The Sports Illustrated Jinx and Chelsea’s Striker Problem

No. Fernando Torres’ woes in front of goal are not going to be attributed to him appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated – and I don’t even think he has made it to the cover at all. This is about something more fundamental.

Sports Illustrated

The Sports Illustrated cover jinx is an urban legend that states that individuals or teams who appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated magazine will subsequently be jinxed (experience bad luck). A star athlete makes it to the cover of the magazine after having a remarkable season or a particularly outstanding performance. Following his appearance on the cover, his performances suddenly see a dip or his very next performance (after the outstanding one) turns out to be a really bad one. There are dozens of instances that corroborate this jinx, and there will no doubt continue to be many more in the future. And as much as this is a clear cut case of confirmation bias, I will argue later in the post that there is another fundamental principle underlying this urban legend.

Now let us look at Chelsea FC. For anybody who knows me even remotely, I am a well established Chelsea supporter – (you know that team in the Premier League that plays football with at least 2 different managers every year. The same team that went on to win the Champions League last season only to get knocked out in the group stage this season. Yeah, that one).

Being a Chelsea fan for close to a decade now, I have seen many many transformations in the team – thanks largely to a bankrolling AND trigger happy owner. I have seen many successful years and many unsuccessful years. However, the past couple of seasons have been particularly frustrating and energy sapping for any Chelsea fan. (Yes, we did win the Champions League last season, but it could have as well gone all wrong so easily). And the biggest factor in all of that has been Chelsea’s inability to field a striker who can score goals.

Torres: Chelsea’s official non-scoring Striker

We all know the story. Fernando Torres comes in after a few scintillating seasons with Liverpool and for a hefty transfer fee. Didier Drogba, a fan favorite, is approaching his twilight years and will make way for Torres in the front line. It all looked good on paper. And then reality sunk in. Torres barely scored. His record of goal scoring was so pathetic that Emile Heskey began to sound like a better option. And this continues to this day – even after the departure of Drogba and with the infusion of creative midfielders like Hazard and Oscar.

But before we pass around judgments, let us take a step back here and go over recent Chelsea transfer history – specifically on the strikers. Chelsea has been widely accused of being the club that buys world class center forwards for big money, only to make them mediocre players as soon as they started playing for their new club. Even a hardcore Chelsea fan like me cannot deny the dip in performances of the TWO actual instances – Torres and Shevchenko. However, upon closer look, one sees a more fundamental principle at work here.

Torres and Shevchenko were world class strikers before they came to Chelsea, after which they suffered a terrible dip in form and are/were never likely to regain the top form that they displayed at their previous clubs. But ‘joining Chelsea’ was not the reason why their form dipped. The reason Chelsea even purchased them was because the club had a reputation of spending big money on players who were at the peak of their careers. Torres and Shevchenko definitely fit the bill then and their services were acquired for significant sums of money. But where does anyone go from the peak of their careers? There is only one way – and that is down. So when reaching the peak of one’s playing career is followed by going to Chelsea FC, the headlines are already written. A simple correlation is easily mistaken for causality.

Not only does this bring about an image of being a club that apparently spoils players’ talent and form, but more importantly, the team is now playing someone who is on the way down in his career. Add to this a change in the system of play, the psychological barrier that comes with the hefty fee and the intense media and fan scrutiny/expectations involved – and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. The player stops performing and the club’s results begin to go down in a spiral. Sound familiar? Well, it should. Because this is exactly what has happened with Chelsea’s striker position.

Torres was already on the decline at Liverpool. His performance at the World Cup before joining Chelsea was laughable and I personally rated him to be the worst player at the tournament. Spending 50 million in that situation was never a good idea. Didier Drogba, on the other hand, was brought to the club under none of the above circumstances. He was young (24-25), far from his peak, didn’t cost as much, and Chelsea built their playing system AROUND him. As a result, he gave his best years to the club and no wonder the club’s best years coincided with his career peak.

Demba Ba is not the solution. He is a temporary fix who is expected to be better than Torres. So what then is the permanent solution? Well, for one, it does not involve anyone whose name has either Falcao or Cavani in it – for acquiring the services of players like Cavani and Falcao in their current situation clearly falls under the same set of circumstances in which Torres was bought. (Yeah sure they may give a couple of good seasons but that is not the objective here is it?) And if Mr. Abromovich does not intend to repeat the same mistakes, he would be better off buying someone younger and who has not yet reached his peak.

Going back to the Sports Illustrated jinx, it is now quite easy to draw the analogy. A star athlete makes it to the cover BECAUSE he is at the peak of his career or at the least,  a local maxima – and there is only way to go from there – down. Not only is this just a case of confirmation bias, it also serves as a textbook case of correlation being mistaken for causality.

This underlying principle deserves a closer and more detailed look – especially with regard to how football teams are built and its correlation with the success the team achieves. But that is a topic for another post – hopefully sometime soon.

About Akshay N R

Civil Engineer by Profession; Dudeist by Religion. Also allergic to mediocrity.

Posted on January 5, 2013, in Arbit, Chelsea, Football, Serious Writing, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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