Will Computer SAM kill off the soccer pundits?

By Paul Gardner

Mark Lawrenson was once a top defender. He played for the Republic of Ireland, even though he was born and grew up in England. And he had a seven-year stint with Liverpool. Which puts him up there among the stars, at least in British eyes.

These days his title is “BBC Football Expert.” He does a lot of TV work for the BBC -- and comes over attractively, excellent voice, plenty of personality and humor ... and knowledgeable.

Though that last item might be questioned. Recently, Lawrenson -- he’s known as Lawro -- always the good sport, affably agreed to pit his game-forecasting skills against those of a computer called SAM. Lawro lost the test of skills, rather badly.

I’ll come to the gory details in a moment. For now, let’s take a look at what impels soccer people to announce, loudly, that they already know the result of tomorrow’s game, and maybe are confident enough to back their forecast with money.

Now surely, surely, if there’s one thing that ought to be understood among all soccer fans, it is that predicting results, never mind scorelines, is a mug’s game. Big time.

It is the massive unlikelihood of correctly forecasting a soccer scoreline that makes the sport an ideal activity for gambling. Just so long as you happen to be a bookie, that is.

Yet forecasting has enormous appeal. I would guess that 50%, probably more, of that appeal comes from the link with gambling, which seems to be an unstoppably popular pastime. Forecasting is the very basis of gambling.

The other 50% is free of any charge of wanting to get rich quick. For many, forecasting is simply a way of showing off, of proving that they know soccer by getting the results right. (It needs pointing out, though, that we hear a lot about these predictions when they turn out to be correct -- and not nearly so much when, much more frequently, they are wrong).

Neither motivation -- not gambling nor showing off -- stands up to a close look. Whichever one stirs you to make predictions, they are more likely to be wrong than correct. So why bother? Well, it’s fun, that’s why.

Of course there is professional gambling on soccer, which evidently involves nasty gangs and bribes and attempts at game-fixing, but I’m taking that to be only a small part of the whole picture. Most of the gambling on soccer is small-time stuff -- what the English call “having a flutter” -- and is pretty harmless.

Maybe not quite so harmless for experts though? Getting shown up by a computer cannot be good news for Lawro, or any of the host of pundits.

This is how it played out: of the 10 Premier League games on Boxing Day, Lawro got the results of five -- just half of them -- correct. Which gave him 50 points, plus an extra 30 points, because he also got the correct scoreline for one of those games. A total of 80 points.

Meanwhile, SAM the computer called seven of the games accurately, for 70 points, and got the scoreline correct in two of those games, for an extra 60 points. Final score: Pundit Lawro 80, Computer SAM 130. SAM by a knockout, I'd say.

Maybe Lawro is simply going through a bad patch, failing to interpret his undoubted knowledge correctly. I rather doubt that. I think what the results show is that soccer is a mightily unpredictable activity. It doesn’t matter how clever and knowledgeable you are, your predictions are not going to be any better than those of ignoramuses who clumsily stick pins into the game schedule.

The week before Lawro was trounced by the computer, he had taken on Justin Moorhouse -- a comedian, well known in England because of his role in a popular sitcom. Do I need to tell you that the comedian beat Lawro, 70 to 50?

I’ve always quite enjoyed watching Lawro, and I genuinely applaud his willingness put his expertise on the line ... but he does seem to be contributing rather powerfully to the demise of pundits. Or at least, using ex-players as pundits.

I have no idea what sort of information was pumped into SAM, but whatever it was, it can be repeated, and refined, for any game and may well therefore stand a good chance of propelling SAM to become the very first Grand Master of Soccer Punditry. Except that the title should go to the human behind the scenes. An academic -- Ian McHale, professor of sports analytics at the University of Salford.

And of course I hate having to say all that, as I am a confirmed Luddite when it comes to the use of computers in soccer. But by flooring the likable Lawro, Professor McHale and comedian Justin have combined to make a fairly convincing case for computer SAM. More than that. They have strengthened the fear of most soccer pundits (now that’s a group that I belong to, or certainly aspire to) that their predictions, maybe even their opinions, carry no more weight than a fan’s boozy boast in a pub. Oh dear. What are things coming to?

8 comments about "Will Computer SAM kill off the soccer pundits? ".
  1. Allan Lindh, December 28, 2015 at 12:09 a.m.

    Only thing wrong with this scenario is that if Prof McHale really had a program that performs so well, we wouldn't tell anyone until he owned a large coastal estate in Italy, and at least one Greek Island, and a few Mil in the bank. Or does he?

  2. Kent James replied, December 29, 2015 at 2:21 p.m.

    Nailed it.

  3. Footballer Forever, December 28, 2015 at 2:33 a.m.

    PG, your articles tend to be of a sour old man who thinks is knowledgeable about footbaĺl, err, "soccer" before you go "get off my lawn" on me, and might believe you are God's gift to the sport in USA.

    I am not sure if it is your mix of British background combined with your "Americana" views that makes you come out twice as snobby type.

  4. Ric Fonseca replied, December 28, 2015 at 2:20 p.m.

    Must've been another sloooooow day for this fellow! I like your comment, but for the love of me, I can't figure out, this Brit talks out of both side of you know what, some days rants about ugly English football - ooops, "soccer" - and on other occasions lauds it! Oh well, I guess he's paid to do so, but as I've said time and again, I'd - and hopefully many others - woulr prefer he write-talk about US football "soccer", its trials and tribulations, laud our sport here in the good ole US of A, or even the turbulent Liga MX, in other words, regale us with what is good about football "soccer" here, and so who gives a diddly about what's going on across the pond? Happy New Year!!! ???

  5. Footballer Forever replied, December 28, 2015 at 3:53 p.m.


    I do not know what it is, but this old Brit fellow words, sentences write loaded with venomous/ill-will or simply frustrated feelings. One day he acts British, then another day he is "American" and then he is the worst of both worlds. I noticed this fool when he went on a rant about MLS clubs using FC/Football Clubs. He sounded such a hillbillie redneck and i would have sworn he was more fan of eggball than real football. Either way, his negative outlook always comes out from each word or punctuation he makes.

  6. Footballer Forever replied, December 28, 2015 at 4:30 p.m.

    I take back the "hillbillie redneck" statement to simply replace it with:

    "He sounded such a Donald Trump and i would have sworn he was more fan of eggball than real football.

  7. Randy Vogt, December 28, 2015 at 6:19 a.m.

    Paul's column today reminds me a bit of a NFL pool that the Manhattan ad agency that I worked at had during the 1990's. A co-worker who was a professional gambler came into work with gambling sheets and used them for his picks, which were similar to other people's selections as they were being guided by somewhat similar material. They won very infrequently and not nearly as much as our receptionist who had no idea who Joe Montana was (the dominant player of the decade), selected left-right-left-right and wound up winning a good deal. Sometimes you can overthink this stuff. Happy New Year!!

  8. Fajkus Rules, January 7, 2016 at 3:19 a.m.

    Most pundits rarely consider the case for how the "other" team (that they are picking against) might be able to win the game. In professional sports, I contend that in almost all cases, except the very biggest mismatches, an underdog at the professional level has at least a 25-33% chance to win any given game if that team as a group can muster an above average performance for that game.

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