Bold and lucky Generals: The case of Arsenal Football club

April 5, 2007


A bold general may be lucky but no General can be lucky unless he is bold. The military precept has been adapted to explore the current disappointing performance of the Arsenal Football team. We ask whether the principle has any validity – in football or in military conflicts.

The excellent title to an Arsenal football blog post set me thinking. Where had I heard that before? Napoleon?

Well, almost. Turns out that the quote has a football and a military pedigree. The quote can be traced to a report in The New York Herald Tribune of a football match that had taken place at the start of the 2005 season. The game was one in which Arsenal suffered an ‘unlucky’ loss to Chelsea, when a bustling, and as yet largely unhailed Didier Drogba produced what the report decribed as

.. a fortuitous goal, a mishit by a big, bludgeoning attacker

The author of the Herald Tribune report traced the quotation in his title to the British Field Marshall, Archibald Percival Wavell. The Arsenal blog picked up on it a few years later.

And Napoleon?

It did sound a bit like a Napoleon story. That greatest of French military leaders was an early proponent of spin, so we have to be cautions about his words and intentions. There is a possibly apocryphal story of how he would consider the prospects for a junior officer by musing ‘Yes, but is he lucky’. The story fits with Napoleon’s somewhat fatalistic view of events which was coupled with a belief that there is a critical moment in battle (if not in life generally) when a great leader can seize the initiative regardless of circumstances.

Yogi’s warrior

Which story brings us back to the excellent Arsenal blog by Yogi’s warrier. I’ve noted earlier that Arsenal is well-served by intelligently written blogs It must have something to do with the civilizing impact or the other great French General, Arsene Wenger. Yogi’s warrior bemoaned Arsenal’s bad luck this season, with injuries to their main players, particularly their peerless Thiery Henry.

‘So what is wrong? More than anything I believe Arsene is having what could be called ‘bad luck’. Look at the wider picture. What else can the serious injuries to your two lead strikers be called? Careless? Hardly. Henry perhaps at a push but Arsenal tried to nurture him back from the World Cup only to have the French scupper their plans. The volume of football required of the player due to success at club and international level is the cause, as well as a stupid carelessness and stubborn pride from his national team manager. RvP’s foot? What else is that but bad luck?’

Luck, and Jose you know who

Seems to me, that luck deserves closer attention than it has received by academics, who would much rather study risk and uncertainty. With one or two exceptions, serendipity is out there with psychic studies as of dubious pedigree to warrant serious academic attention. Among the less cynical was the celebrated sociologist Robert Merton who suggested that luck could be partly explained by superior sensitivities to unexpected and unsought opportunities.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the ‘lucky General’ in the Herald Tribune story was none other than Jose Mourhino. Nor that the ‘lucky’ substitute was Didier Drogba. The win over Arsenal was about the time when the public profiles of both these figures were on the up. Since then Jose’s Chelsea have won two league titles. Mourhino’s reputation has grown even more. Drogba has largely fulfilled the promise that his mighty transfer fee required.

Even more significantly, Chelsea has also suffered ‘bad luck’ this year on the injury front. But this has been coupled by a remarkable number of ‘lucky’ wins. Although there has been talk of Chelsea losing momentum to Manchester United in the League, the gap in points between the two teams has remained almost the same over a period of several months.

Leadership lessons?

One possibility is that our beliefs are shaped by the sense we make of complicated situations, through what Herbert Simon called bounded rationality. Another factor is a tendency among one group of people to believe that they have little control over events, while other people believe they have more control over events. The positive mental attitude of the latter seems to work in a leader’s favor. So we collect events that conform to our negative beliefs, and assert we have been unlucky. It is likely to be the same mindset which leads us to attribute the success of others to their good luck. As I’ve probably written before, ‘either you believe you can or you believe you can’t. And in either case, you are probably right. Rationality is bounded (as Herb Simon taught us). Napoleon, and Jose, desplay the self-belief of charismatic leaders that transmits itself to their followers (and even to their enemies).