Sunday, 8 March 2009

Football by numbers

First published in Sons View, 07 March 2009, Dumbarton -v- Albion Rovers

By the time you read this, you may be feeling relieved because the Sons managed to claw back some dignity and momentum against East Stirling last Tuesday night, having suffered the ignominy of 3-1 and 5-2 defeats in our previous two encounters. Alternatively, you may be downright despondent because we slipped further.

Either way, grab another pie and chew on this. Victory against Albion Rovers at the Rock this afternoon would be significant step forward, because our opponents, with games in hand, have been sneaking up on the top four from the lower reaches of the table without quite being noticed. They may turn out to be the ‘dark horses’ of this Third Division campaign, and we all know what happens when you underestimate those.

I figured this through the simple expedient of working out where the Wee Rovers would be if they claimed a majority of the points available to them in their catch-up games, based on previous form. You’ve probably looked at Dumbarton’s schedule and started making similar calculations, with suitable allowances for the likely performance of others.

You haven’t? Ah well, perhaps you have a life. Or maybe you’ve figured out that this game is played on grass rather than a calculator. However at this stage of the season, when the number of second chances your team can hope for shrinks mercilessly, it is natural for fans and pundits alike to start poring over the exotic statistical possibilities offered by league and form tables. The aim is to discern some otherwise unnoticed pathway to success. ’Mon you digits!

For example, as I drowned my disappointment over last week’s game at Ochilview with a wee dram of Ribena, I found myself noticing that Dumbarton had drawn more games than any other side in the division. This is especially true at home – where we are matched only by on-the-slide Stenny. Albion Rovers, on the other hand, have predominantly won or lost on the road. Only two of their first 12 away games ended with the spoils shared.

A statistician friend of mine (who prefers offering sage advice to buying rounds) spent a few minutes considering the mathematical runes while I bought him a packet of crisps. Then he pronounced. Purely on the table, he suggested, the overall odds slightly favoured a Sons victory over Albion, but the best betting option might be a draw. Then again, you could come up with different outcomes based on comparative form over four, six or eight games.

“Mind you”, he added, warming to his role, “I’m looking at this from an on-paper form point of view. If I worked for a bookmaker I’d be working out the respective risks involved in tempting too few or too many people to bet one way or the other. And if I was a coach I guess I’d be more worried about injuries, player combinations, weaknesses and strengths in different areas of the park, and so forth.”

In short, in spite of the vague scientific veneer provided by scrutinising stats and crunching numbers, all this is basically the football equivalent of astrology. It sounds convincing to those who want to believe, but when you start to look behind the predictions there’s not much there. Knowing whether we’re up to it or not is as much intuition as analysis – or persuasion, if you’re in the dugout.

The same applies to the random stuff summarisers come out with on telly: “This team hasn’t lost an away game in this particular league on a Wednesday evening in 28 years.” Well, yes. Except that for 24 of those years they had entirely different players, a different manager and opponents who were, er… different. Plus they rarely play on a Wednesday. The only relevance is the psychology. If you think the past will increase or reduce your chances, it could do. Because you’re letting it.

So the most important thing is not numbers. It’s how capable your players are, how well organised they are, how adjusted they are to the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, and what their state of mind and fitness is. Easy. Forget the amateur stats. Become a manager. Everyone will love you, and compared to the higher mathematics of punditry or fandom that makes it a piece of cake. Sort of.

The key this afternoon, however, is to get behind Dumbarton and yell the lads on to success. For that purpose, “’Mon you Sons!” will probably be more useful than “Remember the form book!”

(Simon Barrow is right 5 times out of 10, on average.)


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