Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Luck in Football: A Philosophical Analysis

The frustration of Liverpool fans at watching our team dominate match after match this season, and yet repeatedly come away without victory, is probably matched only by the irritation of those who have had to listen to us bemoan our ‘bad luck’. It is hard not to feel jinxed when you consider that Liverpool have hit the woodwork 21 times already this year (count how often the commentator uses the word “unlucky” in this video) and the slew of astonishing saves opposition goalkeepers have made in stoppage time at Anfield alone. Yet as Gregg Roughley remarked on the back of a disappointing defeat to Arsenal, “it’s got to the stage now with Liverpool that you can no longer say that they’ve been unlucky in every game that they don’t score one of many chances that they create”. Indeed, there is increasingly a lack of sympathy for Liverpool: talkSPORT magazine is typical in denouncing as “absolute rubbish” the notion that Liverpool are unlucky not to be higher up the table.

Both sides of the debate seem pretty sure of themselves, but it is far from clear what they are even talking about. The idea of luck is one that most of us feel we have a clear intuitive grasp of, but which, like so many other concepts, begins to disintegrate under philosophical scrutiny. If we are to make sense of a claim like ‘Liverpool have been unlucky this season’, we first need to understand what it means for a football team to be lucky.

A minimal definition of luck contrasts it with things that we cannot control, or are not responsible for (these need not mean the same thing, but can probably be taken as equivalent for our purposes here). Thomas Nagel helpfully distinguishes four types of luck: antecedent causal luck, constitutive luck, circumstantial luck and resultant luck. Not all of these are equally relevant from the football fans perspective.

The first form of luck – antecedent causal luck - is the most pervasive, but also probably the least commonly observed. This is based on the determinist claim that because of inevitable causal connections and natural laws, that the world cannot be otherwise than it is. If everything is inevitable, then it is argued that it is beyond, say, Luis Suarez’s control whether he scores or misses, and so it is merely a matter of luck. His success or failure depends on a complicated mix of genetic capacities, inherited and developed psychological traits, laws of physics etc., none of which he can do anything to influence. However, this conception of luck is unhelpful as it suggests that everything is a matter of luck. ‘Unlucky defeat’ is a tautology on this view, since all defeats are due to factors beyond the control of the participants, and so all defeats are unlucky. Yet this is clearly not the everyday use of the term.

Constitutive luck is used to refer to our good or bad fortune in terms of our characteristics e.g. intelligence, physical fitness etc. Nagel describes it as “”the kind of person you are…your inclinations, capacities and temperament”. For a football club like Liverpool, the analogous idea might be the team’s location, fan base or owners. Thus in terms of constitutive luck, Liverpool fans might be considered very lucky indeed, supporting a team with the objective background conditions conducive to success, including a big name, supportive owners willing to invest large sums of money, and a quality team. Again, though, this is an unusual sense of luck that clearly doesn’t capture the meaning of Roughley, talkSPORT and the rest.

Circumstantial luck will be more familiar to football fans. This is luck in “the kind of problems and situations one faces”. So, for example, this might cover things like weather or pitch conditions (whether you face Stoke on a benign summer afternoon, or he infamous wet Tuesday night). Perhaps more significant is circumstantial luck in terms of the opposition you play, and how well they perform. Consider the fact that Liverpool have played Arsenal twice this season. The first time, in August, Arsenal had suffered a number of injuries, and were just about to be pummelled 8-2 by Manchester United. Earlier this month, they had the momentum of a rousing 5-2 victory against Spurs. We played much better in the more recent match; yet we one the first and lost the second. This, I think, would be recognised as luck by most football fans, though it is rarely discussed. It could be that these things ‘even out’, but it is also possible that some teams have to contend with more in-form teams raising their game.

Finally, there is resultant luck: luck “in the way things turn out”. This is used to describe occasions where basically the same action has different consequences. Nagel’s example is of a reckless driver whose actions are much more significant if a child runs in front of their car. Things like deflections, or uneven bounces and ricochets, what is often called ‘the run of the ball’ will come under this. So will incidents like speculative shots, where a player connects well with then ball, and hopes that their shot is accurate enough.

However, to treat all resultant luck alike is to miss something important. Commentators often respond to flukey goals with the observation that “If you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win the lottery”. In other words, people deserve credit for the success of calculated gambles. This intuition is recognised by philosophers in the distinction between brute and option luck. Ronald Dworkin argues that option luck – “whether someone gains or loses through accepting an isolated risk he or she should have anticipated and might have declined” – is morally unproblematic, unlike other forms of luck. Brute luck comprises the various forms of uncertainty that we do not have any control over. Winning the lottery is a form of option luck, while inheriting a large sum of money is brute luck. I think most people would recognise that there is a relevant difference between brute luck and option luck in football, between sheer randomness and calculated risks paying off.

Yet as Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen observes, the dividing line between brute and option luck is not always a clear one: there are often cases when we have no sure bets, and are forced to choose between different risky alternatives. For example, a footballer may find himself in a situation where he is one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He could try to to chip the goalkeeper, with x% chance of success; try to shoot under their body, with y% probability of scoring; or try to take the ball around them, with z% success rate. To treat any outcome as option luck ignores the fact that there is no choice but to gamble. Lippert-Rasmussen argues that “we should often think of a given piece of luck as a mixture of brute luck and option luck where the exact mixture depends on the extent to which one could influence the expected value of the outcome of one's choice”.

With this caveat, I think the best account of luck in football is the difference between the actual success of a team, and the outcome you would expect given their performance – their tactics, effort, decisions etc. A team is lucky if it does better than its expected outcome, and is unlucky if it does worse. The notion of ‘expected outcome’ might still be a bit vague, but I think it is intuitively captured by the idea of ‘playing the percentages’ – you are unlucky to the extent that you play the percentages and lose.

If this definition of luck is a good one, then it means that the concept is often invoked inappropriately. I don’t think there is anything unlucky about a team dominating possession or territory, but failing to win (As Spurs did against Man Utd, or as United themselves did against Liverpool). This means that they have failed to create chances, which obviously lower. the outcome they can expect. Similarly, creating a lot of chances and failing to convert them is often not unlucky – it simply demonstrates poor finishing. The winning teams in such games certainly enjoy circumstantial luck, in that giving away many chances usually spells defeat – but there can be no such excuse for the losers.

It should be clear, though, that it is very hard to differentiate bad finishing from bad luck. Striking the woodwork usually means doing everything almost perfectly. But striking the woodwork as often as Liverpool have done suggests a more fundamental problem with the team. The arguments will doubtless rage on, because we will never know enough to know who is truly unlucky,

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