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June 15, 2014


Igor Belanov

Your example for number two is somewhat dubious. I don't think I've ever seen such a one-sided half of football in the World Cup as the second half between Holland and Spain. The Dutch could have had ten, they missed at least three chances after going 5-1 up.


Given the number of games you need to win, particularly the knockout ones, and the fact that football is a game where superiority doesn't automatically translate into goals, any good team is still going to have something like a "75% chance they won't win" at this stage.

In picking a team, as some have picked Brazil, you're picking which team you think has the best chance of winning out of the field of teams. And it's not unreasonable to pick Brazil for that.

(I did't make any formal predictions before the tournament began, but informally I said I'd pick Argentina, so I'm not defending my own choice here...)


To follow on from the previous comment, I think most people would cheerful admit that they've picked Brazil, but various other teams could certainly win it... so I'm not sure this is a Dunning-Kruger situation.

Socialism In One Bedroom

"How often after a player shoots wide, does Andy Townsend say he could have passed instead?"

Andy Townsend and me! This is wrong because I see (and so does Townsend I suspect) the pass before the player shoots and I assess that the other player is in a better position. I mean you can often see the player in the better position. You assume it's hindsight but it isn't.

The mistake I could be making here is one of perspective, I see the game from a different vantage point to the player on the ball. Maybe the player shot because a defender was obscuring the pass or something.

The rest of your examples seem valid.

Dave Timoney

A distinction needs to be made between "expert commentators" and "pundits".

The former are chosen to illuminate the action with a pro's insights, but the nature of the (TV) product means they have to be be uncontroversial and avoid detracting from the lead commentator (i.e. play straight man to the wit), so the insight in often vapid.

The criticism of Neville, Carlisle, Townsend, Keown etc is not their susceptibility to cognitive biases (which is no worse than the norm), but that they are boring. That said, an interesting subplot of this World Cup is that some, like Neville and Keown, have started to advocate fouling as a "technical" aspect of the game, which is genuinely insightful, if hardly eye-opening.

In contrast, pundits are chosen for their metrosexual attraction: hooded eyelids, lambswool cardies, sonorous Cointreau advert verbals etc. Shearer and Savage are there purely to reassure us that it's perfectly hetero to watch 3 well-groomed men (and Adrian Chiles) airing their crotches.

PS The smart money is on Germany at sixes.


I think that 5/6 is afflicting us on a national scale with regards to Steven Gerrard. The perception, built up from years of watching his aimless punts being made to look good by unusually talented forwards (Owen, Torres, Suarez) is that he's a great striker of the ball, and so we remember the one or two punts that get in the vicinity of his less-talented England teammates, and not all the ones that do not.

Similarly, we remember that in a European Cup final he ran around an awful lot and his team achieved an unlikely comeback. We therefore believe that a) he has a great engine, and b) this is something particularly commendable. So we take the odd occasion that he thunders across the pitch (possibly having been totally out of position) to make a tackle as typical of his vital contribution to the team.

What I'm trying to say is that he's not very good. He was the worst England player by a mile against Italy yet, because he is perceived to be our 'Captain Wonderful', nobody seemed to notice.

Igor Belanov

Gerrard turned you down when you asked for his autograph, eh?

He's certainly no Pirlo. But he is a good player, and to say he was England's worst player 'by a mile' is ridiculous hyperbole.


Socialism In One Bedroom: How often do you conclude the wrong pass is made when a goal is scored?

TheThoughtGang: On an article about cognitive biases you've managed to demonstrate several of them...

Here's some stats to consider helping you come to a more rational conclusion for evaluating Gerrard's performance against Italy...

Against Italy, of those attempting over 10 long passes Gerrard completed 15/19 (79%) and Rooney 7/11 (64%). For Italy, De Rossi was the best long passer in the game with 16/17 (94%) whilst Pirlo completed 6/11 (55%).

For overall pass completion, Gerrard was at 87% which was bettered by Henderson (88%) and Wellbeck (90%) for England (ignoring central defenders). Veratti, De Rossi and Pirlo were all over 90%. Of all those players Gerrard attempted the least short passes (just 7) and only passed to Henderson 2 times (compared to De Rossi -> Pirlo 27 times). Gerrard passed mostly to the full backs (27 passes to Johnson and Baines).

From an 'engine' perspective, Gerrard was 2nd highest for overall distance covered for England (Rooney was 1st), and highest for distance covered whilst not in possesion.

Of the 60 deliveries or runs into the attacking third of the pitch, Gerrard contributed 13 (/60) of those - the highest for England (Henderson was second with 10). De Rossi was the main man overall for this stat too - responsible for 16 (/48) deliveries/runs into the final third for Italy whilst Pirlo managed 7.

(These are all official FIFA stats)

I'm not sure looking at these stats that a conclusion of Gerrard being England's worst player by a mile stands up to scrutiny...


BTW I'm not suggesting football can or should only be parsed through stats. I'm suggesting it as a way to check in to challenge opinions that are susceptible to cognitive biases.


@ Yan

So he ran around a lot, and passed it to the fullbacks? If that gets you 100 caps and the captaincy, I think we can stop wondering why England have fallen so far sort of the top standards during his era.

(But yes, I can't deny that I've given up trying to figure out why he's an especially good player and started enjoying any and all things that suggest that he isn't. So you're almost definitely right)


Just thought I might add that in the USA, a variation of your point #4 is known as 'the _Sports Illustrated_ (the leading weekly sports magazine) cover jinx'

Socialism in One Bedroom

"Socialism In One Bedroom: How often do you conclude the wrong pass is made when a goal is scored?"

When it is thumped from 35 yards out, and that one in 50 times it happens to go in. Or when a defender passes it into his own net.

You sometimes have to put aside goal obsession in football, I am aware it is the objective of the sport, but sometimes the way a team plays is more important than the result.

Paul M

TheThoughtGang is giving a fantastic example of cognitive bias.


points 2 and 3 look exaggerated to me. It is true that chance plays a much bigger role than in other sports (one of the reasons why people love football is that the best team does not always win, like in, say, basket). Let's keep to the example quoted for point 2: the third goal was dubious, the fourth a simple mistake, the fifth arrived when Spain was not competing seriously anymore. It is all true, but: as dubious as it could be, the situation which originated the third goal implies that Holland was able to arrive very close to a goal. Something good opponents do not allow you to do; Holland had made two goals already; a mistake of the goal-keeper is not a chance and the judgement of the match would have not been different without the last goal. Spain might well have been unlucky, but was also unable to react.
As for point 3: of course there are chances that small teams makes their way to the final matches: there are more places than great teams. Which one will pass, though, is not a mere matter of chance.
As for the point 4, so what? If you can hold an average of a goal every other game in your career, you're a champion (backed by a good team). Besides, people do not simply judge through averages.

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