In the Critics this Week

Jeanette Winterson on Virginia Woolf, Rachel Cooke on House of Cards, Richard Holloway on John Gray and much more.

The Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is lead by Jeanette Winterson’s article on the “joyous transgressions” of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In her essay, Winterson discusses how Woolf “did away with the usual co-ordinates of biography and set off through time as though it were an element, not a dimension”. Woolf composed the novel as a “savage satire on sexism”, spurred by the Victorian gender roles among which she grew up. Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s lover and the model for Orlando, “often dressed as a man and often had affairs with other women in her disguise as ‘Julian’”, and Woolf responded to this, Winterson argues, in part because of her love for the “scope and the certainty of the Renaissance mind”. Shakespeare could understand the “manliness of a soldier, the intensity of a nun”, and Woolf’s novel enacts a similar full-mindedness. Winterson argues that Woolf wrote a novel which refuses constraints, where “Ageing is irrelevant. Gender is irrelevant. Time is irrelevant”.

In her review of House of Cards, Rachel Cooke is sceptical of the soothsayers who insist Netflix will revolutionise the way we watch television. Will House of Cards really initiate a culture of binge-watching? Though Cooke doubts it, she admits that if anything were to seduce her, it could very well be House of Cards, whose writing and production she praises, alongside Kevin Spacey’s lead performance. Ryan Gilbey thinks far less of the week’s big cinema release, This is 40, directed by Judd Apatow. Gilbey deems it “not so much cinema as four episdoes of Outnumbered set to a coffee-shop playlist”, and ultimately “40 percent Less Funny Than Any Previous Judd Apatow Film”.

In Books, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, reviews John Gray’s The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, in which the philosopher argues that “our capacity for language has prompted us to create myths that express the riddle of our existence”, yet “humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills is its most dangerous disease”. George Eaton finds the prose of Richard Seymour in his book Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens “tediously inflated”, and his message undermined from the outset “by deploying ‘left’ as a synonym for ‘things I like’ and ‘right’ as a synonym for ‘things I don’t’”.

Elsewhere, Sarah Churchwell reviews A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (“the ethos of this novel is about the value of making things”); Alex Massie reviews On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford (“Edinburgh and Glasgow have never been friends...”); Peter Wilby reviews Calon: a Journey to the Heart of Welsh Rugby by Owen Sheers (“modern rugby involves more than stirring men’s blood against ancient wrongs”); and James Harkin reviews Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (“as mainstream institutions crumble, it’s easy to have a go at cultish organisations”).

 

Plus:

Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Tracey Thorn, whose book Bedsit Disco Queen chews over an essential question for the author: “Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?” Thorn discusses the mild careerism of her generation in comparison to today’s “terribly organised and ambitious” youth.

 

Elsewhere in The Critics:

Will Self on the elusiveness of raclette in Basel (“I liked the idea of shepherd’s slapping the cheese round down on a griddle by the fire, then scraping off successive wedges of golden deliquescence”); Alexandra Coghlan on the Sensing Memory festival at University of Plymouth (which “teems with compositional creativity”); Antonia Quirke on Radio 4’s latest series, Lyrical Journey which travels to the geographical setting of a famous song with its songwriter; and a poem by Maurice Riordan on the “drawn-out scream” of childhood, entitled "The Lull".

English novelist and critic Virginia Woolf, 1902. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times