On Randomness: Schminjury-Prone Players and Schmental Strength


A new season. A strong squad. Is there any chance we can stay calm and positive for a few weeks while we watch this team click into gear? No?! I thought not.

This blog is about randomness: Randomness of injuries and randomness of results. But mostly it’s about the fact that we, the supporters, completely ignore randomness and instead embark on crusades and witch hunts in equal measure. When all along, the true villain, or saint was randomness. OK. Let’s start with injuries

Injury-Prone. This term is one of my biggest pet peeves. I once played football. I was once regarded as injury-prone. And then I wasn’t.

A Personal Encounter with Randomness

A true story for you. When I was 19, I joined a footie team called Sciroccos FC, in the United Churches League in Dublin. I was a winger. In my first game, the referee blew the whistle to start the game. I immediately ran up the pitch straight towards the goalkeeper to close him down on a back-pass and as I approached him I slipped on a puddle of mud and twisted my ankle. Ligament damage. In a cast and on crutches for 3+ months. I must have played for my new team for a total of 8 seconds.

My brother, who would have been 27 at the time, was the Captain of the team, and he had been telling every one on the team that I was a really good player. They had never seen me play. This was the only thing any of my new team mates had seen me do in a football game. 8 seconds of ignominy.

After my brother got over the humiliation I had inflicted upon him, it became one of his favourite funny stories. It still is. Trust me.

Last Christmas I was watching a football game on TV with 20 family and friends in Dublin, and the commentator talks about the record for the quickest goal scored in a such-and-such tie. My brother launches into: “Sure that’s nothing. Fastest goal? Anyone can stick a ball in the net in a few seconds. But your uncle Paul. Now there was a footballer. Your Uncle Paul holds the world record in all footballing competitions for being the fastest player to inflict an injury on himself from the start of a game – unaided. Your uncle Paul, yes, he was special”

Now, may I re-emphasise, that story is all true. I think you can begin to see why injury-prone and randomness are burned into my consciousness. This is personal.

Still, as I used to say in my dating days, that’s enough about me…

Injury-Prone Arsenal??

So I looked at the 2 seasons 2010/11 and 2011/12 to examine Arsenal’s injury records.

We have a very high injury rate. Correct?

A Documentary on Arsenal’s Mid-Season Injury Crises…

And we have a number of injury-prone players. Correct?

I have heard the following players described as injury-prone at one stage or another: Diaby, Rosicky, van Persie, Kieran Gibbs, Walcott and even Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna now. Jack Wilshere was prophesied by many this summer as possibly having played his last professional football match. I’m not hearing those predictions any more.

We throw this term around liberally: injury-prone.

Can a player be injury-prone? I humbly submit that it is not nearly so common-place or so big a factor as we believe it to be.

And then we have associated theories: like if a player is injured, then he is much more likely to pick up new injuries as they recover to which I am sure there is plenty of truth.

Meanwhile, the formerly non injury-prone players are free to run around picking up injuries free from labels. Bacary Sagna was titanium before last season. Ramsey was robust before and after his injury but written off by some during it. Mikel Arteta injury-prone? Depends who you ask. He was for a while at Everton, now he isn’t.

Etc. Etc. Lots of theories and opinions, but if the players were part of a blind experiment where all we knew about them was a letter for their name and their number of injuries, how would we be able to differentiate from a cruel and vindictive God (is there any other kind?) handing out injuries randomly and the actual injuries collected by a squad of players which included a number of our commonly agreed injury-prone players.

Here are the injuries for the 2 seasons I mentioned: 2010/11 and 2011/12. There were 30 injuries of more than 2 weeks incurred over the 2 seasons by the following 14 players.

The quiz? Match the players to the injuries accrued.

Player # Injuries

A

1

B

1

C

2

D

4

E

0

F

3

G

2

H

0

I

5

J

2

K

3

L

4

M

2

N

1

Here are the list of players:

Robin van Persie
Abou Diaby
Alex Song
Tomas Rosicky
Tomas Vermaelen
Bacary Sagna
Laurent Koscielny
Andrey Arshavin
Theo Walcott
Johann Djourou
Kieran Gibbs
Marouane Chamakh
Wojciech Szczęsny
Lukasz Fabianski

So, guess who were the 3 most injury prone players? Did you guess Diaby, Gibbs, and Vermaelen? Well maybe they were and maybe they weren’t.

OK. A confession: This is actually a list generated by a random number generator. In fact it was this Random Number Generator: http://stattrek.com/statistics/random-number-generator.aspx This computer program randomly decided that Player “E” and “H” are built of titanium while deciding Player “I”, “D” and “L” are heavily injury-prone.

Now, as you regard yourself as being a fully logical and rational thinker, you will accept the basic randomness point I am making. But, as you are human you will now have a tendency to say: “But, come one. Look at Diaby. We know he is fragile. We know his body is unbalanced. We know that he will struggle as he recovers. In fact, he picked up another knock this week.”

And that is exactly what happened this week. The Diaby Doomers jumped off the Cliffs of Abou.

I guess what I’m saying is that there is no doubt Deadwood Diaby has some fragility issues he is working on and he will have some additional recovery vulnerabilities. But he has done a ton of gym work and it is very probable he is going to be all alright. The vindictive injury God will probably start picking on someone else soon. So, chillax, dudes.

Oh and by the way, in a recent online poll, Diaby was voted the fans’ 3rd most popular pick to dump this summer, after Squillaci and Chamakh.

Again, is there some injury-proneness? Sure. It looks highly probable there is “some.” Perhaps in his case there is a lot. But perhaps he has mostly been exceedingly unlucky. In general, I suspect with most of our “injury-prone players” eg van Persie of old, it is mostly randomness. Watch van Persie coast through the rest of his career unscathed. Unless Vermaelen grows a 3rd leg with a dodgy Achilles, he’ll be fine too. Cesc’s hammies seem fine these days. Watch Kieran Gibbs and Rosicky and Walcott sail through their seasons.

Or maybe they won’t. Welcome to randomness.

For the record, I am confident I won’t be able to disavow you of your addiction to ascribing the attribute of injury-proneness where there is none (or not much.) It is human nature. We look for patterns so that we can solve problems, and so we can create order where there seems only to be chaos. That allows us to protect ourselves, to sleep at night and to try to ensure our future safety as we fight off lions and tigers and snakes and tarantulas while ravaging women from the neighbouring tribes. Aah, the good old days.

We believe randomness only when it agrees with our beliefs about the players in question. Diaby injury = injury-prone. Alex Song injury = a random act.

What should we all do about this? Allow for the fact that randomness is a far greater factor than we have done. And chillax. Deadwood Diaby, Jackie W, Kieran Gibbs…it’s going to be OK.

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At the Friday Presser Before the Big Game:

John Cross: How is the letter “H” doing in his recovery?

Arsene: It is coming along well. It is now training with the ball. I expect it to have made a full recovery within a month and to be back in the team with all the other letters.

John Cross: What do the medical staff think the likelihood of a recurrence of the injury to the letter “H” might be?

Arsene: It’s a randomly generated series of events from a random number generator, John.

John Cross: Yes, but do you think, due to the injury-prone history of the letter “H”…

Arsene: John, the Letter “H” is just a place-holder for the sequence of events

John Cross: That’s a little harsh isn’t it, Arsene? Place-holder?

Ollie Holt: Arsene, are you in the market for a backup to the Letter “H” given his past problems with injury. Is there any truth you are in for the letter “Ц” from Zenit St Petersburg?

Matt Law: What about the story that the letter “Ψ” from Panathinaikos turned Arsenal down over the summer

Ollie Holt: Any truth to the rumour that the letter “P” has gone silent on you?

Matt Law: Have you thought about playing a team made up only of consonants to stump the competition?

Arsene: Listen, you idiots, the letters are all just placeholders for a random event generator.

John Cross: Ohhh! Now he’s called them ALL placeholders.

Matt Law: Ooooh. Lah Dee Dah., Arsene. Listen to you with your random events generator.

Ollie Holt. Like todally random, dude. Hehehehe.

Arsene: We are done for the day. You can all go and Letter “F” yourselves.

Mental Strength and the Run of Wins

Here is another brief example of us ascribing meaning where there may be little or none. Last year, in a season of approx 60 games in total, we got super-excited when the team went on a run of 7 victories. We ascribed all sorts of human virtues to it. Mental toughness, confidence, leadership, Divine Providence. You name it. It got the credit.

Last season we ended up: P 38 W 21 D 7 L10. Over the last few seasons we have had approximately double the number of wins to either draws or loss. I used this approximation for the next random result generation…

So, I fired up the Orgasmatron a 2nd time to generate another stream of random results. Here is my first run I did of 60 random game results for Arsenal where a win is weighted as twice as likely to occur as a draw or loss (ie a typical Arsenal season):

The output was: wwwwwwldwddwddlwdwdlwwwdddlwdwlwllwlwlwwddlwwldwllllwldwwwd

Isn’t this beautiful. I couldn’t have asked for a better random output for this discussion. It starts our imaginary season with 6 wins. Thank you, God. Can you imagine what theories we would have dreamed up. The Bould factor, Wenger finds God, the shit pre-season was the perfect preparation. Blah, blah, blah. The 6 wins ends by a loss. That is not quite as impressive as our 7 game run in 2011/12 but pretty close. Now, I would not deny that the human/team factors do play big role: A full squad, good tactics, confidence all play a big role etc, etc.

But where is the harm if we get over-excited about a good run of results. Obviously, the flip-side of the coin is that we have these mid-season meltowns after a run of bad results where we go on a witch hunt. But if instead of burning and drowning all those witches, we had just stayed home and relied on the universal and proven solution to all crises, a nice cuppah, the problem would have fixed itself anyway. After we got trounced 8-2 by United last year, I am on record as confidently announcing 2 things 1. We would go on a long winning run at some stage during the season 2. We would rip a good team a new one very soon. (That team turned out to be Chelsea, not that I could have known that.)

I also predicted 1 other thing. We would make the Top 4.

Now, how did I so confidently predict these things when the Gooner World was teetering on the precipice? I paid attention in Statistics and Probability Class. And then I remembered to apply it in real life when things looked bleakest. Oh, and I bet on Arsene. He is 15 out of 15 after all.

What about this season? We are currently on a run of 3 games unbeaten with clean sheets. We have hailed a new dawn in defending. Vermaelen, Jenkinson and others have waxed lyrical on all the work that has gone into our defensive preparations. That’s nice.

However, it is just as well LFC never tucked away any of their chances or that the ref didn’t give LFC either of the penalty shouts when Per got himself in a couple of pickles. Remember the Sunderland game when James McLean ripped through our Center Backs in the early minutes, and yet unlike almost every similar opportunity at the tail end of last year eg Wigan, Norwich and WBA, the attacker missed the net.

Randomness. Sometimes, it’s your best friend. Sometimes it bites you in the ass.

Long may our unbeaten and clean-sheets run last. But please, no meltdowns either way for a while, eh?!

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At the Presser after the loss in the 6th game of the Random Result Season:

John Cross: Arsene, do you believe the loss last weekend shows that this team has yet to attain a winning mentality.

Arsene: John, this was another randomly generated series of results

Ollie Holt: Yes, but Arsene, do you think it speaks to the random results’ lack of mental strength. In short, did the random result generator just “bottle it” on Saturday.

Arsene: Oh, sweet Jesus.

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Note: And finally, don’t get me started on the most random thing of all in the game of football. Own Goals.