Football is a game, as the cliché states, of fine margins. At the top level, the margin between success and failure is exceptionally small. If we are to take Premier League football as an example, a team that wishes to avoid failure must take into account the things that every other football club up to Championship level has worked tirelessly to put into action. Training drills that forge champions at amateur level form the basis of a session for professional clubs; innovative tactical systems at lower-league level form a basic understanding for Championship survival; the playing staff that win promotion to the Premier League might be squad players, at best, for a Premier League club.
All it takes is for a top club to overlook one of these simple principles and suddenly their failures become glaringly obvious. How could team X be so stupid as to miss the other team’s dangerman and plan accordingly, huh? They may have spent 37 games of a 38 game season utilising a perfect tactical system but if they fall short in their preparation for just a single game, they run the risk of being beaten convincingly. A player standing one yard off the post during a corner might see the ball slip, agonisingly, between himself and the post. In reality, a ten-second phase of play and a drop in concentration has seen a goal conceded. The old adage states that it only takes a second to score a goal but laying the groundwork takes significantly longer.
A great example this season comes in the form of Mick McCarthy. The game which ultimately cost him his job was a 5-1 reversal at home to West Brom. Many, myself included, couldn’t see him staying at the helm past that point. To all intents and purposes, he had failed. Or so it had seemed. The form of the side that he had built dropped significantly from that point until the end of the season. Suddenly, it became clear that without him the margins were even wider. They were losing when he was in charge but at least he was increasing their chances of survival — he was adding value to the team.
I doubt many would have seen the miracles that McCarthy was performing at Wolves until after his dismissal. Ultimately, the glaringly obvious failures shone through after he left; his relative successes completely ignored. This, in my eyes, is how Premier League football seems to work — we expect everything to be optimised and prepared to levels unparalleled in most businesses, to the point where we don’t even recognise the scope of the work being undertaken. To reiterate my earlier point, we don’t notice these things until they’ve been overlooked and then the failure becomes clear. To post-script that, this is only possible because of the fantastically high levels of performance we see on such a commendably regular basis.
Allow me, if you will, to show these margins using numbers. A team plays 38 games in a Premier League season. Based on the stats released by Opta, games lasted an average of just under 96 minutes last season. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll round that up to 96 minutes per game. On that basis, each team played roughly 3,648 minutes of football this season. To be even more precise about it, that’s about 218,880 seconds of Premier League football per club. 218,880 seconds to separate prove one club is the wheat amongst the chaff. 218,880 seconds to write a solitary chapter of a 20-strong book. 218,880 seconds — 218,880 attempts at making it count. Whatever “it” may prove to be.
Disregarding the adage, over the start of this week my mind wasn’t on how long it takes to score one goal. Nor was it on how long it takes to score two. My mind was focussed purely on how two goals can change an entire season, regardless of the time it takes. At full time at the Stadium of Light, United were champions. Over the course of three minutes, City had won their first league title in 44 years. Going into five minutes of injury time at the Etihad, City needed to score two goals. Of roughly 218,880 seconds, City needed to use their final 300 to save their season. The previous 218,380 were useless: they could take them only so far and now they needed something special.
And something special did happen. Twice.
Ultimately, the final 180 seconds of City’s season were what won them the league. The previous 218,700 had set them up but it was two goals in those precious three minutes which saw them over the line. An entire season of football won in less than 180 seconds.
How fine are the margins in football?
Well, by my maths, you can win a league title with just 0.08% of your designated time. That, to me, is a statement in and of itself.