Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?

We like underdogs – especially in football

stick_figure_soccer_practice_500_wht_6086As a supporter of a team trying to make its way in the Premier League for the third time of asking I know what it’s like.

Burnley FC is the only English-owned club in the division and the great majority of its team is English. It’s also one of the founder members of the Football League and from one of the smallest towns to support a club at this level.

We lost our first game at home after the inept referee missed shirt tugging in the box and didn’t give us a penalty – a fate we suffered in previous outings at this level.

In our second game last week we played the once mighty Liverpool. (Which is possibly about to become the richest club in the division as a Chinese company is interested in buying them from their current American owners).

On Friday in the Times sports section there was a lengthy article eulogising Jurgen Klopp’s approach.  Headed “Flooding the box and the right fuel to get Liverpool firing” it described Liverpool as the highest goal scorers in the Premier League in 2016 (45 in 16 matches after only managing 22 in their previous 20 games).

The writer put it down to Klopp’s strategy of getting players into the opposition box. Adam Lallana said “The manager says a sign of a good game is having a lot of men in the box. That’s how he wants us to play. It’s attacking football but as long as we get our protection right behind that, then why not? You’ve got more chance of scoring goals”.

Isn’t that too obvious?

Klopp also likes to work his players using drills to get all the outfield players involved e.g. Couthino scoring against Arsenal after 19 passes. (I think I saw Chelsea do that a couple of seasons ago too). So the players have to practise outmanoeuvring opponents and breaking down defences so that strikers can get onto the final ball in the box..

Sounds like common sense to me.

Their tactical coach Pep Ljinders says it’s all about tactical patterns “which give the individuals stability in an unpredictable game

That sounds like football managementspeak (the worst kind)!

Also Klopp is not relying on Sturridge all the time either. (After his pathetic Euro16 performance why would he you might ask?) But Klopp welcomed him back into the team after another injury and said “Of course he is an option when he is fit” – exactly.

And of course you are what you eat in sport these days. Arsene Wenger often gets the credit for revolutionising players’ diets but every professional club now takes notice of nutritionists and sport scientists.

Liverpool have the nutritionist from Bayern Munich who with the fitness coach helped Liverpool to outrun Arsenal with a Premier League record for distance covered (117.6km). As Lindjers said “if we win the fitness we win everything

Well not quite!

You might have expected Burnley to turn up expecting a thrashing. After all they haven’t beaten Liverpool for 42 years and have lost all their previous premiership games against them.

Sean Dyche and the team had different ideas however. Two first half goals by their striking partnership of Andre Grey and Sam Voakes put the cat among the pigeons.

Liverpool huffed and puffed; their star players tried to score from distance because they couldn’t outmanoeuvre the Burnley defence. They had 26 shots on goal and a dozen corners but couldn’t score. Burnley had 1 corner and 3 shots on goal and two hit the back of the net. End result Burnley 2, Liverpool 0.

Statistically Burnley only had 19% possession, the lowest ever for a winning team in the Premier League. But they outran Liverpool (115.3 km to 113 km) and George Boyd ran more than anyone else and made more completed tackles.

And for all the international players that Liverpool paraded – and credit to Burnley’s new signing from Anderlecht Steven Defour for the assist on the second goal – they couldn’t score.

And all the England players reminded us of how rubbish they were in the Euro16 competition.

It won’t be like this every week but doesn’t it feel good when the unsung underdog puts one over on supposedly superior opposition.

And as for the Times sports writer I don’t expect a glowing piece about a small team in Lancashire anytime soon.

And if you’re into stats here are some you might find interesting:

  • Burnley won their first league game against Liverpool since September 1974, having gone seven without a win since then.
  • Sam Vokes became the first Burnley player to score a league goal against Liverpool at Turf Moor since Ray Hankin in March 1975 – they had failed in six games since then.
  • Burnley scored more in this game than they managed in seven previous home Premier League games.
  • Vokes scored his first Premier League goal in his 28th appearance in it.
  • Liverpool have only kept one clean sheet in their past 11 away Premier League games (6-0 v Aston Villa).
  • Since Jurgen Klopp took over, only Aston Villa (12) and West Ham (10) have had more errors leading to goals in the Premier League than Liverpool (nine).

Against all odds – town celebrates Premier status


Today a small town in the old industrial heartland of Lancashire celebrated its football team, the “Clarets” achieving promotion to the Premier League. Burnley turned out in force to watch the civic reception and celebration parade.


P1020167P1020174The bookies had Burnley one of the favourites to be relegated so it was really against all odds with the smallest squad in the division and having bought only one player and one loan signing all season.

They also had the meanest defence in the division and a year-long record of being undefeated at Turf Moor.

And die-hard fans will also savour the fact that Burnley beat arch-rivals Blackburn Rovers for the first time in 35 years (having been robbed last year by an off-side equaliser).

So not only do Burnley have the bragging rights but ascendancy over Blackburn who failed to make the play-offs and a chance to return to the Premier League.

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Football analytics; the way to go?

stick_figure_soccer_icon_1600_wht_3623If you are a football fan you will probably have heard of Prozone and Opta, two of  the systems that analyse games for managers and tell you how far players have run, shots on target etc.

Manchester City apparently employs 10 analysts to do this stuff and Chelsea has 32 million “player actions” based on over 13,000 games in its database according to a report by Rory Smith in The Times.

The interesting statistic he emphasised in his piece was on when to make a substitution. Brett Myers, an ex-pro footballer from America, now an Assistant Professor at a business school in Pennsylvania, has come up with a theory.

He says if your team is losing at half-time you must make your substitution before the 59th minute. If you are still losing make another before the 73rd minute and if that doesn’t change things your final one in the 79th minute.

Following this  58-73-79 rule gives your team a 40-45% chance of success compared to only 18-22% if you don’t. In other words it doubles the odds from 1 in 5 to 2 in 5.

Sporting cheats prosper

Football fans have got used to the cheating and wheeler dealing that goes on, particularly in the Premier League where the stakes are high. The owners know we love our football and will put up with pretty much anything as long as we can follow our teams.

A prime example was West Ham’s breach of the regulations about declaring 3rd party ownerships which enabled Tevez to play for them and arguably save them from relegation at the expense of, among others, Sheffield United.

OK, they were fined and Sheffield United won some compensation but West Ham didn’t get points deducted and stayed in the Premier League (for how much longer remains to be seen).

QPR, poised for promotion to the Premier League, may yet have points deducted by the FA for having a player owned by a 3rd party. Their manager, Neil Warnock, was manager at Sheffield United when they were relegated and he still blames West Ham for that. Seems football managers don’t do irony!

Challenges like Rooney’s recent transgression or penalties missed by the referees are manifestly unfair when players who should have been punished go on to contribute to winning a game.

(Not to mention the rules which prevent retrospective action in case it upsets the referees and managers – some of whom follow Nelson’s blind eye example and never see anything).

And in the recent Grand National Jason Maguire, rider of the winner Ballabriggs, was banned for excessive use of the whip. If he so clearly broke the rules why wasn’t he disqualified and the race awarded to the second placed horse?

Officials at Towcester race course announced their intention to ban jockeys using whips behind the saddle from October as they believe that the public think it’s cruel (especially after the Grand National). In addition Kevin Ackerman, the course’s general manager, wants to disqualify jockeys who break the rules. He says that because jockeys are racing for  hundreds of thousands of pounds a ban isn’t a deterrent.

It will probably come as no surprise that the British Horseracing Authority and the National Trainers Federation criticised the idea arguing that they can’t have different rules at different race courses and that they are already having a review. (Updated 23 April 2011)

It seems there are no penalties for these cheats who break the rules. They get away with it and reap the rewards. Hardly fair and doesn’t it leave a nasty taste in your mouth too?

Updated 26 May 2011: FIFA, FIFA & FIFA. Need I say more!

I forgot to mention Formula 1 and Bernie Ecclestone’s fiefdom the FIA. Lewis Hamilton’s MacClaren team have been hit by the “spy-gate” and “liar-gate” scandals and fined over $100m. Renault has been in trouble as well. It seems drivers readily lie, and deliberately crash into other cars – because championship points and big money are at stake.

Updated 16 June 2011: Horse racing must be the only so-called sport where you can be disqualified and still win! At Ascot yesterday Frankie Dettori flagrantly breached the rules by using his whip 24 times over 2 furlongs (if the horse was galloping at 30 mph that means he hit it 24 times in about the 30 seconds it would take to cover 1/4 mile ie 2 furlongs).

The stewards banned him for 9 days (the Grand National jockey was banned for 5  for a similar offence). Leaving aside the question of cruelty to the horse, if he broke the rules and was disqualified why did the win stand? 

Updated 26 June 2010:  Good to see one or two letters in press making same point as me about jockeys who cheat. Also yesterday a great piece by Simon Barnes, Chief Sports writer in The Times; “Changing face of cheating: a handy review”.

It’s 25 years since the “Hand of God” goal by Maradona which ended our 1986 World Cup run. But not that long ago since Thierry Henry hand-balled a goal against Ireland that saw France qualify for the World Cup finals last year.

We forget that Michael Owen dived to get a penalty against Argentina in 1998. Barnes doesn’t think Michael Owen cheated but of course he did but we probably think it was pay-back for Maradona’s goal.

Barnes covers a whole range of sports where cheating is rife. Some I’ve already mentioned but he includes missed dope tests (Rio, you know where you were, and Christine, a woman who doesn’t keep a diary?), cricket (but who cares any more when we know teams are swayed by betting syndicates), and Rugby (fake blood) and more dangerously deliberate car crashes in motor racing.

It’s worth a read to understand how our views on cheating have changed over time and how it varies from sport to sport.

We should add tennis to the list. Female tennis players who grunt when they serve do it to un-nerve their opponents and mask the impact of the ball on the racket.

Monica Seles started it but Sharapova has been recorded at 100 decibels which is way over the levels allowed in the workplace. Maybe they should do a risk assessment and provide ear muffs for spectators?

Top ranking Caroline Wozniacki has complained and said players who don’t grunt in training then do it in the match are effectively cheating.

Azarenka, the Belorussian, who has the longest drawn out one, is unrepentant and says it’s normal and no-one else’s business.

However the WTA says it will educate young players in the perils of grunting.