The big game error
After identifying a player that has the potential improve our team, we often want to see how he responds in different circumstances. How does he perform away from home, for example, or in matches where the team is expected to dominate? We often place a lot of value in a player’s ability to step up in big matches too, because if he can perform against the best opposition, there seems no reason why he can’t perform week in, week out.
However, scouting in this way can leave us vulnerable to small sample sizes. A player performing in one, or even a small handful of big matches might simply have had a good day, and may not be able to repeat that in the future. The evidence from strikers points this way; those attackers who appeared to be ‘big game players’ in one season in general performed no better than average in the next.
The inverse was true for those who underperformed in big games – in fact they performed slightly better in these games the following season than the so-called ‘big game players’. Romelu Lukaku currently endures this criticism, but history tells us that over time his scoring rate in big games should be no different to others, relatively speaking.
What can we learn from this? Firstly, it’s not hard to imagine this result applying to midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers too. It’s easy to get carried away by a standout performance on the big occasion, but in player recruitment description is far less important than prediction – that he has been a ‘big game player’ doesn’t mean he will be a ‘big game player’.
Indeed it’s possible to exploit the inefficiency in this traditional way of thinking; players who underperform in big matches might be undervalued, because other teams think the player doesn’t have the mentality to step up to big occasions.
With the World Cup on the horizon – the ultimate set of ‘big games’ – perhaps it’s an opportunity to review how we scout a small sample of games.