Sergio Aguero is mobbed by his teammates after scoring the late goal that made Manchester City Champions
Magazine Sports

Wheel of fortune

Are the fine margins that win championships and make careers all down to luck?

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

After any sporting contest the fans, pundits and participants gather and ponder the fine margins. The photo finish, the referee’s mistake, the decisions, gambles and errors made on the field. Those fine margins are more than just talking points: they can make or break careers, catapult clubs to lasting success, and earn or cost many millions of pounds.

There are, of course, the close-run finishes. Few football fans will forget the way Manchester City won the Premier League Title all the way back in 2012. City had not won the title for 44 years and, at home to lowly Queen’s Park Rangers, their fans expected all to go to plan. Level on points with their hated rivals Manchester United, but far ahead on goal difference, all they needed to do was equal or better United’s result.

The photo finish, the referee’s mistake, the decisions, gambles and errors made on the field

And somehow, it was all going wrong. While United were winning their game at Sunderland, City threw away their lead and, as the clock reached 90 minutes, found themselves 2-1 down to QPR, who had even had a man sent off. It was, for the thousands of fans who had turned up preparing to celebrate, a horrible nightmare. But then, two minutes into injury time, Edin Dzeko forced home an equaliser.

Yet City were still two points behind United. The game and the title were still slipping away. Then, in the final seconds of the match, of the long season itself, Sergio Aguero scored a winner that with hindsight now feels inevitable, but in that moment caused sheer pandemonium.

Devastation for United; delirium for City. And a shift in the power relations between the two clubs. United won the title the next season, but never since. City, on the other hand, have taken the title a further five times, and remain the dominant force in English football.

Then there are the turning-point moments in matches. Cast your mind back to the last 50-over cricket world cup, played in 2019. There, the final was another extraordinary close-run thing. England, at home and hot favourites, restricted New Zealand to a middling 241 for 8. Yet England made a hash of their reply, falling to 86 for 4 before Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler led a recovery. But by the final over, with Buttler gone, England still needed fifteen runs to win with only two wickets in hand.

First ball, no run. Second ball, no run. Third ball, a six! As Stokes smote the ball over deep midwicket. And then, for the fourth ball: controversy, divine intervention, call it what you will. Stokes drove the ball to midwicket, where Martin Guptill fielded. Stokes ran for two, Guptill threw to the striker’s end and ran all the way to the boundary for four. Somehow, England had another six runs. Two more balls, two more runs, and the game was tied.

Stokes dives!

And so it went down to a “super-over”. England sent in Buttler and Stokes and scored fifteen. New Zealand, with Guptill and Jimmy Neesham batting, got the target down to two off the last ball. Score the runs, and they would be world champions. Fall short and score one, and England would win by virtue of having hit the most boundaries. Guptill hit the ball cleanly to deep midwicket and ran for the second. Jason Roy picked up and threw to Buttler, who knocked down the stumps. England were world champions — something that would never have happened without the lucky deflection off Stokes’s bat for four.

But it is not just these moments of fortune, or even the photo finishes. The fine margins in sport are also about quality: the incremental improvements, the technical adaptations, the tactical changes, the data analytics, the sports psychology, the innovations in diet and even sleep patterns to maximise performance and find an edge over your rivals. Cristiano Ronaldo, playing Premier League football into his late thirties, has his own sleep consultant. James Anderson, the England swing bowler, has contemplated turning vegan to help him to continue playing into his forties. But marginal improvements are not always so eccentric or quixotic.

The fine margins in sport are also about quality

Think about the way, in cricket, batsmen are forever adapting and improving their techniques. This happens collectively, such as when Twenty20 cricket led to players opening-up and moving their front foot towards the legside, allowing them to swing more powerfully into their shots. And it happens individually: high-class bowlers find weak points in batsmen’s techniques, and batsmen respond accordingly, changing their guard, stance, balance or whatever it takes to succeed.

And think about football, where the sophistication of tactics and the fluidity of play requires so much more of players now than ever before. Wingers who play narrow to suck defenders into the middle of the pitch, allowing full-backs to fill the spaces and become playmakers; a full-back who joins the centre-backs or central midfielders as the other full-back bombs on, turning 4-2-3-1 into 3-2-5 or 2-3-5; and any number of other tactical innovations that change not only between but within matches.

It is all because elite sport is about those fine margins. At the top, little can separate some of the best players and teams, and it can take more than luck or magic to make the difference: relentless professionalism can do the job too.

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