Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Draw as Something More (Or Less) Than a Neutral Result

A draw as a result is something that is met with frustration or disdain in American sports. We've all heard the phrase "a tie is like kissing your sister" and I would feel safe in describing this as the view of the vast majority of sports fans in the United States. All of the major sports have methods devised to specifically avoid a tie (extra innings in baseball, overtime in basketball, shootouts in hockey, and so forth) and even though football's overtime still allows for the possibility for a tie, this is more due to the unfairness of prolonged overtime due to the intensely physical nature of the game rather than any kind of philosophic inclusion of the result. In general, a draw is seen to be a letdown of an outcome, something that happens because the "true" winner could not be confirmed. It is a result that is largely seen as negative and definitely accepted with no better than a neutral "well, at least we got something out of it" outlook. However, this is a particular and subjective way of thinking about draws rather than something to be seen as a universal truth. In soccer, draws are often unwanted or disappointing, but still can be seen as a positive, or even as a lesser victory depending on the disparity in talent level between the teams.

The main attitude of the American sports fan is that a tie is not winning and therefore automatically bad. While understandable to a degree, this is not an attitude that is applied to all other aspects of the sports. Of course winning is the ultimate goal. The entire point of a season, as well as an extended history, of a sport is to be the best, to be the champions, to have defeated all comers. This is understood and not something I wish to contest. But it is only the most extreme fans who consider every season a failure unless they win the title in their respective league. Of course an odds-on favorite to win it all is disappointed, even devastated, when they fall short (as a Penguins fan I know this all too well right now). If Kentucky hadn't won the NCAA basketball championship, that would have been considered a failure because they were obviously the most talented team and were the dominant pick to win everything. When you reach a certain level of prosperity and talent, simply competing isn't enough. But there are many instances in which falling short of the trophy is still considered an accomplishment. What lowly regarded team that makes the playoffs isn't appreciated for their efforts? Would fans of last year's Seattle Seahawks team, who won their division and then beat the powerhouse New Orleans Saints, truly consider that run to be worth nothing since they didn't win the Super Bowl? Teams and/or fans often view their success incrementally: we'd love it if we showed real improvement from last year, we'd love it if we made the playoffs, we'd love it if we won the division, and so on upward. As I said, at a certain point it is not enough to just be in the running, but if we allow for step-by-step growth at a season level, why do we automatically rule it out from an individual game?

More important, a draw does actually gain something for a team. A draw, although worse than a win, is better than a loss. You may be angry if your football team ties at some point during their season, but when their 9-6-1 record allows them to qualify for the playoffs over a 9-7 team, you'll certainly be happy that game ended in a draw instead of a loss. Draws work similarly in soccer in that you receive 1 point if the game ends with both sides equal. This is clearly worse than the 3 points for a win. If an English Premier League team tied every single one of their 38 matches, that would put them at 38 points which is hovering around the relegation zone in a competitive year (40 points is the common marker for the "safe zone" from being sent down a league), so obviously a team needs to do more than that. But every point is helpful towards achieving the end result. The question is less about "is a draw objectively good/bad/neutral" and more about "what was the nature of the draw?" When Wigan (perennial relegation contender) held Chelsea (perennial title contender) to a draw at home earlier this season, the mood was celebratory and it should have been. Here was one of the small teams in the league holding one of the big money organizations to a draw, something that shouldn't happen in the eyes of the big boys. Add in the fact that European soccer isn't salary capped, and this result looks less like the Cleveland Browns ending a game in a draw with the Green Bay Packers, but more like the Royals splitting a series with the New York Yankees. Any Browns fan would take that result in recent years, but the Royals fan would be especially happy considering the payroll difference between them and the Yankees is a staggering $137 million. Then again, for Chelsea, Green Bay, or New York, such a tie would be below expectations and therefore disappointing. Again, it is situational and not something in the very nature of what a draw is.

So what to make of the Arsenal draw at Stoke City? The answer is that it is somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Arsenal will be very disappointed to not pick up the full three points. Newcastle's loss would have meant that an Arsenal win would have gone a long way toward locking up the third spot (the automatic Champions League spot) in the Premiership, putting them six points up (though Newcastle and Tottenham both have a game in hand) with two games to play. That would mean Arsenal would have to lose both of their last two games and their opponents would have to win and at least draw. Good odds to be certain. Alas, the draw leaves them only four points up which means Arsenal winning both of their last two matches is the only way to assure themselves of the third spot. This is why I, and all other Gunners fans, were hoping the team could pull a last minute goal out to earn the win.

Then again, Britannia Stadium is a notoriously difficult place to play. Though Stoke has been a mid-table team since being promoted to the Premier League in 2008, they have never finished worse than 13th and will finish anywhere from 8th to 14th this season (though the low side is much more likely than the high side). Even more telling, they have always finished above. 500 in their home games and have already gotten results from Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, and Chelsea at Britannia this year, an impressive list that doesn't even including disappointing but still historic Liverpool. That point could prove vital over the next two matches, keeping Arsenal ahead of their competition when a loss would have put them in more danger. So while a draw may not be the chest pounding triumphant result that vanquishing your enemies may be, it deserves much more than the derisive dismissal it gets from most fans in the United States. As with most things, it's all a matter of timing and expectations.

Game Notes

-My notes for this match were lost due to an annoying computer crash (very close to upgrading this old (in computer years) laptop), so I'm afraid I cannot be as specific as I'd like. It was apparent though, even working from memory, that Arsenal were the more dominant team and always the more likely to score. Still, Stoke is a difficult team to break down and once the match went on and they were in a position to gain a point, we saw less and less in terms of risk and the standard defensive mindset kicked in. I say this not to insult Stoke as I can easily understand the value of maintaining the draw. It was just unfortunate for an Arsenal team that could have really done with the pace of Theo Walcott or the inventiveness and aggression of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arsenal were unlucky not to come out with the win, but it is one of those acceptable "losses" that Stoke are so good at forcing upon opponents.

-Since I continually dog Aaron Ramsey in this blog, it should be noted that he played much better in this match. He did not dominate the game and come up with chance after chance, but he was much more tidy with the ball than in the past and his attempts on net were more controlled than we have come to expect. He still should not be a first choice starter for the Gunners, but with the increasingly injured midfield looking like it does, he will be a valuable option if he can at least keep up this placeholder type play. Consistency is the name of the game though, so let's hope this is the start of an upswing rather than a momentary glitch.

-MAROUANE CHAMAKH GOT IN A GAME FOR ARSENAL!!! This is both the most hilariously exciting and terribly depressing thing I've seen all season. At least he didn't do anything to lower his potential transfer fee? Ugh. Thank god we got Podolski. As Always, Go Gunners.


  1. I tend to think that the opinion on ties is bred with the rules of the sport, not necessarily due to "Americanization". It was only recently that the NHL instituted a regular season tie-breaker (which is not counted towards playoff-making-points) and up until then, a tie was common and occasionally expected (especially when the Devils were playing). While it is written in the NFL rules that a game can end in a tie, it does so infrequently, people just are used to it happening. I can only really remember one ending that way and it surprised me as much as Donovan McNabb. I think if the rules of a sport were changed to reflect a positive outcome in points (one for a tie) like the NHL was soccer is, then the opinion of a tie wouldn't be so disheartening.

    1. You make a good point that because the rules of the sports do their best to eliminate ties, it is more reasonable for someone to be upset about one due to the expectations. That certainly feeds into the perception. But you mention a positive outcome in hockey back when draws were allowed; those positive outcomes still exists in sports now, they just aren't as often realized. 9-6-1 does still beat 9-7, which is essentially the same as 2 points for a win, 1 point for a tie in the old NHL rules. Interesting to think about if the rules breed the perception or vice versa.