Sorry Jose, but ‘luck’ has no place in football…

Date published: Wednesday 3rd January 2018 9:27

José Mourinho has been talking a lot about luck lately: Bristol City were ‘lucky’ to defeat Manchester United in the Carabao Cup, and United have been ‘unlucky’ in recent referee decisions. But whatever the merits of those particular claims, they raise the genuine issue of what luck really is in football. Having a few weeks ago looked at the way we say teams ‘deserve’ a result, let’s take the next step and look at the even more controversial topic of luck.

People are all over the spectrum on this one, and can get very vehement defending their positions. What exactly is luck in football?

Oddly enough, the situation where luck is most frequently invoked is a place where most would say it plays little or no part. I’m talking about the woodwork, of course. When a shot rattles the post or the crossbar, or even both, we’re likely to hear how ‘unlucky’ the shooter was, perhaps even ‘desperately unlucky’. But if you hit the frame, you’ve missed the target, and although air currents can affect the flight of the ball, in most cases it’s no one’s fault but your own.

‘Unlucky’ in this context is probably just traditional British sportsmanship. Growing up watching golf tournaments on TV, I remember so well the magnificent Henry Longhurst gravelly uttering ‘bit of bad luck there’ as an ill-directed 3-iron shot buried itself in a sand trap. Might as well be charitable to the guy who’s got his head in his hands.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are places where we probably can all agree luck is the determinant. One is scheduling. The computer is omnipotent, and if you happen to get Everton under Sam Allardyce instead of David Unsworth, all you can do is get on with it (and make excuses in the post-game press conference).

Similarly, you may get to face Manchester United without Paul Pogba…but the case isn’t so clear here. If it’s because he did something to his hamstring, maybe your club has a better fitness regime and is less likely to have players out. If it’s because he got a red card, maybe your players are better disciplined. Those are things you can control to a degree.

But you can’t control the ref, of course. If Fernando Llorente is halfway to Cardiff and the flag still stays down, as happened Tuesday evening at the Liberty Stadium, there’s nothing you can do except get on with it again (and make excuses in the post-game press conference). Another place where luck rules the roost.

And yet…there’s another kind of play for which we hear “he’s given the ref a decision to make”, and for a very good reason. If Dejan Lovren puts his hands on a striker’s back in the area, he’s risking a penalty-kick. And he knows it, too. When Raheem Sterling bumped Wilfried Zaha this past weekend, he had to know the striker would go down on slight contact. And yes, even when Calum Chambers put his arms slightly out in front of his chest, he had to know Mike Dean was the man with the whistle. So if you know that an action you take may bring with it a sanction, should we call it ‘luck’? Or should we prefer ‘you took a risk rolling the dice in the first place’?

It can get even trickier, though, because (and this is not news) refs are fallible. You may make a perfect tackle in the penalty area, but there’s always the chance the ref will get it wrong. In fact, that’s just a different version of the ‘hands on the back’ gamble. You’re rolling the dice whenever you decide to intervene.  Any decision to go for the ball in the penalty area risks the ref missing the call and awarding a spot kick. Luck or risk?

You may say it doesn’t matter if we call it ‘luck’ or ‘risk’, and maybe you’re right. But words have consequences, because they tend to change the way we think. José Mourinho used the words ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ for a reason. Politicians use euphemisms for a reason, too. It’s true that just about every action one takes in football involves a risk, but some, like tackles in the area, much more than others. If every time a penalty were called (rightly or wrongly), the commentators said ‘the risk didn’t pay off’, my guess is we’d start to view penalty area challenges a bit differently.

The offside trap is another ‘luck or risk’ tactic. You’re relying on the competence of an assistant referee. They’ll get it right most of the time, but if they get it wrong, well, it was always a possibility. Some sides, like those managed by Tony Pulis, just don’t take the risk.

Let’s get on to something simpler: deflected goals. Surely a deflected goal is a matter of luck. And yet, again…when a defender deliberately sticks a leg out, he’s trying to prevent the ball from going in the net, and there are better and worse techniques for doing that. Just watch Steve Cook, the current master of the flying block.

Examples? On Tuesday evening at the London Stadium, Angelo Ogbonna tried to block a shot and the ball spun off at a crazy angle and looped out of Adrián’s reach and into the net. Later in the match Craig Dawson blocked a shot and the ball spun off at a crazy angle as well, but off target. The video suggests Dawson’s technique was superior, but in many cases we just don’t know if the defender could have done better. In such cases ‘luck’ serves as a different kind of charitable shorthand.

Naturally there are plenty of deflected goals which the defender (or in some cases attacker) knows nothing about. These seem to be purely luck – but they raise one of the thorniest questions of all. Do teams ‘make their own luck’? If you’re attacking, and you’re shooting at goal, there’s always the chance it’ll deflect in your favor. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t etc. etc. Here we can go back to the case when the ball hits the woodwork.  What happens next? Will it bounce to an attacker or defender, and is that luck or intelligent positioning? If the attacking team get more men in the area – as we’re always urging them to do – the odds are more in their favour. As with deflected goals, we can, if we wish, say ‘you make your own luck’.

There’s no right answer for this. It’s a matter of perspective, just like ‘luck or risk’. But again, it probably matters which angle we take, because it influences the way we feel about and judge the game.

To conclude for the moment, let’s go whole hog and talk about overall performance. The other day Karl Darlow of Newcastle United was in great form to deny Stoke City and 1) help the Magpies to a 1-0 victory; 2) give us all a good laugh at Mark Hughes’s expense. The Potters can be said to have been ‘unlucky’ that Darlow had a blinder.

So far, so good. But once you start down that road, you get lost very quickly. Every player is going to be in good or bad form, or somewhere in between, on a particular day, and the opponent has no effect on that. Oh yes, you can put the other guys under a lot more pressure, and as we often say, ‘force’ mistakes, but you can’t control exactly how the opponent is going to react. He may be in superb form, and shrug off the pressure, or in awful form, and gift you a goal. You’re not actually ‘forcing’ anything, you’re simply making an outcome more likely.

But in that case, everything your opponents do is in some way luck. In that Carabao Cup match, Bristol City were lucky that Manchester United played poorly, so maybe José had it right after all. But I’m not sure we really want to go that far. We want to say that one team played better and deserved the win – and oops, we’re back to that again.

No answers here, just more questions, and ideas for discussion. But, as suggested above, to some degree it matters where you come down on these things. True, all the predictable and unpredictable things are still going to happen on the pitch, no matter what we call them. The game is the game. But it’s our game, and the words we use make the game what it is, for us.

So next time Maya Yoshida comes in arms high, choose the words that suit you best. Because that, at least, won’t just be luck.

Peter Goldstein


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