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Andr Villas-Boas experts ignore random question

Matthew Syed, The Times Football analysis is not quite an oxymoron. There are times when one is profoundly enlightened by the musings of those who adjudicate on the beautiful game. But it is remar able how many words ha!e been spilt on the life and wor s of "ndr# $illas%Boas, the ups and downs, the triumphs and the ignominies, without a single reference to perhaps the most important word of all& randomness. 'assim 'icholas Taleb, the statistician%philosopher, wrote a boo called Fooled by (andomness. "mong many other obser!ations, he noted how easily we are deluded by the narrati!es we impose retrospecti!ely on complex e!ents. )ne day in *ecember +,,-, for example, when Saddam .ussein was captured, Bloomberg 'ews flashed the following headline at /.,/pm& 01S Treasuries (ise2 .ussein capture may not curb terrorism.3 .alf an hour later, as prices fell, they had to issue a new headline& 01S Treasuries Fall& .ussein capture boosts allure of ris y assets.3 4e lo!e explanations. 4e lo!e narrati!e. 5!en the largely random fluctuations of treasury bonds are not immune. Saddam6s capture was the dominant story of the day 7this is what psychologists call salience8, so the Bloomberg writers used it to 0explain3 the price mo!ements. They e!en used it to explain both a rise and a fall in prices without seeming to notice the contradiction. "s Taleb put it& 04hene!er there is a mar et mo!e, the news media feel obligated to gi!e the 9reason6 . . . the same capture 7the cause8 explained one e!ent and its exact opposite.3 .e calls it the narrati!e fallacy. :sn6t football punditry often li e this; 4e pic a salient !ariable 7generally, the actions of a manager8 and then use it to pro!ide a retrospecti!e explanation of past e!ents that were, beforehand, largely unpredictable. "t <orto, for example, $illas%Boas was a genius. .e won the <ortuguese league without losing a single match. The profiles were flattering. .is use of data was !isionary. .e was prepared to upset the players, a clear demonstration of his hard%headed approach. .e had a charming beard, too. 1nsurprisingly, he was hired to ta e o!er at =helsea. (esults were initially good, but then 7shoc , horror8 they started to go awry. Most people said& 0>i!e him time.3 But then, results went downhill some more. ?ust as with the 1S Treasury bonds, the narrati!e flipped. <erhaps he was not quite as good as we had been led to belie!e. .e was a bit young, after all. (ather inexperienced, in fact. .e often upset the players& not a good sign when any coach needs a united dressing room. "nd that beard began to loo !ery dubious indeed.

"nd so to Tottenham .otspur, where *aniel @e!y, the chairman, seemed to ha!e faith in $illas%Boas. .e 0started well3 with a club%record points total in his first season. There were nice profiles on the telly, the growing sense of a man with a mission 71S Treasuries (ise again8. "ll those successes in the early part of his career seemed portentous. =helsea, it seemed, was a blip. But then results dipped once more relati!e to expectations. .e seemed out of his depth again. .e should ha!e been doing better with all those new players. .e had a weird obsession with data. "nd what about that strange beard; The curious thing about post hoc analysis is the speed of the about%turns. :t is not that two different groups were arguing about $illas%Boas6s relati!e merits throughout these fluctuations. (ather, it is that many pundits performed !olte faces without realising that they had done so and, more importantly, without realising that both the original eulogies and the later condemnations emerged from the same underlying fallacy. The fluctuations were not 0caused3 by the salient features of $illas%Boas6s actions, but by a myriad complex factors that were not, in ad!ance, predictable. 4e saw the same thing with Fabio =apello as 5ngland manager. .e was se!ere with the players, banning tomato etchup from the canteen. This was credited with excellent results, partly because it pro!ided a contrast with the 0chummy3 Ste!e Mc=laren. 4hen the results went downhill at the 4orld =up, his se!erity was suddenly a defect. .e is stifling the players. .e has to loosen up. This is a perfect illustration of a single cause 0explaining3 contradictory effects. Few stopped to thin that =apello6s se!erity might ha!e been a gigantic red herring all along. But it sure made for a fine yarn. The actions of football managers are not, of course, irrele!ant. :f $illas%Boas poisoned his players, or sent out his reser!e team, he would damage Spurs. But the statistics re!eal that, abo!e some minimum le!el of competence, managerial differences do not matter as much as pundits thin . 5!en when managers are sufficiently s illed to perform consistently abo!e expectation, we are not !ery good at nowing who they are in ad!ance 7just as we are not !ery good at predicting financial crashes& Sir "lex Ferguson was, in that sense, a 0Blac Swan38. That is why we should not trust people on either side of the debate on $illas%Boas. Those who say 0he is a good manager3 are as deluded as those who say 0he ruined Spurs3. (ather, we should trust those who are aware of their lac of predicti!e nowledge2 who say that if he had stayed, Spurs would ha!e li ely performed roughly in line with expectations in the long term. "bout A, per cent of the !ariation in results by clubs is explained by wages& clubs that pay more obtain better players and results. :t is possible, of course, that $illas%Boas is one of the few managers who can consistently perform

abo!e 7or below8 this trend. But anybody who thin s they now one way or the other are deluding themsel!es. :t is noteworthy that experts are particularly prone to the narrati!e fallacy, largely because they are mesmerised by their own expertise. <hilip Tetloc , a psychologist, inter!iewed +BC people who made a li!ing commentating upon areas in which they specialised 7politics, the oil industry, etc8 and as ed them to place probabilities on future e!ents. They performed less well than if they had assigned equal probabilities to the outcomes. Those with the most nowledge were often the most defecti!e. They were particularly prone to underestimate the role of randomness. (andomness is e!erywhere. Most of the time when clubs ha!e sequences of results, they are just chance fluctuations around the long%term trend. The problem is that we notice more when there are six wins followed by six defeats than when there are alternating wins and losses. So we reach for narrati!e. 4e tal about momentum and its opposite rather than luc and regression to the mean. 4e hand the manager of the month award after six wins 7he is a genius8 and then sac him after six losses 7he is a fool8 without pausing to consider that the entire sequence was statistical noise. 4e o!erinterpret beyond football, of course. :n cric et, we often point to moral fibre rather than managerial prowess as the principle 0explanation3, as 5d Smith, the former batsman, has noted. So, 5ngland players were tough and resolute a few wee s ago, but are pathetic and cowardly today. Some explanations may ha!e merit, but we should be suspicious of 0explanations3 that only wor with hindsight. (andomness will barely figure in the post mortem. 4ill this failure to ta e account of chance change any time soon, whether in sport or life; *aniel Dahneman, the 'obel <riEe%winning economist, is doubtful. 0)ur comforting con!iction that the world ma es sense rests on a secure foundation& our almost unlimited ability to ignore our own ignorance,3 he said. The response to the sac ing of $illas%Boas could be offered as 5xhibit " in Dahneman6s case. 4hen we ignore randomness, narrati!es become little more than beautifully constructed cathedrals of hot air.