The dismissal of Markus Babbel
The fears that one had to have after yesterday’s cup defeat of VfB Stuttgart at SpVgg. Greuther Fürth were confirmed today, 28 October 2009: Markus Babbel has been dismissed as coach.
Nowadays, such sad news is commonplace and in no way surprising. I express my regret neither as a fan of VfB Stuttgart nor as a supporter of Markus Babbel personally. I express it more as a fan of football in general but also as an absolute enemy of injustice, as a sceptical observer and listener of reporting but also as a friend of mathematics, especially of probability theory, and as a friend of the people who unfortunately regularly slip or even collapse when treading on the rather thin and, what is more, extremely slippery ice surface of probability theory. However, this ice surface forms the basis of our lives and any attempt to avoid stepping on it is unfortunately in vain. You have to try to navigate your way through it, and that really applies to everyone.
I personally experienced it this morning at the bakery when three construction workers were talking. But it wasn’t a conversation in that sense, the conversation opened immediately with the words: “Babbel is fired. Answer: “Yes, he lost yesterday.” This shows me that the media have succeeded once again with their campaign. There is simply nothing exciting to report, at least that’s what one has to conclude. The only exciting thing is when heads roll. That was already evident and foreseeable last night during the Sky broadcast. The course of the game is no longer of interest. They are radically erased by the result anyway. So when a team does a lot of things right, dominates the game, creates a large number of chances, and there are a lot of other successful actions that actually make football attractive, then in the end only the result is taken into account. So, in the opinion of the reporters, one can dispense with commenting on a single successful action. Because: Either the team wins in the end, in which case the opponent has done everything wrong, or the team loses, in which case they were all just samples of no value.
Well, VfB Stuttgart lost the game. There is really only one topic for the whole 90 minutes: Can VfB win and save Mr Babbel or does he lose and he has to go? But I, as a loyal football watcher and also a football weatherer, took the trouble to watch the game. I did, as I always do, get a picture of what the players were doing right and what they were doing wrong. Noticing the general flow of the game, the refereeing decisions, the crowd, the entire course of the game and the reporters’ findings are all part of the routine. I also take my own fate into account and that was in the game: I have a small bet on the over. That means that if I score exactly three goals, I win half the bet, and if I score four goals, I win the entire bet. My computer hadn’t even advised me to do that in that case. It was a conviction that Stuttgart absolutely wanted to win today and simply came out optimistically, played forward and, in a favourable case, simply scored one or two goals.
When after the first three goal chances, all for Stuttgart, the ball once again didn’t go in, Markus Babbel and I were comrades in suffering for a moment. But even the announcer could not ignore the superiority of VfB. He, too, had to realise that there was only one really good team, which, by the way, is not a special realisation for me either, since there is a class difference after all. However, when Progrebnjak missed the third opportunity, he had his first daring remark to make, due to the result: “Progrebnjak is not yet properly integrated into the game.” Brilliant. So how does he get the chances? A German announcer is allowed to say just about anything, as long as it doesn’t contradict the score….
Then came a tiny moment of luck for me personally, which in retrospect I would have liked to have done without: only one team was playing and — as Andy Brehme already correctly stated “Haste Scheiße am Fuß, haste Scheiße am Fuß.” – the other team gets a single chance and the ball is in. 0:1. Fürth is ahead. For me, a goal, which is convenient because I need goals, no matter for whom. The injustice of such a goal is everyday life. Only in this case, everyday life is not that it affects the same team again. VfB Stuttgart. That makes me a bit concerned myself and I feel for the players and the coaches. Such feelings are alien to the reporter. He doesn’t even intend to reveal these emotions. He feels comfortable when he can quote platitudinous sayings like “football is a results sport” and he feels most comfortable when he is already thinking up the questions for after the game and at the same time driving the saw a little further into Mr Babbel’s chair. These are truly great commentators! They can put 1 + 0 together and even compare them with each other!
VfB played a great game. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand football. It’s about that one tiny thing of an action, that one time the ball comes in perfectly, is hit perfectly or even happens to be exactly the way you didn’t want it and it still goes in. It’s about that one offside whistle or that one action in the penalty area where you give a penalty or not. It’s about the post that was a few millimetres too wide a few times and thus prevented the goal from being cheered. But that also happens every day, in every game, and the better team wins more often than the underdog, precisely in proportion to the distribution of chances. Only when it happens to the same team a few times in a row does it have the aforementioned consequences.
At no point can there be any talk of insecurity or of a lack of willingness to run, of a lack of commitment or assertiveness, of a “coach who can’t reach the players”. It was a football match like many others before. Stuttgart lacked nothing in terms of playing ability. The only thing missing was that little bit of luck that you need even when you do a lot or almost everything right. The ball has to cross the line. Just once. I could feel the fraternisation with Mr Babbel again. Because I too would have needed that little bit of luck to win my bet. The last chance – and there really were plenty – in the final minute was also wasted. The game was over. I’m sure the construction workers weren’t listening or watching. Because what you get to hear I can sum up very simply: “Blah blah blah.” Pure coincidence, by the way, that in this particular case almost the same letters appear as in the coach’s name And the way it’s told is in a similar tone to the big event “Queen Mum visits Berlin.” Just don’t raise your voice, because you could wake up the long-sleeping spectators. But on top of that, there’s a lot of malice.
Well done, boys. Your basic attitude of “I can tell what I want” is true insofar as one can easily complete the sentence with “… no one listens anyway”.
After the game, it was clear to me that they would now spontaneously and in unison turn their faces into those of hyenas. They didn’t watch the game themselves, they said whatever they wanted, see above. Only the goals were carefully counted. And it remained 0:1. Well, you can be self-confident. Now you can ask what you want. After all, the person in charge of VfB who was questioned has no way of escaping the crushing weight of the result. If one now brazenly and impudently simply claims that it was once again due to the finishing problems and should only hear the hint of a contradiction, then one simply refers to the scoreboard again. Now when someone cites the one ball that bounced off the inside post and then rolled parallel to the goal line to end up going out next to the other post, the good questioner knows an answer. “Yes, but what does would have, if and but count. The ball wasn’t in. The team lost.” There is no escape.
Already on Saturday after Stuttgart’s extremely unfortunate defeat, the questions were similarly audacious, but one can also safely call them naive. “Naïve” can also easily be translated as “no idea about football”. But some of the questions were also empathetic, which was particularly striking this time. One senses from the interviewees – in persona Horst Heldt, manager of VfB – that they would love to take the microphone and shove it into the questioner’s mouth, which is certainly wide open on this occasion. Decency demands a stop. However, they also know that there is no answer that could silence the questioner who knows the result. “We played well.” “If you had played well, you wouldn’t have lost, would you?” AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGRRRRR.
Still, Saturday’s questioner surprised me with a really good question. This one to the coach: “You could now stand and call it all bad luck. Does your analysis go deeper than that?” Amazing and good. He leaves it up to the coach. He asks about the competence he lacks and attributes it to the true professional. Whether he would then let the answer stand is another question. Later, he will refer to the result again. But at least there was also the possibility of allowing the vocabulary “bad luck”, used by everyone only extremely reluctantly despite its recognisable existence, as an explanation for this time. It was bad luck, that’s for sure. The only question is: how much bad luck and to what extent could it have been made less likely by clever measures, i.e. could the odds have been shifted in one’s favour.
As I said, the reporter asked some of the questions last night with astonishing empathy. Horst Heldt was visibly affected by the result, but at the beginning also annoyed by the knowledge of the predictable questions. To his credit, he then faced up to the questions. However, he too pursues the policy of least resistance. The beating is disproportionately greater if one does not face up to it.
I liked the way he asked yesterday. Really. Horst Heldt even relaxed during the interview because he sensed that the man was somehow sympathetic. He asked very calmly and very matter-of-factly and, for once, not in a know-it-all way, which taught me that it might be possible after all in Germany that in an interview one day in the distant future one could distinguish again who the real expert on football is and, if such an event were to happen again, even who the expert on questions should be.
But that was only true until the unspeakable conclusion was reached in the dialogue. And it went like this:
“Under what circumstances would you react?” (Meaning the usual reaction: sack the coach.) Horst Heldt: “As I said. We have to do the right thing.” And now this final question, which turned everything I had heard before on its head, ad absurdum, and I should have suspected it. The reporter stooped to the following outrageous final question. “When?”
Need we comment on that? So he obviously knows what the right thing to do is. Throughout the interview he kept this knowledge to himself. He pretended to be genuinely interested in something. He even managed to make the biggest sceptic, me, Dirk Paulsen, believe that everything is different today. And then this.
For him, the only question is when VfB will do “the right thing”, the right thing that the reporter has known for a long time. Any previous question, however pleasant, is completely wiped out. It is the audacity that increases day by day. It is simply unbelievable! And this morning I also got the unfortunate answer….
A bit of mathematics:
In order to take up the cudgels for Markus Babbel, but also for all the coaches who have been dismissed before, completely unjustly and rashly, I have picked out a few figures.
I asked my database how likely these five consecutive defeats of VfB were. My computer calculates a probability for each of the three possible match outcomes. Of course, the multiplication results in a small number, but the chance is still easily measurable. Here are the individual values, the games are sorted chronologically, Werder is the longest behind:
Werder Schalke Sevilla Hannover Fürth
33.11% 34.84% 49.50% 36.76% 27.32%
The recorded chances are each for a defeat of VfB. Please also take into account the names of the opponents, which in itself has no influence on the overall probability. Nevertheless, they are opponents against whom one can lose. So the multiplication gives: 33.11% * 34.84% * 49.50% * 36.76% * 27.32% = 0.57%. Still a good half percent. The question to what extent this event was due to pure bad luck, a chain of unfavourable circumstances, or whether this chance was influenced by wrong actions on the part of the coach or other individuals will be dealt with below.
But for the concrete analysis of the games: Against Werder was perhaps the only really bad game. But Werder is also in top shape. After that, the game against Schalke was only one of three possible results. After falling behind, VfB ran in vain for a while, then finally scored the long-deserved equaliser in the 76th minute, only to be “shockfrosted” by falling behind again three minutes later. Was that a moment of lack of concentration? I would think so here after the long futile run in a moment of relaxation.
The game against Sevilla was attested by everyone as a very good game with an unfortunate outcome. Stuttgart were clearly the better team in the first half. But Sevilla was really clever, nevertheless for me weaker than expected. The games against Hannover and Fürth deserve only one headline, but the media found it: “Results crisis.” Stuttgart were clearly the better team both times and only lacked luck in several situations. We remember Andy Brehme. But also the saying of the “Cobra” Jürgen Wegmann: “First you are not lucky and then you are unlucky” contains much more truth than ridiculousness. Because if you don’t have any luck, that’s not bad luck by a long shot. It is rather the normal case. You have neither luck nor bad luck. Normal. It is only bad luck when it turns negative.
A little philosophy:
I couldn’t deny being a mathematician anyway, but now I’ll try to be a philosopher as well: According to the computer, Stuttgart’s chance of losing to Fürth last night was 27.32%. This figure may already be doubted anyway – and rightly so. Here, too, the question arises of an exactness, a timing of the assessment or even of fate or some other world view, whereby events can turn out in our favour but also to our disadvantage. In the absence of an alternative assessment and in the knowledge of the betting market, which thanks to the much-cited mass intelligence can also be used as a gauge that can be taken more than seriously and which roughly confirms this figure, I will take this figure as a given. Now the question is whether the coach Markus Babbel, who was dismissed today, can at any time have a relevant influence on this chance.
I’ll just assume here: Yes, he can. Of course he can, in my opinion. He can put an amateur at left wing who has never played there before. He could call out to one of his players during the game, like the legendary Otto Rehhagel once did, true to the motto “Machet, Otze”, to receive a yellow or, subsequently, a red card. He could take Hleb out or strip Hitzlsperger of the captain’s armband. These measures all have an extremely obscure influence on the distribution of chances. Especially since one would have to distinguish between the measures before the game and those during the game, since the betting market also reacts accordingly, at least to the passing of time and a score.
But now let’s assume that Markus Babbel and his players are pulling in the same direction, they want to influence the event in their favour. The players lined up are hot, well motivated. They play in their usual positions. They really want to. They want to turn the game around. They want to help their coach. They want to win the game. Yet then that 27.32% is against them. There is also an opponent. There are also 11 skilled footballers. There is a fanatical home crowd, which especially in a cup match attracts even more hope and joy of a surprise to the stadium, in larger numbers. There are these 11 opposing players, who are also prepared to go to their performance limits, who can bowl a Champions League participant out of the competition today, on this evening, with maximum use of their chances, maximum commitment. And they can even help their own hope, their own greater career, because of the increased attention of the public in comparison to “second league day” to “cup day”.
If Markus Babbel were to manage to increase the chance of not losing, which is 100% – 27.32%, i.e. 72.68%, to 75%, for example, by recognising after 5 minutes that he would rather have Hitzlsperger act more offensively in the opponent’s line-up – per instruction – and pull another player back a little – a brilliant move – then no one would notice. He has done it, but you don’t notice it. Then he has minimised his chances of losing to 25%. But there is no guarantee that this 25% will happen. But it is also possible that he gave instructions during the game or took measures that worsened the odds, just as unnoticed by anyone, in which case the event of “not losing” could nevertheless subsequently occur, despite or curiously even because of the worsening of the odds. Just like that. The wrong action has a positive effect. He would have the pats on the back, he would have saved his job. Only he would have done something wrong. That’s just philosophy.
In short, the coaching sacking, like almost every one, is just nonsense. Saying “if we sack him now, we’ll be lucky again” is just as ill-considered as saying “if we stick with him, we’ll be lucky again.” It is simply not a question of being lucky or unlucky. Both come and go again. It’s about the attitude of the team and how much they do right in relation to aspirations and performance. And in my opinion, the players who have been fielded have done that to an entirely adequate degree in the last few games.
The next coach will start with a win-loss percentage that has yet to be determined by the market and that would be roughly comparable to Markus Babbel’s figures. The market makes its assessment, I make mine. A change of coach has a small positive influence on the distribution of chances, which is only guessed by the market. I probably won’t take that into account. Statistics over many years have shown that changes of coach don’t bring anything. Whereby I’m even more sceptical about statistics I haven’t made myself (I won’t say “faked”). But this Stuttgart team didn’t need a new coach….