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Soft Factors: How Premier League Underdogs Flip The Script

Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Norwich City’s Todd Cantwell

When Norwich City face off against Manchester City, the result is almost guaranteed. Manchester City have a far superior side in terms of skill and experience, and the monetary value of even the substitutes on City’s bench is exponentially greater than Norwich’s starting eleven. And yet, we still watch because there’s the slightest chance that we could witness an upset. But why is that? The answer: soft factors.

So, what are “soft factors”? For the purposes of this piece, we’re defining soft factors as those variables in sport that are unpredictable, intangible and unquantifiable – e.g. gamesmanship, home-field advantage or off-field distractions and myriad other psychological elements.   

If soccer were played by robots, there would be no jeopardy. The superior robots would simply defeat their inferior opponents. Thankfully, the world of sports has not yet fallen to that level of automation, and we’re still enjoying the chaos of human athletics. So when I turn on the tv every weekend morning to enjoy English Premier League soccer, I know that I’m in for something unexpected. Maybe Ederson (City’s goalkeeper) had some bad sushi the night before, or maybe Anthony Taylor (the referee) is a little rusty after his bachelor party a few days ago. That’s the beautiful thing about soccer and the EPL, in particular: all twenty teams are relatively close in terms of “hard factors” like technical ability, strength and endurance, so games are generally decided by a moment of either madness or brilliance. Just like American football is a game of inches, soccer is a game of seconds. 

We’ve all heard the line from non-soccer observers, “Soccer is sooo boring! There’s no action, they just pass the ball around and waste time.” This perceived lack of action is, in fact, a riveting stalemate – one team searching for a breakthrough, while the other battens down the hatches, sitting back in a low block. But all it takes is one moment, one slip, one lapse in concentration by the center-back and the game comes alive.

Despite our impression of professional athletes as finely-tuned machines, trained and drilled to perfection, they are still human. Yes, most of the time, things go according to script. But on occasion, the cosmic writers of soccer take a page out of the Joker’s book by introducing a little anarchy.

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