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Is football fixed? Part 1: The logical reason why we might well think so.

By Tony Attwood

There are two answers to the notion that football is fixed, which journalists and bloggers like to trot out over and over again.

The first is that the people who suggest football is fixed are simply loopy – that they go around wearing tin hats, believe that the BBC is the universal heart of fake news, that there is no such thing as global warming and that the MMR vaccination programme is devised by North Korea to make so many people ill that it can then take over the world.   Such people believe science is fake and evidence is not needed to support any claim, and as such, to my mind they are idiots in search of a conspiracy who should be laughed at and pushed out of the way (gently).

No evidence is put forward to support such points of view, they are just stated, usually with a load of insults, often with a lot of swearing, rarely with much accurate use of grammar, logic, reason, or come to that anything else.  And believe me I know, because Untold gets a huge amount of this type of response, most of which of course I choose not to publish because it comes without evidence.

There is a second response to the notion that football is fixed however, and it is one that needs to be taken seriously.  It is that football is much more random than we might think, and that chance and luck plays a huge amount in deciding who wins the league and who comes at the foot of the table.

In short, when we think something fishy is going on, it is just randomness and luck doing its thing.

To support this view the notion is put forward that because “expected goals” (ie the goals that one would expect to flow from the number of chances created) are not the same as actual goals, luck and chance must be playing a big part in football.

And clearly there is something in this.  We see a situation in which Aubameyang gets the ball in a position in which he would score nine times out of ten, and he hits it way wide.  It’s bad luck, he’s off balance, or something happens.  So it goes; no conspiracy, he just misses.

But then, as many commentators do, to suggest that expected goals and thus luck and chance, explain everything is equally nonsensical, because there is virtually no attempt to look for other possible explanations – which any serious explanation ought to do.  Besides which luck and chance are pretty difficult things to measure.

Let me try to give a comparison from elsewhere.  We can see the sun and the moon travel across the sky.  So by simple logic we conclude that each of these bodies goes round the earth.  We watch an eclipse of the sun, and conclude the moon is closer to the earth than the sun.  But then we see an eclipse of the moon, and can just about get away with our thesis, as long as we are not making any serious measurements.

However when we come to look at Mars, Jupiter and Saturn travelling across the night sky it becomes clear there is no sense in this “earth at the centre” argument.  They travel in strange orbits first one way then the next.  In terms of them going round the earth, it is nonsense.  Another explanation is needed.

Back to football – we can say that yes, players can make mistakes and expected goals don’t turn into goals, but that is a bit like saying, it looks like the sun and moon go round the earth, so let’s leave it at that.  It is only the start of the investigation.

In fact, if we want to be serious about any notion, we need to consider not just talent and luck, but also anything that looks a bit odd.  The football equivalent to the way the outer planets move across the sky which only make sense if you accept that all the planets go around the sun.

So my point is simple: to explain what is happening we need to look at all the possible explanations for what is going on, and not just the bits that fit our point of view, and then think what to do about these possibilities.

OK some possibilities can be dismissed at once – they are so crazy that we can see they are nonsense.  And then let’s see what is left.  And to do this we need a really weird set of circumstances.

In the past football historians might take Nurnberg in Germany, or Manchester City in 1937/38 – in both cases clubs who won the league one season, and then were relegated in the second season.  In fact, if you are interested you can read the story of just how Manchester City came to be relegated on the Arsenal History Society article for April and May 1938.   For them to be relegated seven matches had to have set results – and all seven occurred.   The article linked to there does primarily deal with Arsenal in those months, but there is a fair bit of Manchester City simply because the situation was so weird.  The champions were indeed relegated.

But now we have another example of weirdness we can consider: Leicester in 2015/16.  They got an amazing series of results which took them to the top of the league for the one, and so far only, time.  In the previous season they came 14th, in the subsequent season they came 12th. Indeed their points total for the seasons before and after show just how weird this was: 41 points the season before, 44 points the season after winning the league.  Nothing here was impossible, it was just exceedingly unlikely.  

But the exceedingly unlikely can happen.  Leicester had a fair slice of luck, and the rest of the top clubs were more erratic than usual, and Leicester won the league.  No one has put forward a reasoned argument to suggest there was anything amiss.

And indeed in one regard there was nothing unusual here because every season we get lots of games that defy expectations but that again does not mean anything is fixed.

However as a recent article in the Guardian pointed out, if one takes expected goals as the measure of expected reality, in one in six games expected goals is not at all a predictor of what actually happens.  And so the “experts” are then left explaining the result as being simply down to pure luck.

It is a bit like saying that gravity is a universal constant, only to find that once a week one wakes up with no gravity in place, and the explanation being, well, it happens. Once a week gravity is on the blink, just like some days the sun doesn’t shine.

The article continues shortly…

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