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Result vs. Process, or: The Stiliyan Petrov Problem

Bad process ahoy!
Bad process ahoy!

A few weeks ago, during the Everton match, I made my dislike for Stiliyan Petrov very well known on our twitter feed (all separate links). Even after he scored his amazing long-range goal I couldn't be purely joyous, I had to be snarky. Almost immediately after the captain scored, I began getting tweet to the effect of "Do you still wish he had been subbed off now?" And, I imagine to these people's surprise, my answer was still "yes."

Now, why is it that despite his goal I still wish Petrov had not been on the field? Why would I wish that the man who is, at least partially, responsible for our remaining unbeaten be sat on the bench for long stretches? It's not because I'm stubborn (well ok, it's partially that), instead, it is due to the difference between results and process. You see, when a positive result comes from a poor process, it's a sign of luck. Similarly, when a bad result is the outcome of a good process, it's a sign of poor luck. Stiliyan Petrov's goal was an example of the former, while losing after benching him would have been an example of the latter.

Perhaps an example would be helpful. You are standing on one side of a river with Marc Albrighton. On the other side of the river is Barry Bannan and his LEGO collection. Obviously, the lads would like to get together and play LEGOs, but the pesky river is in between them. You, as the wise elder in this situation, must find some way to get Marc across the river. A good process would be to walk to the conveniently located bridge and take Marc over it. A bad process would be thinking that "hey, crocodiles go in water and on land. Perhaps if I tie Marc to a crocodile he'll end up on the other side!"

We can all see where this is going. Most of the time, using the good process, Marc gets safely across the bridge and the boys build awesome spaceships with lasers (PEW PEW!). You can certainly imagine a scenario in which an earthquake hits and the bridge crumbles and you both drown. In this case, you probably wouldn't be held responsible, and most people would think "Well, that's just some terrible luck." Using the bad scenario, it's easy to envision a world in which Marc Albrighton becomes croc-food 99% of the time. Nevertheless, there's probably that tiny chance that the croc does what you want. Sure it was stupid, but: achievement unlocked, Marc crossed the river!

Have a handy table that, I swear, was inspired by Lookout Landing, but I can't find it there.


Good Process

Poor process

Good Result

Marc crosses river, all are praised for wisdom and intelligence.

Holy shitballs, Marc just rode a crocodile!

Poor Result

Well who could have seen that coming? Thank heavens we still have Charles N'Zogbia!

What moron tied Marc to a crocodile? That was more stupid than a blue-nose fan.


At first glance, it seems readily obvious which path should be chosen. There's one major problem with this, however, and that is psychological. People are all too willing to overlook the process half of the equation and focus merely on the results. And that makes sense. It is, after all, the good results that make us happy. If Villa played with 10 defenders all season and somehow won the EPL, I'd be delirious. But that wouldn't mean Villa had deserved to win it. There is the added problem of the fact that good results from poor process create perhaps even more joy. When you see the smart thing being done, you expect to be rewarded. When you see Marc successfully ride the crocodile, however, your mind is blown! It's the joy of a good result mixed with the fun of surprise!

There is a danger in focusing on results, however. A process is sustainable, and if it is a good one will (barring terrible luck) eventually lead to good results. Results borne of bad process, on the other hand, are usually unsustainable. Look no further than Birmingham for an example. Yes, they won the Carling Cup and are playing in Europe this year. They did so, however, using players that stretched their budget and in a system that didn't lead to EPL success. They've been relegated and now face major financial problems as well as the risk of falling even further (due in large part to their commitment to a European tournament on top of their league schedule). Were Birmingham fans excited for the Carling Cup? I'm sure. I'd also bet that they'd quickly trade that for the comfort and financial stability of the Premier League.

And now to bring this back to Stiliyan Petrov. When he is one the pitch, Petrov shows his age. He has bursts of quality, but overall he's slow and hampers the forward progress of a team that can't afford to lose what little momentum it has. As a sub, he could certainly be useful, but as a starter he is preventing better players from seeing the pitch. Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton could be on the field at the same time if Petrov sat. The team could be better off. We would certainly miss some opportunities provided by Petrov, but by and large those would be balanced by the other 75% of his play (the poor part) being off the field. Petrov has looked good at times this year despite being in a position he should not be. He successfully rode the croc, and yes, that is amazing. His goal was fantastic, and I loved it. But he should not have been on the pitch then, and I hope he isn't in the starting XI this weekend. Focus on the process and the results will follow.