing ‘Away’. Over the whole season, in fact, they were ranked third in both ‘Attack’ and ‘Defence’ (, featuring far worse at ‘Home’ being ninth and eighth respectively. The coin shows heads and tails at the same time if we are to believe that the players did not want to play for Moyes. Or were United in decline anyway? And does the recent tsunami splash in the transfer market validate this alternative view?

Much has been made about Liverpool’s defensive record whereby the reds finished an overall eighth; United went three better to figure at fifth. On our travels we were great in ‘Attack’; however, less has been said about Liverpool’s defensive ‘Away’ performance where they ranked a rather poor twelfth. Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the players did not want to play for Rodgers; we finished second.

Coincidence becomes illogical.

Circling the Square:

In April 2013, seven teams from League 2 were potentially facing relegation. The permutation conundrum was significant enough for Louise Taylor (Guardian 26.4.13) to write about it. Of all the club officials involved and interviewed, Dean Edwards, Torquay’s Club Commercial Director, and one time striker, provided the most interesting statement:

“We’ve looked at every possible permutation and we’re favourites to stay up”.

“Every possible permutation?” Is that really calculable? Mathematically speaking this may be the case as many would be quick to suggest and Probability theory is at hand to help. Roll a dice; you need a six; you can compute that you have a 1 in 6 chance of landing your number. You can even adjust your bet size to a sensible percentage size of your overall pot ensuring a good risk/reward ratio. Still, you can never be certain. And this is the only one issue with Probability theory:

“Probability is not a mere computation of the odds on the dice or more complicated variants; it is the acceptance of the lack of certainty in our knowledge and the development of methods for dealing with our ignorance.”

Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance and Life and in the Markets by Taleb.

In May 2013, Torquay did manage to avoid the drop from League 2…just. They finished two points above the relegation zone. Was Dean Edwards right? Many would assume so. Yet, Probability, as Taleb reminds us, stems from both our uncertainty and ignorance because life itself and games of chance, including sports, are subject to infinite influences beyond our control. No analytical model can factor in the potential for injuries to key players, debatable decisions, player bans, regression from the mean for strikers, beach balls and heavy Moscow rains that saw John Terry penalty kick a European Cup from Chelsea’s grasp. That list is by no means exhaustive; it is impossible to summarise infinity. Suffice to say we are not in the circumstance of laboratory-controlled experiments where sterile conditions obviate all contaminants. This is the point that Dean Edwards missed.

Black Swans, Randomness & Luck

A famous poker player once bemoaned a wish that the game contained more skill than luck. Pot odds, position at the table, and betting with risk/reward ratios help to some degree but ‘bad beats’ forever loom no matter what level of caution and acumen is applied. The cards materialise in random fashion and some adventurous Dick, for example, can complete an ‘inside straight’ on the River after betting insanely against the odds from the Flop. Football shares similar elements though this is heretical anathema to those who cannot relinquish control over one’s destiny.

Moreover, a deck of 52 cards – despite the combinatorial complexity entailed – could never reflect the number that life itself, or a football game, can deliver.

‘The Numbers Game’, (Anderson and Sally), was probably the first ever book on football that seriously addressed the notion of randomness and luck inherent in the game. The first Chapter entitled ‘Riding Your Luck,’ sets an obvious tone beguiling us with tales of Prussian horses, the Poisson distribution and the shocking news that almost half of goals scored contain an element of fortune.

This was too much for one particular dissenter who sarcastically tweeted that: “Oh so, we just got to hope that your football club gets lucky then?” Which completely misses the point; and it does so because the person in question had not read the book properly, if at all; the authors clearly disregard the need for passive surrender:

“This does not mean that there is nothing can be done. ‘What a coach does is attempt to increase the index of probability when it comes to winning a match, Juanma Lillo, a Spanish manager of philosophical bent once said.

‘As a coach all you can (do) is deny fortune as much of its role as you possibly can.’  

The Numbers Game: Anderson/Sally

By denying fortune Anderson and Sally go on to explain that this means taking your budget, spending wisely, getting the most out of the players you obtain. Even this qualification, for those that have read the book, will not satisfy hordes of detractors imbued with the control freak ideal of being the architect of one’s own life, and at all times. But bear in mind that randomness and luck can bless or curse you; rare events and Black Swans can be either fortuitous or inimical. Yet we do not see the outcome of good fortune precisely because we would rather believe success is of our own design.

Alan Pardew, a couple of seasons ago, made exactly that mistake when Newcastle were pushing for a Champions League spot, commenting that his plan was ‘two years of ahead of schedule’. We do, however, have a predilection to complain, cuss and swear when events go against us. We also have a terrible inclination to be fooled by the permutations that randomness conjures. David Moyes started it last season…before a ball was even kicked.

A Tale of Two Managers:

The following analogy has already appeared and been cited in many different books.Since it is the best example of its kind, it is reproduced here.

The Apple Shuffle i Pod was programmed to play music tracks in random fashion. Famously, or maybe infamously, customers who purchased the product began to detect patterns where the same track re-occurred in a short sample size. The Shuffle was ‘not random’, causing many to complain. Eulogising the marvels of the human brain is best balanced by acknowledgement of its fallibility; the risk of fooling oneself is high:

“Groundbreaking research in neuroscience shows that our brains are designed to perceive trends even where they might not exist. After an event occurs just two or three times in a row, regions of the human brain called the anterior cingulated and nucleus accumbens automatically anticipate that it will happen again”.

The Intelligent Investor: Benjamin Graham.

This is the cerebral hoodwink that customers of the Shuffle i Pod fell for. The late Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple, was compelled to declare that the Company had made adjustments to the product making it less random to appear more random. What has this got to do with football? The answer is a lot; more than many would care to admit. We do not elude our human fallibilities when we engage as football fans; neither do those who are actively involved directly in the game itself – even when in charge of football’s great institutions.

Manager A:

The Premier League fixture draw, for the 2013/14 season, despite the permutations of 38 teams playing each other ‘Home’ and ‘Away’, rattled the incumbent Manchester United manager because his team were awarded a ‘difficult’ start to the season. Moyes’ siege mentality was tantamount to conspiracy theory; Premier League Officials even went public to reassure him that the draw was indeed randomly generated by a computer. Like people who had purchased the Apple Shuffle i Pod, the ‘Chosen One’ had been fooled by randomness.

It was an unimaginable occurrence. After all, the manager of the reigning champions expressing diffidence about the order of a fixture list consisting of teams who all finished below United – only a matter of weeks ago. Should United have feared anyone at all? Possibly Moyes’ own insecurity did not bode well for the players under his command; he may have even insulted them.

We have seen that the accepted theory is that the players did not want to play for Moyes; but analysis reveals that the team performed well enough in ‘Away’ fixtures; better in fact, in a ‘defensive context’ than Liverpool who finished second in the League overall. In any case, it is hard to forget that those players were, and always had, played for United first and foremost; it was also a ‘World Cup’ Season.  What more professional and personal motivation was required?

Manager B:

On the other hand, once upon a time not so long ago, Alan Pardew was christened ‘Pardiola’ as Newcastle challenged for a Top 4 place. This success even drew lamentable envy from the LFC fan base, believing that Pardew had happened upon the perfect blueprint, one that was premised on sound economic investment in the Transfer Market.

Replete amongst the red component of the Twitterazzi set were complaints as to why Liverpool could not have bought two strikers, relatively cheaply, who were currently doing the business for the Toon Army.  Hindsight makes everyone a genius but we are far less skilled when it comes to the future. Fast Forward to the present day and no one is talking about signing Demba Ba or Cisse anymore. In any case, their 15 minutes of football fame is astonishingly crazy considering how it came to pass; each enjoying spikes in personal performances – purple patches that are compellingly wondrous to behold.

During the 2012 African Nations Cup, Senegal finished bottom of Group A, not having won a single one of three games played. On February 5th, 2012, Newcastle beat Aston Villa 2 – 1. This, co-incidentally, happened to be the same date as the Quarter finals of the African Nations Cup. If Senegal had progressed this far then Demba Ba and Cisse would not have been in England at all. As it transpired, the former scored his 16th goal of the season, and the latter chipped in with a debut goal.

And then again; it was a debut awarded only because of an injury to Leon Best as Cisse was introduced onto the pitch in unplanned fashion; an injury became a positive thing – for a short while at least.  History shows that Cisse embarked upon a goal scoring spree for the remainder of the season, which is just as well because February 5th marked Demba Ba’s final goal of the season.

Cisse had compensated for Demba Ba in a manner that seemed like a neat baton exchange of responsibility, helping Pardew to a League Managers Award and a new eight-year contract. Of all the above, only the contract was of conscious human design; and that was the least successful outcome of them all.

Beware of what may look like a blueprint.

Full Time: First Leg:

At the end of every season people call it a ‘Crazy Season’. And that is because every season is indeed a ‘Crazy Season’. But not too many will peel back the superficial layers that deem it so. Your season will be the story of how apparent disparate and unrelated events combine and conspire towards a final sum total of your finishing League Position. One or more variables may have a collective influence to the good or bad; one or more variables may have no impact at all being subsumed by the significance of others. Like Liverpool were a poor Defensive twelfth overall when it came to ‘Away’ fixtures, but the incidence of scoring 101 goals, and other factors, enabled a finish as ‘runners up’.

In part 2, we will take a deeper look at Liverpool’s 2013/14 Season. Those who despise any reference to elements of randomness and luck in football would be best advised not to read the sequel. It is nonetheless, a useful exercise: espying where your luck held directs you to areas where you can seek to improve; identifying where luck ran out teaches you not to despair too greatly and eventually, the mean average will re-instate. But generally, all that you plan never always goes according to plan; and much that was unplanned actually happens.

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”  

Michael Caine: The Italian Job.