Rank journalism: why does the league table lie?

Back to our friend Mr Co Adriaanse who, around nine months ago, coined the term ‘rank
journalism’. I agree entirely with Adriaanse that this phenomenon exists but
not in the way that he described. This is what he said, as head coach of FC
Twente, in November 2011: “The fact that some people don’t think we are playing
well is because of the league table. We should have six more points. We
deserved them. Then the deficit with the league leaders would have been smaller
and everyone would have been less critical. I call that rank journalism.”
The Dutch term is ranglijstjournalistiek andI have translated it as best I can (with the help of @jameswgrayson) to avoid clunky terms like ‘league table journalism’.

Adriaanse’s point was that FC Twente had dropped six points in three matches
that they should have won. No mention of matches in which they had fortunately
picked up victories instead of drawing. That time Adriaanse had it wrong as he
was ignoring the luck his team had had in winning but bemoaning the fact that
luck also went against them.

So, what do I think “rank journalism” refers to? Let’s go back to January 2012
and this headline on the BBC website:


This was a widespread view at the time and led to some astonishing ideas later
in the season when Tottenham stopped winning. Yes, Tottenham Hotspur were
playing nice football and had got close to the two Manchester clubs in the
league table. However, they had not exactly impressed against fellow Champions
League contenders, notably losing their opening two matches of the season
against Manchester United and Manchester City, scoring once and conceding
eight. With a lot of tough fixtures later in the season, Tottenham Hotspur inevitably
dropped away from where they were, not because Harry Redknapp was a candidate
for the England job as the narrative from the time would have us believe. Quite
simply, due to the vagaries of the fixture list, Spurs were closer to the two
Manchester clubs in January than expected. This evened out in the second half
of the season and they managed to just stay in the top four, finishing 20
points behind Premier League champions Manchester City. If you are not
convinced, the Euro Club Index, a statistical model taking account of all of this never gave them more than 1.3% chance of winning the Premier League, hardly a ringing assessment of supposed title contenders.

Perhaps an even better example from last season’s Premier League is that of
Arsenal which combines the ideas of both scoreboard journalism and rank
journalism. After fivePremier League  matches last season, Arsenal stood in 17th
place and there was a lot of debate about whether Arsene Wenger, arguably their
best manager ever, was no longer as effective as he had previously been.
Clearly 8-2 and 4-3 defeats at Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers were
major factors in this view as they were such spectacular scorelines. However,
were they both deserved or did they not reflect the balance of play. I will
leave others to debate that but here is an excerpt from the BBC website on
September 20, 2011:


The key quote from Ivan Gazidis there was; “He didn’t suddenly become a bad manager or out of touch. That’s nonsense.” I couldn’t agree more. Looking at those first
five fixtures with the benefit of hindsight shows that three of them were away
and all five were against clubs who finished in the top 11. Given Newcastle
United’s performances last term, Arsenal’s 0-0 draw there was actually a pretty
good result. I would argue that Arsenal’s slow start was due to the toughness
of their opening fixtures combined with some bad luck. This evened out as the
season wore on and they finished third, continuing their consistency by
finishing third or fourth for the seventh season in a row. Judging the Gunners
after five matches in this way was simply rank journalism.

So, ‘rank journalism’ is when a conclusion is made from the current league
table, without taking account of the fixtures played to date. There is no
question that teams face differing fixture schedules as @experimental361 has
shown in his excellent visualisations of this season’s football league
fixtures. This is rarely taken account of in the media or by internet bloggers and therefore good or bad results in early season fixtures regardless of the standard of opposition regularly lead to hyperbole, positive ornegative, about the state of a team.

It is very rare that anyone compares the league table with what might have been expected given the opposition, a simple process in which the actual chance of the three results can be approximated by using bookmakers odds or a prediction model. In order to separate any mathematics I produce here from the more narrative form such as this, I will publish this in a separate post prior to this weekend’s fourth match round in the Eredivisie. The table will then be updated as the season wears on.

Finally, what happened to Adriaanse? He was sacked a few weeks after he made
the quote at the beginning of this post and replaced by Steve McClaren. FC
Twente finished sixth, their lowest finish in the Eredivisie for six years
which was perhaps no coincidence given that the 2005/2006 season was the last
time the club from Enschede changed head coach in mid-season.

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2 Responses to Rank journalism: why does the league table lie?

  1. Peter says:

    Someone on Radio5 last year summed it up well, “The table always lies” (until the last day of the season, anyway).

  2. This is partially true but I would argue that the league table sometimes lies at the end of the season too. Newcastle and Heerenveen’s performances in last season’s Premier League and Eredivisie respectively were more than just reflecting their talent. They had a lot of luck too. I will come back to this in future posts.

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