Football and the D-word

Manchester United had beaten a top-six opponent away from home by two clear goals. Despite the sending-off of his star-midfielder, Jose Mourinho limited himself to an unusually modest bite-size attack on the matchday referee.

Predictably, Mourinho’s comments gained traction, warranting discussion on Match of the Day later that evening.

Another comment made during the interview, though, was far more revealing. Mourinho puffed his chest out and explained that his team “deserve” adulation for what was a comprehensive 3–1 victory, on paper at least.

Later that evening, Gary Linekar regurgitated the d-word during the analysis of West Brom’s 0–0 draw with Crystal Palace.

Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the d-word an awful lot.

Every week, broadcasters devote dozens of hours debating which side “deserved” to win. Often it is the first topic of conversation for managers, who quickly state their claim to the title of the most deserving team — win or lose. Reality is often suspended, as pundits disregard the literal number of goals scored for an entirely subjective analysis.

Football, a sport in which results are almost always decided by a very small number of goals, is well acquainted with lady luck. Fairness rarely enters the equation.

But if victory proves elusive, consolation is often found in unfairness. And even if victory is achieved, it can be sugar-coated with a favourable mention of the “deserved” tag.

The sport’s history books are littered with high-profile examples. The Netherlands team of 1974 and Hungary team of 1954 are both more widely heralded than the West-German teams which beat them in world cup finals.

Crucially, both teams, built around the mesmeric talents of Johan Cruyff and Ferenc Puskas respectively, had played football to a sufficient degree of beauty that even before a ball had been kicked in the final, they were deemed deserving winners.

Only luck, combined with mild doses of complacency and alleged doping, turned glorious victory into glorious defeat.

Given the level of both historical and contemporary debate devoted to deservedness, the introduction of a metric which could help measure the extent to which a team was lucky in any given game, would surely be heralded as a major breakthrough.

Often opinions on who were the “better team” are backed up by rudimentary statistics such as number of shots taken or corners won.

Luckily for fortune fantasists, data analysists have taken things a step further, developing ‘Expected Goals’ or ‘xG’.

The xG model, based on the study of more than 300,000 shots, measures how close the shooter is to goal, at what angle they shoot from, what kind of shot it was and the distance from goal. According to stats analysts OPTA: “xG takes these factors — and others — into account and calculates how likely it is that a particular shot will be scored.”

The result is a quantitative measure of which team created the better chances — typically a prerequisite to be considered deserving.

Although the accuracy of the metric is vastly increased when applied to a series of games rather than one, it is undeniably a step in the right direction in the quest to identify the “better team” with greater certainty.

Undeniable as long as you don’t ask Jeff Stelling that is. “It has to be the most useless stat in the history of football”, the Sky Sports Soccer Saturday linchpin declared.

“The game has finished…why do you show expected goals afterwards?” he said with the astonished expression of a man who had just been asked to punch himself in the testicles.

The outburst was the manifestation of a very real frustration among many football fans that cold, hard analysis of the game drains the lifeblood from it, dampening the sense of unpredictability which draws so many to it in the first place.

Such complaints are not without merit.

However, for as long as Jeff and the boys continue to spend hours debating who truly, really, deserved to win each game — disregarding relevant information in favour of subjective speculation — questions will remain as to whether they truly, really, deserve not to be criticised for their hypocrisy.