Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Narrative Fallacy and the Van Persie Myth

"The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding." - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Or put it another way Robin Van Persie might be the difference between Man United and Man City this season or he might not. To recap the narrative. Robin Van Persie was the outstanding striker of last season playing for Arsenal but with only one year left on his contract was coveted by both Manchester clubs. He chose United ahead of City, although it has been suggested that City's pursuit of the player was a bit half hearted much to the disgruntlement of their coach Roberto Mancini.

Having won a nip and tuck battle against their local rivals last year City have been left trailing in United's wake this season with Van Persie making a a noteworthy contribution to United's surge towards a twentieth league title. Football pundits in print and television make the immediate and obvious link that United signing Van Persie instead of City explains the 12 point gap that exists between United and  City at the time of writing. Often it is accompanied with a the sub text that the City board should have backed Mancini's pursuit of Van Persie at all cost regardless of the rather inconvenient fact that Man City lost £90m last year and by some miracle they need to get close to break even under UEFA's financial fair play rules.

However returning to the main hypothesis a superficial review of the facts gives some credence to the belief that the Van Persie factor is the difference, given that he has again been the stand out striker of the season and delivered 20 goals for the Champions elect, whereas none of the City strikers have scored more than a dozen.

In making the link the fallacy is created and doing so pundits become blind to any other explanation. The first flaw in the thinking is to assume that if Van Persie scored 20 goals for United he would score 20 for City which is by no means certain. Accepting that Van Persie comes with a guarantee of 20 goals it should be acknowledged that he plays at another  players expense so to assess Van Persie's potential impact you have to take that player's contribution out of the equation so the net gain might be 10 or 11 goals. Obviously another 10 goals across the course of a season could make a difference to the title race although it is entirely possible it makes next to no difference aside from helping City's goal difference if all the additional goals achieved was conversion of  1-0 wins into 2-0 wins then City's relative position would remain the same.

Even looking at things from the City side of the equation the string of assumptions is starting to stretch the creditability of the Van Persie is the difference myth but that disregards the United side of the equation. In an alternative universe where Van Persie opted for the blue side of Manchester it is far from certain that the outcome is any different. Had United failed to land Van Persie I am fairly sure armed with a budget in excess of £20 million and a wages of £200,000 a week United might have been able to find an alternative, who might have been something other than a complete failure.

I will be honest  I don't have a fully rounded  multi - factored explanation as to why this year's Premier League title race has turned into a procession or why City have tailed off so badly after last year but I know it is not solely down to Robin Van Persie's decision to join United ahead of City. Too often the football pundits looking for the glib easily digested explanation, create and the perpetuate the narrative fallacy of the star player being the difference between outcomes. in some cases they are but not as often as pundits and fans think they are.

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