How to judge a footballer: a lesson in perception and cognitive bias

How to judge a footballer: a lesson in perception and cognitive bias

Think of an A-League footballer, anyone will do. Now rate them – be it positively, negatively, or indifferently. Now consider how you rated them; interrogate the shorthand you used to make that leap from name association to emotional response.

Everyone will do this differently. We all have our own recipes and apply our cognitive biases with varying weightings. Most of the time we do so without realising what we are doing.

In our own ways we log every match and every incident, incrementally turning a fuzzy hard-to-locate sensation into a clearly defined opinion. Then, once formed, our judgments crystalise and we become attuned to confirmatory feedback.

But some matches and some incidents count more, and we watch some players more than others, and we are influenced by friends and pundits and data, and the last performance we remember is harder to ignore, and, and … These conclusions we’ve drawn, they’re not infallible. Perception creates reality.

Within the potpourri of this critical analysis there is a tension between appraising a player based on their perceived best as compared to their average. They are not diametrically opposed, but they push different buttons.

Alex Wilkinson or Steven Ugarkovic, for example, are understated footballers who rarely turn in a poor performance, but such is the nature of their play they are unlikely to ever command our attention. Compare them to, say, Ziggy Gordon, who has trademarked memorable last-ditch interventions, or Alou Kuol, a forward so instinctive it is impossible to avert your gaze when he is on the field.

We can feel confident in our estimations of Wilkinson or Ugarkovic (whatever they may be), but Kuol? We don’t yet have a sufficient sample size, despite an awareness his best is electrifying.

This space between a player’s average and ceiling is the source of much fan frustration. ‘Why can’t they always perform at their best?’, we exhort from the stands, wrestling with our emotionally anchored value of a player while they shank a cross or keep a forward onside.

The judgment of Sven Mislintat, VfB Stuttgart’s sporting director, is legendary, earned from his time identifying undervalued assets as a scout for Borussia Dortmund. Players like Shinji Kagawa and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang delivered on the field before swelling the club’s bank balance off it. Mislintat is the man who has seen a high enough ceiling in Kuol to pluck a player with just five A-League starts and drop him into the Bundesliga.

According to Christoph Biermann, a writer with 11 Freunde who has spent time with Mislintat, one of the German’s particular attributes is identifying players with the possibility of becoming “world class”. It is an insight that helps contextualise the move for such an uncut gem.

Mislintat is not concerned with the Central Coast Mariner we saw at AAMI Park on Sunday. He is dealing with a future version of that player after he has been refined by the Stuttgart system. But what is clear is there is already something in Kuol, in this raw state, that ticks the scout’s boxes – enough to convince Mislintat that the potential is significant enough to put in the work. In turn, Kuol’s challenge is to elevate his average performance to the level at which he can be trusted sufficiently to allow his best to be exposed on the biggest stage.

“This will really test how well I can adapt to high-level football,” Kuol, a Tiggerish ball of energy, told The Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ll see how we go but I reckon I’ll definitely be ready for it.”

His confidence is not shared universally. There is a long list of A-League footballers that have left the competition at a young age only to return shortly afterwards, reminded bluntly of their standing on a global scale.

Kuol is different. He is not yet a career professional grafting to climb the ladder based on consistency of performance and incremental improvement. He is a lightning bolt, largely unproven, but with limitless potential. That is what has attracted Mislintat, and that is what makes the move so exciting. Kuol might not make it, but he might become world class, and he is moving to an environment much better suited to exposing that slim reality.

That is not a slight on the Mariners, who themselves demonstrate the benefit of a player finding the appropriate environment in which to flourish. Stefan Nigro was discarded by the A-League last year and is now a regular in a finals-bound campaign. As is Jack Clisby, finally at home at his fourth franchise. Oliver Bozanic is at his fifth home in four years and deserves to be among the favourites for the Johnny Warren Medal.

They are the players turning in performances week in, week out, who have enabled Alen Stajcic to sleep soundly at night, and in turn provide Kuol a launchpad. Let’s hope he takes flight, to Baden-Württemberg, and beyond.