The curious case of football’s ‘we deserved to win’ obsession

Matt Stead

Here’s a perfectly ordinary quote from an ordinary match report on an ordinary match that took place this weekend:

‘Palace had not mustered a goal on their travels in this campaign but they were worthy winners here, showing a zest and sharpness that was strangely absent from Leicester.’

Here are two more about the same match:

‘Leicester manager Claude Puel admitted that Palace deserved the win that took them out of the bottom three.’

‘Eventually, Palace got the goal they deserved and were threatening for the first 18 minutes.’

And here’s a comment from one of the players in the match:

‘I think today’s win shows we are in a good shape and this afternoon gave a focused performance and we really deserved the three points.’

There’s nothing at all remarkable about any of these, which is what actually makes them so remarkable. It’s one of the strangest phenomena in all of sports: people judging whether a football team deserved a particular outcome.

We’re so used to this that we never give it a second thought. But a few moments thinking will reveal how bizarre it is. You’d think that if both teams played by the rules, and the officials enforced them fairly, the team that finished ahead would deserve the win. If the teams finished level, they’d both deserve the draw. It’s really that simple.

But we don’t like this very much, particularly when it comes to football. So almost every game will produce at least one match report, quote, or fan response that assigns some form of worthiness. Southampton were ‘good value’ for their win; Stoke were ‘unlucky’ not to level; Newcastle ‘were well worth their point.’ And so on. The quotes in this article are directly lifted from the Web. They all illustrate the same, simple fact: we can’t watch football without referring to some higher standard of justice.

So the question is: Why?

One answer is that we want to reward a good performance, particularly when a side is battling the odds. If Brighton go to Old Trafford and give it their all, and still come up empty, we’ll say they deserved better than a 1-0 loss. At the same time, we don’t want to praise a team that didn’t play very well, and if it’s our team, we want to show our displeasure. Hence ‘José Mourinho admits Brighton deserved more against Manchester United.’

This example speaks to the great gulf in talent between the top sides and the rest. We know the playing field falls well short of level, and since the top teams are going to win most of their games anyway, we try to redress the injustice by assigning worthiness. When Raheem Sterling scored a late, late winner against Bournemouth, a Cherries blogger wrote ‘Against Man City I felt we didn’t deserve to lose, obviously City dominated possession but that’s expected with the players they’ve got.’

But it goes the other way too. Sometimes we don’t want to admit that the system is unfair, and so decide that the rolling-in-the-dough side were worth the result. As Alexander Pope wrote a few hundred years ago, ‘Whatever is, is right.’ Or, in the words of a contemporary football journalist, ‘It was a sensational end to a pulsating sunshine match Sterling and co deserved to win, even though brave battling Bournemouth pushed them all the way.’

Even when the sides are relatively evenly matched, we feel the need to pass judgment. Sometimes it’s defensiveness, as in this remark early in the season from the local rag: ‘Stoke were well worth their point at The Hawthorns, Peter Crouch pouncing on a defensive mix-up to equalise Jay Rodriguez’s opener for the hosts.’ Yes, a defensive mix-up led to the goal, but we know Stoke deserved it anyway.

The players and coaches will naturally mix in some pride. In a national newspaper article which first mentions the dodgy refereeing in Watford-Huddersfield, we find ‘David Wagner, whose side had not scored an away goal since their opening day victory at Selhurst Park, believes Huddersfield were worthy winners.’ Wagner then comments: “We scored wonderful goals and had further great opportunities.” We also scored a goal which was offside twice, which is hard to pull off – but to be fair, Laurent Depoitre’s strike was pretty good, if not actually wonderful.

Players will also be keen to point out how well they played despite the result. After Southampton lost 0-1 to Manchester United, we heard this from Shane Long: “I thought we deserved more from the game. To limit them to one goal was a credit to our team, but it was just a shame we couldn’t get that equaliser at the other end. There were a lot of chances, but things didn’t seem to fall for us.”

There’s a great irony here. Due to the statistics revolution, we actually have a tool that tells us roughly how well a team performed, regardless of the scoreline – it’s called expected goals. If not the final court of appeal, it should surely be a useful guide, handy when we need to make the all-important judgement.

In fact, it’s the exact opposite. When Man City defeated Arsenal 3-1, Arsene Wenger commented: “If you look at the expected goals, it was 0.7 for them and 0.6 for us, it was a very tight game, they created very little, had very little number of shots on target, one more than us, that’s all.”

That’s merely a more precise version of what Shane Long had to say. But no-one said anything about Long, while Wenger was universally pilloried, by a few for getting the xG numbers wrong, but by most for resorting to the numbers at all.

Which goes to show that we don’t really want justice – we want emotional satisfaction. And that’s fine. Because emotions are what football is there for. And because deep down we know that football, (cliché warning) like life, isn’t fair. And we want it very much to be fair, especially since we invest so much of our time and our feelings, and in some cases our careers, in the results.

So I’m all for ‘well worth’ and ‘deserve.’ Even when Mark Hughes says it. A couple of weeks ago, after losing on a late goal to Burnley: “Clearly it wasn’t the result we wanted and it wasn’t the result we deserved in all honesty. I thought our guys were magnificent in terms of standing up to the challenge.”

Attaboy, Sparky. It’ll be just as current in your next job.

Peter Goldstein