Making predictions in an unpredictable age

It’s the UK General Election week and any comparison between the unpredictable nature of the British political landscape and the unpredictable nature of the Premier League table is probably best left unmade. And yet…

Things haven’t changed much after another game in the bank — Manchester United are fifth with 24 points; Southampton are 18th on 15. And amidst all of that tightness in the league, there are the stories.

Manchester United fans have gone from wondering whether Mauricio Pochettino — or even the new-look José Mourinho — would be a better choice in the dug-out than Solskjær to jubilating that he is, once again, at the wheel, all in the space of a week. Mourinho himself has been transformed from grumpy git to ballboy bestie; Everton have reversed their slump now that Duncan Ferguson, himself a friend-of-the-ballchild, is in charge; and many a pundit and tweeter throughout the land (myself included, I imagine) are now eating their words about Steve Bruce’s managerial quality after Newcastle have got four wins in six.

But of course, with so much uncertainty in the league, we could get to the end of the month and all of these figures could be the subject of #[Name]Out tweets again.

How do you make predictions and analyses of things when it’s all so topsy-turvy, and when being ‘wrong’ doesn’t necessarily mean that you were wrong.

You get this every transfer window. Ángel Di María at Manchester United was a great example. Did he end up as a good signing for the club? Not really. Could he have been? Absolutely. He didn’t seem to take to Louis van Gaal (considering how LVG’s United team ended up playing, who can blame him) or Manchester (considering that his house was broken into, his wife was reportedly too fearful to return to it, and it was up for sale within a month of the incident, it’s hard to blame him much on that count either — not to mention the weather).

Point is, it would have been hard to predict either of those things before his move to Manchester. Even the old trope about foreign players not liking England is hit and miss, particularly in terms of how much it affects their performance. It’s far from unknown for South American players to thrive in the north of England, and a happy work life can make imperfections elsewhere a little more bearable.

The problem is that there’s only one Di María to Manchester United transfer to test your theory on. Even if you thought that he wouldn’t adapt to Manchester, it’s tough to know what the chances really were that the Argentinian wouldn’t take to the many varieties of grey that the city has to offer.

Things are a little easier when you make comments about a team, because they play multiple matches, every now and then against the same opposition. But it’s still difficult. (I realise that this sounds a lot like a SAMPLE SIZES!!! post).

The obvious answer, of course, is to watch as much as possible of a team/player/manager’s teams, check the statistics and read around the subject to inform your opinion, and proceed, cautiously, from there. But even professional pundits don’t have time for that. Goodness help the rest of us with pesky things like day jobs that don’t revolve around watching football.

I say all this not because it’s revolutionary, but because it feels like there are going to be a lot of narratives flying around about various teams which’ll come falling down within a few weeks of first airing.

Has Steve Bruce really fixed Newcastle? If so, how? Has Ole Gunnar Solskjær got Manchester United back on track? If so, how? Has José Mourinho etc etc.

The ‘how’ is the important part. If it’s unexplainable, it may not be properly fixed. The ‘how’ should also come before the answer to the main question (the one that people actually care about).

Has Mourinho fixed Spurs?

How: it looks like Tottenham are benefitting from a genuine new manager bump where previously weary-of-boss players have a new (though limited) lease of life. But some of the same problems of progressing the ball and aspects of defensive solidity still seem present. Playing a bit more of a direct style seems to have bypassed this first problem, and the main strength of the Tottenham squad is, in my opinion, in their attacking midfield, but it’s not completely consistent.

Answer: He’s probably got them performing back around the level of the sum of their parts, but not above it, which is what Pochettino had originally done.

Has Solskjær got United back on track?

How: Scott McTominay and Fred have been in great form of late, just looking completely ‘on it’. Timing challenges, good positional decisions, reading the game to make interceptions and supporting runs when the team’s in possession. This has helped on the defensive and offensive side of things. Rashford has also looked on it, and the quality of his shooting against Tottenham was fantastic. That I’ve only mentioned players being on top form gives me concern about how sustainable this is — players can’t be at the top of their game all the time, that’s why it’s ‘the top’.

Answer: I… don’t know? I don’t think it’s entirely by his managerial genius, but I certainly don’t think that the results of the past week have just been luck.

Has Steve Bruce really fixed Newcastle?

I’m not going to lie about the amount I watch Newcastle. I really don’t know what’s going on there.

It’s a wonder why columnists and weekly pundits, at least, don’t revisit past predictions of theirs and examine why they thought what they thought and what parts they got right and wrong, if only because it would fill column inches and air time.

It wouldn’t necessarily need to betray any gaps in knowledge either, as the general public are sensible enough to realise that one individual may not quite have an intimately detailed expertise in all 20 clubs in the Premier League, as well as the odd couple in the Championship or Champions League.

There’s probably a market for a pundit to have a pair of weekly columns: one on a Friday, say, giving a preview for the weekend’s action; and one on a Monday or Tuesday that reviews and takes stock of what they predicted, what surprised them, what they foresaw, and what it all means for the future.

Hmmm. That actually might be too good an idea to be giving away…