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Tuesday, 11 December, 2018

Why Jose Mourinho got philosophical when United's results became diabolical

Soccer boffin Kevin Pullein shares his thoughts

Paul Pogba walks past Jose Mourinho after being substituted
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Never walk into a river that is two feet deep on average. Before stepping off the bank ask about variations in the depth. The average gives you some information but before you get your feet wet you should seek more information. Otherwise you could drown.

Ask a football fan what might happen in a match and they will say one thing. Ask them why and they will give you one reason, usually a fact about one of the players or teams. There are other facts. Any one of them might tell a different story.

We are all on a search for the holy grail of football and betting – one fact that is right and will kill all the others which are wrong. It does not exist. Annoyingly there are many facts all of which convey in different measure some truth and some nonsense.

Others make the same mistake. We are not alone.

Significance is the website of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association. Timothy Martyn Hill wrote an article on it called “Forecast error: Are polls getting worse at predicting elections?”

He said: “There is always the urge to believe in a ‘gold standard’ – the fabled indicator that is better at predicting an election than the other indicators and does so consistently across elections. Unfortunately, there just isn’t one.”

After Manchester United lost back-to-back Premier League games, to Brighton and Tottenham, manager Jose Mourinho quoted 19th century philosopher Georg Hegel as saying: “The truth is in the whole.”

In The Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel wrote: “The truth is the whole.” The next sentence was: “The whole, however, is merely the essential nature reaching its completeness through the process of its own development.”

What Hegel meant, I understand, is that we do not know everything until the end. The truth about a caterpillar includes the butterfly it will become. The caterpillar might not know it is going to become a butterfly.

We do not know what will happen next, though experience should have taught us that it might be at least a bit different from what happened before.

There are many football stats. Everything a team do with the ball is meant to improve their chance of scoring, everything they do without the ball is meant to reduce the chance of them conceding. So stats can give us an indication of what teams deserved. Usually stats and results tell a similar tale. But what if they do not?

In Mourinho’s first season United’s performances were better than their results. Last season results improved. Results then were better than performances. This season results have nosedived and Mourinho is favourite in the sack race.

I am reminded of a story about a man who went to see a clairvoyant. The clairvoyant smiled. The man punched the clairvoyant in the face. “Why did you hit me?” yelled the clairvoyant. “Well, said the man, “I was told that I should always try to strike a happy medium.” Boom boom.

Usually the truth about contradictory stats and results is somewhere in the middle. What happens next, more often than not, is in between. The best forecasters, of football and other things, heed many facts, even opposing ones.

The old history of the best teams in Europe

Who will win the Champions League this season? Probably not Benfica. They beat AEK Athens on Tuesday but lost their other group game to Bayern Munich. There was a time, though, when Benfica had the best team in Europe.

Real Madrid, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, won the first five European Cups with up to five players born outside Spain. In season 1960-61 Madrid were knocked out by Barcelona who then lost in the final 3-2 to Benfica. Barcelona had four players born outside Spain.

Benfica had four players born outside Portugal. Forward Jose Aguas and midfielder Joaquim Santana came from Angola, goalkeeper Alberto da Costa Pereira and midfielder Mario Coluna, who was captain, came from Mozambique.

Benfica said in those days that they did not sign non-Portuguese players. But they counted as Portuguese anyone from a Portuguese colony. Otherwise they probably would never have won the European Cup.

The next season Madrid were back in the final but lost 5-3 to Benfica. Eusebio, from Mozambique, had replaced Santana and scored the last two goals. Eleven of the 13 goals in those two finals were scored by players who were not born in the country of the club they played for. More than half a century ago, the best European teams were also multi-national.

Shrink to the right size

Magne Aldrin is chief research scientist at the Norwegian Computing Center. For 20 years he and his colleagues have predicted World Cups and European Championships.

During Euro 2016 Aldrin was interviewed on significance. He was asked how he makes predictions.

“The first thing we have to do is quantify the strength of each team,” he said. “We use football experts to help us to quantify the team strengths before tournaments.”

Over the years, he said, his predictions have got better. “We have improved the modelling by introducing a so called ‘shrinkage factor’, where the strength parameters are shrunk towards each other, ie the teams are forced to have more equal strengths than the experts indicate.”

Experts and non-experts alike consistently overestimate the strength of good teams and the weakness of bad teams.

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Experts and non-experts alike consistently overestimate the strength of good teams and the weakness of bad teams
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