Luck is irrational, but it’s important. Just ask Robben, and Tottenham.

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Poor Arjen Robben. Having missed a crucial penalty in Bayern’s crunch game against Dortmund in the final stages of the Bundesliga season, he redeemed himself at the Bernabeu, scoring a penalty against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi final. Cojones intact, but Tottenham fans might be wishing he hadn’t shown such courage. If he’d surrendered responsibility then, would someone else have been taking the penalty during extra time of the biggest game in club football? Would Bayern be Champions, with Tottenham assured of a place in the Champions League qualifiers? Robben banished the demons once, only to see them return more brutal than ever. If we see an unshaven Robben staggering out of a bar during the next few weeks, looking like shit, we should not judge him. He’s been slapped in the face by the cold hand of failure once too many in recent weeks. Give the man a break, he needs some god damn luck.

“It’s not about luck, Frank. Luck is the name losers give to their own failings. It’s about wanting to win.”

This line is spoken by the character Richard in the film Little Miss Sunshine. Richard is addressing his daughter, and behaving like a total helmet, but he has a point, kind of. The role of luck shouldn’t be overstated. A more clinical assessment of the facts from the Champions League final will tell you that Bayern Munich wasted some presentable chances to win the game. A penalty placed perfectly in the bottom or top corner of the goal is pretty much un-saveable. Anywhere else however, and you’re giving the keeper chance. Ah, but given the ridiculously short reaction time, the keeper has to move early and therefore ‘guess’ (finger quotes) correctly to get anywhere near it. So, the keeper was lucky, right? Yeah, but keepers spend hours practicing penalties, learning to read the penalty taker’s run-up, and they have coaches to analyse their opponents kicks. So, they’re not really guessing, but taking advantage of all that accumulated practice and experience. But, what if the taker miss kicks the ball? Enough already, you get it.

The point I’m clumsily trying to demonstrate is that the combination of luck and skill is what makes football so appealing. It’s why statistics in football can only ever tell you so much. Think of how Tottenham’s season has panned out. Having been one of the top three sides in England for two thirds of the season, they will be playing Europa League football next year.  Their fate was sealed with Robben’s penalty miss, but the number of variables that brought them to this point is mind boggling. For example, cast your minds back to January, when Tottenham were inches away from beating Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.

In the final minutes, Gareth Bale pulled the ball across to Defoe, who stretched, but without enough contact he failed to steer the ball into the empty net. A minute or so later, City were awarded a penalty for a foul on Mario Balotelli – a player who should earlier have been sent off for a stamp on Scott Parker that went unnoticed. City scored and won the game. If the pass had been better from Bale, if Defoe had been a tiny bit taller, or if the referee had seen Balotelli’s stamp, the outcome would have been different. We might have different Champions in England, and it might be Arsenal who just missed out on the Champions League.

Liverpool’s management and fans were derided for referencing the amount their team hit the woodwork this season, but when you’ve drawn as many games as they have, the margins between success and failure start to get very small. It’s why the best team doesn’t always win, but isn’t that the whole point? If the best team always won, it’d be the dullest sport in the world.

‘You lucky, lucky bastards,’ was the general refrain from fans in the aftermath of Chelsea’s success. But, of course they were. It’s a weak manager who looked back across a disappointing season and put it all down to bad luck, but only the most dishonest would dispute that you need a few crucial moments to unfold in your favour if you’re going to be successful, at any level. But what of Poor Robben, and all those like him who have blundered when presented with a shot at glory. A moment to haunt their dreams for eternity. We’ll finish with another quote from the film, and this time it’s Grandpa’s turn, comforting Richard, whose own dream has just been crushed:

“Listen; whatever happens – at least  you tried to do something on your  own, which is more than most people ever do, and I include myself in that category. It takes guts, and I’m proud of you for taking the chance, okay?”

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12 Responses to Luck is irrational, but it’s important. Just ask Robben, and Tottenham.

  1. Megaspur says:

    Fulop’s shocking performance was not unlucky…it was criminal and ultimately stole 3rd place from spurs and gifted it to arsenal with consequences we’re about to witness through the summer of missed signings of players that don’t fancy playing in the Europa and player revolts followed by thursday/sunday games hitting our league form…

    • Ross says:

      Listen, we dropped points in places we should not have. We should have beaten city and I blame Defoe for not doing so. yes Fulop was shite and I like you are having a very very tough time dealing with what has just happened. The joke is UEFA. Supposedly the best league in the world with the best overall teams and 4th spot means nothing. Chelsea may still not even qualify. It fucking stinks.

      • Parklaner says:

        The blame lies with the whole squad, top to bottom, not one individual, We had opportunities to wrap up 3rd long before Villa and Marton “I’m one shithouse of a keeper” Fulop.
        Redknapp has his head turned and did nothing to quash the rumors when he could’ve nipped it in the bud. This loss of focus caused his players to lose focus. “Hey it doesn’t matter I’m out of here in the summer”
        Unfortunately it was only the red top hacks and not the FA who had Harry lined up. The FA said they’d take their time and they did, we all lapped up the journo twaddle, Levy held firm as he thought a payday was coming.
        As a club we took our eye off the ball, now it’s come back and kicked us in the balls, and it fucking hurts

    • barry fannygrow says:

      Megaspur

      We could list 100 ‘if’ items that we could have done to get that extra point

      What’s a fact is that we were way ahead of the scum & 2 nil up. It’s our fault. Luck shouldn’t come into it

    • Parklaner says:

      Yes we’ll miss out on players which could set us back, undoing the good work of this season and last (actually from the start of both seasons up to about February)
      Re: Thursday/Sunday games, cant really see the difference from Wednesday/Saturday – still the same amount of rest between fixtures.
      Since Sky we’ve been playing at all times of the day or week – no biggie IMO

  2. Ross says:

    What strikes me about this is that yet again the rich teams have bought their luck . The margins are so tight at the top of the prem and in Europe. Look at barca. They play the best football and are the best team without a doubt, but without actually investing in a plan b it cost them dearly. They were Chelsead , as were bayern. At that level you can defend resolutely and break with the best striker in the world to score goal after goal. Chelsea will spend heavily now and most probably be on a par with city next year. united will spend heavily too and arsenal are bound to add to their new players. spurs etc will be left behind and it all stinks yet again. It’s true in the life , the rich become richer and the poor become poorer.

  3. Hal says:

    Schweinsteiger would have scored. In a moment of pure penalty pressure the Dutch and English are lilly livered. Turn to a full on Teuton or, for that matter, an Ivorian!

  4. James says:

    Robben’s got form for this: missed in the shootout against Liverpool in 2007, had a stinker against Inter 2 years ago, missed that glorious one-on-one in the World Cup Final, missed the penalty against Dortmund, and now missed a penalty here. And I’m sure there’s more because he had a reputation for this even before 2010.

    I’ve been in an argument with friends elsewhere about this – they were saying that he was unlucky and quoted loads of stats at me to “prove” it – but to me having a penalty saved is not bad luck. As the man himself said, it wasn’t a good penalty. I think you’re lucky to score with a poor penalty (although part of the art of penalty-taking is convincing the keeper to go the wrong way – hence Panenka), and similarly you’re lucky if the other team is wasteful with their chances. But you can’t complain if a penalty is saved or if the opposition convert 1 of their 40-odd chances and you don’t score. If Drogba had ballooned his header over the bar and they had lost, Chelsea couldn’t have complained. Similarly, Robben can’t complain about being unlucky (and hasn’t, to be fair).

    Arjen’s a great player, one of the best wingers of the past decade, and had a good game otherwise, but he’s a first class bottler. But once upon a time, Zidane was considered one too…

    • Michael says:

      You’re right, Robben hasn’t tried to make excuses, but a really dependable penalty taker is a bonus for any team. When I first started watching football it seemed like there a lot of full backs who used to take responsibility, like Denis Irwin and Stuart Pearce. They were reliable because they didn’t try to do anything clever, but maybe they’d be too easy to read now.

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