12 March ~ Arsenal's defeat to Barcelona this week threw up a newsworthy statistic. They became the only team to have played a Champions League match without having a shot on goal since 2003, when OPTA started measuring these things. To put that into some context, Barcelona managed 17 shots, 12 of which were on target. Despite their attacking impotence, Arsenal would probably be joining Spurs in the quarter-finals if they had a more competent back-up striker than Nicklas Bendtner. While statistics can be intriguing, they rarely tell the story of a game.
The likes of OPTA tend to happen upon some quirky facts – who knew that Everton are the only Premier League team that have not been awarded a penalty this season? But fans and managers tend eschew bare statistics for a more intuitive reading of the game. Most fans I come across aren't that concerned by analysing the tactics of a game. I've never overheard someone at a match say: "I don't think we'll win today. They're playing a 4-3-3 formation with a false number 9, which should work well against our 4-2-3-1 system with inside out wingers." Fans are more likely to bemoan their winger's inability to play well in the rain.
Despite the increased use of statistics and tactical analysis in the media, most football fans have their own unique way of explaining the outcome of a match. I was at Craven Cottage for Blackburn's visit to Fulham last Saturday. In the queue for the toilet before the game I noticed a man who kept giving up his space in the line. Not wanting to abuse his generosity, I stood back to let him take his place at the urinal. He duly explained that he was biding his time on purpose. Apparently Fulham don't win unless he goes in the same place every week. A voice from further up the line wondered what happened to his aim during the first half of the season, but the man continued to wait diligently until his spot became available. In fairness to him, Fulham won 3-2 with a most unlikely last-minute penalty.
I witnessed another bizarre display of causality in football the week before, during Man Utd's game with Chelsea. I watched the game in the pub with a United fan who thinks his team plays badly while he's watching. He was happy enough to sit down and enjoy the first half, in which United took a 1-0 lead. But when Chelsea equalised and then stole a 2-1 lead in the second half he became increasingly jittery, leaving his seat for little walks to the bar and toilet. He even went outside the pub for the past few minutes in the hope that he would return to see Alex Ferguson gloat his way through a post-match press conference. Despite his evident dedication to the cause, the score remained unchanged and he was greeted with Sir Alex moaning about the referee.
These examples might be a bit extreme, but even when armed with facts, fans tend to mangle them into fairly fanciful conclusions. On hearing that his team were playing against a side that had won their past four games, a friend of mine claimed that this was a good thing. It is very unusual for a team to win five games in a row, he said. This was the perfect time to play them as they were "due a bad result". The argument is an appealing one, but seems to lead to the conclusion that you're better off playing a team who have won all their recent games than a team who have lost them all. But surely you're in with more of a chance against a team that loses a lot (like Blackpool) over a team that wins a lot (like Barcelona).
While I can see through a few of the arguments fans use to explain success, I do have my own personal foible. It seems to me that one team can only win so many matches; no matter how good they are, every team has to lose at least some games. That logic has helped me understand that not every defeat is a bad thing. In fact, some defeats can be useful as, by the law of averages, they give you more of a chance of winning other games. Of course, none of this makes much sense, but it helps you feel better after you've lost a game.
My team, Man Utd, will play about 12 more games this season, give or take a few Cup ties. Given their general form and ability they'll probably lose at least three of these. Armed with this information, I approach every match knowing that a defeat might not be as bad as first thought – it might go some way to using up our defeat quota for the season. Today's game with Arsenal is one of the few that I wouldn't mind losing. Obviously a victory would be nice, but I'd rather sacrifice a win today and free up a win for the league meeting between the teams in a few weeks time. Winning a 19th Championship means more to me than a 12th FA Cup.
Of course, my theory could be rubbish. Maybe there's no such thing as a victory quota. After all, the gods of football lost track of their numbers not so long ago during an FA Cup tie between United and Arsenal. Patrick Vieira gave Ryan Giggs the ball and all sense of apportion, logic or fairness went out the window. Paul Campbell