Against Scoreboard Journalism

Against Scoreboard Journalism

Argentina v Brazil line up before kick off. World Cup 1978 in el Gigante © Revista El Gráfico

I love the term ‘scoreboard journalism’. It was originated by the then AZ Alkmaar head coach Co Adriaanse in 2003 and it describes the classic fan and journalists’ tendency to take a result and extrapolate a performance from the scoreline.

If you do that then you’ll never know the game and never understand what gets called ‘the hidden game of football’, what is really happening.

You’ll come to all sorts of wrong-headed conclusions and make really bad long term predictions – just like most journalists, most fans and most punters do.

Why Scoreboard Journalism? The Background.

As Simon Gleave explains in his excellent blog of the same name (Scoreboard Journalism) the term Scoreboard Journalism was born of two specific games played by Eredivisie side AZ, that had markedly different outcomes.

As the site’s creator explains:

“Scoreboard journalism referred to an Eredivisie match in November 2003 which AZ lost 5-1 at home to Roda JC. When asked by Dutch TV for his reaction after the match, coach Co Adriaanse said that his team had had the better chances, should have won the match easily and that Roda had profited from AZ’s negligence. He added that anyone wanting to conclude that AZ had been outplayed would be guilty of scoreboard journalism.

Around a year later, Adriaanse used the phrase again but this time in relation to his own club, after AZ had beaten Feyenoord 4-1. This time he said, “we mustn’t let ourselves be guided by the result, that would be scoreboard journalism. This match was decided by specific moments and luckily to our advantage. However, I think the match could have just as easily gone the other way.””

Co Adriaanse during his time as Porto coach. He coined the term Scoreboard Journalism in 2003 © Eurosport

The truth, as Sir Alex Ferguson never tired of telling us, is that no team is ever as bad or as good as they’re portrayed in the press, or in the stands. And that is endlessly true in the round, regardless of the highs and lows in performance all teams experience game to game.

I reckon you need to see a team three times in a season to form a sure opinion but I’d also say that first impressions are also generally correct, if you are a good judge of teams and players.

Football is an unforgiving beauty contest where all but a handful of its participants wear outfits fashioned in endless shades of grey.

As such, the only thing you can really rely on as a scout is your own eye and your own opinion. And you have to make your peace with that and the fact that there is so little signal amidst the noise that is literally ever present.

There are opinions everywhere. But while fans, press and pundits enjoy their freedom of expression, largely without consequence, for a scout of players or next opponents, your reputation stands and falls by your opinion. So, any opinion you express better be a good one, considered but also practically useful.

So for me, watching teams, the brief is always a case of marrying context to reality.

And I’ll want to know the answers to the following questions, whoever I am watching:

1. What is this team trying to do? How do they want to play?
2. Are they doing this successfully? If not, why not?
3. How is the context of the game effecting the performance and result: the opponents’ play, both sides’ general form, what’s at stake, the conditions, the impact of the crowd and stadium, the scoreline at various points in the game, the presence or absence of key personnel?
4. Is this a typical performance?

One of the key tells that distinguishes a good team playing poorly from a bad team playing uncharacteristically well is a consistency of body language and mentality.

Good teams have good habits and a consistent professionalism and you can see it in the repetition of individual team and player tasks they perform. In their determination and their patience and in their composure.

Bad teams and bad players find their motivation when there’s suddenly a move away or a new contract at stake, a glamour cup tie or a big win bonus being dangled in front of them. Often very good players play in very bad teams (the wrong man, in the wrong team, at the wrong time). And there have been some notable scouts, down the years, that have been especially adept at re-imagining these unsung heroes in good sides – like the great Liverpool scout Jeff Twentyman who excelled at finding champions in the backwaters of British football.

Unlike a good team, that don’t tend to vary their levels too much, the gulf between a bad team’s best and their worst performance is generally massive over the course of a season. Good teams put in consistent performances – even in defeat. And even in an uncharacteristically bad defeat, they usually exhibit a number of redeeming features. And that is why you should always look at the performance and its context before you damn a team, or praise them to the heavens, based on one or two results.

To their credit the football analytics brigade have also come to recognise that bare results are never the whole story and the developing work in the field of expected goals (xG) is a step down the right road. It is an attempt to quantify the number of goals a team or player would be expected to score based on the quality and quantity of shots taken, in a game or series of games. The nuts and bolts of xG is explained in the video below.

For the moment, xG remains a work in progress. Like a lot of stats analysis it paints a strong picture of what has gone before but has disputed value as a predictive tool. My hunch is that work that considers teams as ‘whole’ entities in their own right, rather than study that seeks to form meaning from specific incidents, could be a far more fruitful source of deeper understanding.

As for Co Adriaanse, after leaving AZ, the Dutchman took over at FC Porto where he won the Portuguese double. He followed the well-trodden cash-rich route for safe-hands Dutch managers as the boss of clubs like Ukraine’s Metalurh Donetsk, Qatar’s Olympic squad, Red Bull Salzburg (where he won the Austrian title) and finally, FC Twente in the Netherlands who sacked him at the beginning of 2012, despite his side lying in third place in the Eredivisie at the time. Twente also celebrated a Johan Cruyff Shield (Dutch Super Cup) victory under Adriaanse in his short tenure there.

Seven years on the 71-year old Co Adriaanse, is presumably enjoying retirement after a 50 year career in the game as a player and coach. He is remembered as an eccentric but always engaging football man with a stated preference for aggressive, attacking football. Adriaanse‘s achievement, in taking lowly Willem II to a second placed finish in the Eredivisie and Champions League football in 1999, perhaps ranks even greater as an achievement than his list of titles, promotions and awards with six different European clubs.

As far as I am concerned though all these accolades pale in comparison to Co Adriaanse’s legacy contribution to football – the concept of Scoreboard Journalism. It is an idea that is finally having its moment 16 years after it was coined by the well-traveled Dutch coach.