The problem with inferring general claims about teams based on single matches is that they’re often not representative of how well a team will do across the entire season. That’s an easy concept to understand, but even so, we can’t help ourselves.
I don’t think this is a media issue, either. In fact, picking on professional media for this habit is silly; they are us. They reflect back at us what we want to read, think, see in the games we watch on the weekend. And if anything, many media figures are, as a rule, more cautious than most in reading too much into single 90 minute games. We’re all victims of recency bias.
That said, I think it would be instructive for all of us to have a look back—waaay back—to see in context some of the things written about Man United and Arsenal in the papers after their first games this season, which were generally inverse to their performances to date. I’m posting these anonymously because all of us, myself included, were and are guilty of this. And it should be said not everyone leaned toward the temptation to make predictive statements (it should be mentioned too the idea for this post came from Joe Ross).
It is telling that the least interesting match reports were also the least predictive. And here is the central conundrum for the narrative-bashers sitting on the sidelines: if you don’t want to make extrapolative claims, how do you make football writing interesting? Maybe all of us know deep down that these exciting portents are just flourishes, baubles. Maybe mainstream sports writing is just fine. Anyway, here is a sample.
Swansea 1-4 Man United August 17 2013
“United were effortlessly good. Those hoping to exploit the vulnerabilities caused by regime change will have to wait.
Many feel that change might be afoot in the English game – and maybe it still is. But when your starting XI includes Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Robin van Persie it is clear that not so much has really changed.
It was, of course, just the first three points in a long season. But it felt a whole lot more significant than that.”
“The names on the pitch are still the same, and the team are playing in the 4-2-3-1 system that Sir Alex Ferguson eventually came to favour. Giggs is still there at the age of 39 and Van Persie is still greedily accumulating goals from any distance or angle. So maybe we should not be surprised that it felt so much like business as usual. How many times, for example, have we seen this United team suddenly come into their own and ruthlessly punish the opposition as they did here with two goals in as many minutes? That was the period when the game lurched away from Swansea and, from then on, there was an air of inevitability.”
“Cesc who? United have been superb after an iffy start. Remember how good Swansea are. Ominous.”
“Taking point: Does this result show that Manchester United should still be regarded as favourites to retain their title?”
“Welbeck offered up the final flourish on what ended up as a routine victory on this highly-significant day for Moyes.”
Arsenal 1-3 Aston Villa – August 17 2013
“If you are not prepared to pay the price, there is a price to be paid. Arsenal’s miserly summer, which finds them in transfer profit, ended in an opening-day loss. Aston Villa were organised, determined, took advantage of a couple of controversial calls by the referee, Anthony Taylor, and inflicted upon Arsenal a defeat that was both damaging and damning.”
“It was Arsenal’s first home defeat on the season’s opening day in 20 years and only Villa’s sixth victory in 28 league trips to the Gunners.
It was a indication of Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity that their starting line-up was identical to the side which finished the final match of last season away to Newcastle.
In contrast to Wenger, Paul Lambert has recruited six new faces in the off-season and, although only Luna and Leandro Bacuna featured on this occasion, there was certainly a sense of freshness about their play.”
“Even Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert agreed it was a shock, but this was no fluke result…last season’s strugglers look like this year’s emerging force.”