Our manager, regrettably, is at it again. Some odd comments were mentioned in his latest interview to Rangers TV, where Mark Warburton defended the team's recent form on the grounds that we had been playing well but merely suffering from the natural variance of football.
Variance does, of course, exist. If we look at two extremes of variance in games, we can look at Poker and Chess. An amateur enthusiast for Poker would win plenty of hands of poker against Doyle Brunson in a heads-up game. They'd even have a reasonable chance of turning a profit against him, if the game lasted for ten or twenty hands. Yet if the game lasted for a thousand hands, they'd be well down in money. This is how variance works - you can get screwed despite playing well sometimes, but over time, quality shows through. Chess is the opposite example - an amateur would be likely to lose 100 games out of 100 against Magnus Carlsen.
Both of these games are essentially purely mental. If you think, you will note that any sport involving dexterity, physical technique and athleticism leads a lot further forward towards the Chess side of things. None of the folk reading this are likely to beat Andy Murray at Tennis, no matter how bad a day he's having. None of them would go the distance with Floyd Mayweather in boxing, a sport that is towards the higher end of the spectrum of variance than most physical ones.
So, where does football lie? Well, upsets happen all the time, and the game is incredibly complex, being a team sport with few clearly-defined passages of play. There are things you cannot control, and must play in the hope that they don't foil your good work. Broadly speaking, there are three things - injuries, refereeing errors, and the performances of other teams. Anything else is up to you. Just as Doyle Brunson can win Poker games through psychology, mathematics and concentration, so can footballers through superior skill, effort and teamwork.
Human error, individual mistakes, missed chances and so on are not part of this variance. They are, but they cannot be considered the same because they are within our control. It's no good saying "did the manager order Rob Kiernan to completely fail to track his man?" He does it every week, he bought him despite knowing his weaknesses, and he has failed to coach the mistakes out of him. Is Efe Ambrose, for instance, a great defender who is on the receiving end of some bad variance when it comes to human error? No, he's a defender who makes a lot of mistakes - IE, he is a bad defender. Good players bury chances and cut out mistakes - if it's variance, there are a hell of a lot of them on a good run of form.
This is why Warburton's assertion is so curious. In the three things they cannot control, Rangers have been unlucky. Niko Kranjcar was crocked for the season. After Joey Barton's departure, the lengthy injury-or-whatever-it-is to Jordan Rossiter left us without any midfielders who could defend. Danny Wilson hasn't been able to stay fit, either. We've also been neutral or slightly worse in the profit/loss from refereeing errors, and Celtic have embarked on a quite ludicrous run of form which is unlikely to be replicated. All of that is poor luck - IE, the variance of random factors outside of our control. Variance suggests that if the season were able to be run again a thousand times, the average gap between Rangers and Celtic would be smaller than it is right now.
By putting the notion of finishing chances and defending accurately as variance, Warburton is quite simply talking nonsense. Taking a shot or putting a ball into the box is not a random gamble - it is a combination of athleticism and technique which is affected by tactics, mentality, form, team shape and many other factors, all of which are to a large degree within the control of the manager and player.
You don't need any stats to prove this - any intelligent observer of football can note that Rangers get few players in the box and have a poor team shape in both defence and attack. Our players simply do not get into good positions at either end of the pitch, and that means those shots are more dangerous at our end and less dangerous at our opponents'. Warburton points to corners, too - if we win a lot of corners, shouldn't we perhaps be training to be better at them? The sample size must be high if we're getting so many in every game.
Other statistics point to failings in the coaching. Rangers shoot from outside the box far more than any other team in the league, which helps to explain why they often outshoot opponents. Expected Goals has become a fashionable trend, and while those figure might suggest that Warburton has a point, both the manager and that particular statistic have similar flaws. They ignore the opposition. 'Danger areas' can be a good guide, but who is more likely to score - a player attempting to turn and shoot from sixteen yards through a crowd of bodies who is being jostled by a tough centre-back, or a player in acres of space striking the ball in his stride from twenty yards? The opposition matter. And as their defence is invariably better organised than our attack, our shots are mostly taken from poor positions where they are difficult to score from.
You could even put that down to luck, if you wanted. Sam Allardyce had a similar outlook to Warburton in his quotes, and a mathematical look at football will tell you that shots from outside the box have little 'chance' of going in. Allardyce, therefore, instructed his team not to bother. Warburton's team do it with wild abandon. Of course, the fact that mathematics as brutal as this do not take into account whether the player taking the shot is Andrea Pirlo or Derek Lyle tell you that it's probably not a great way to think about the game, but Warburton isn't even practicing what he preaches.
Ultimately, that's the flaw with such a fatalistic way of looking at the game. It minimises things we can control, assuming that all players have the same ability and that both teams are equally well-organised. At best, it's a desperate manager making a plea with what seems to fit his general philosophy - midfield and possession focused, do the basics right and you'll get the rewards. Basics meaning passing, touch and pressing rather than shooting, crossing, movement, tackling, positioning or heading, but hey, that's his way of playing the game. Warburton is appealing to his strengths - we're doing the underlying things right, and if you think like I do, we'll start getting the results soon.
Another reason why variance is important might concern Warburton's replacement. Some fans, looking at the lack of an obvious candidate and assuming a replacement would be Derek McInnes, Tommy Wright or similar, feel less inclined to ditch our current manager. The assumption is that Warburton is at least a progressive coach who might get through in the end, whereas McInnes and Wright would do more with our resources but be unlikely to overachieve and move things forward enough to challenge Celtic. "What's the point of being 12 points behind instead of 27?" is a common refrain. Well, if we have been unlucky with certain factors, then variance in the opposite direction might put such a manager within touching distance. Warburton's side, ultimately, are playing poorly enough that variance is not an issue. The gap is too large to be made up by even the most improbable run of injuries and refereeing blunders to our rivals. A more solid manager would at least have a puncher's chance.
Of course, probably more likely and far worse, is that the comments reveal a manager who is dogmatic and stubborn in the face of all evidence against his position. Rangers are doing what Warburton considers to be the basic, underlying things correctly. It's just not having any effect, because we're very good in the middle third of the park but hopeless at either end. Warburton can try to fix the results however he wants, but when Rangers so consistently serve up the same problems that everybody can see, it's an insult to everyone's intelligence to pretend that Celtic are 27 points ahead on the good old luck of the Irish.