By Ufuoma Egbamuno

​So, the worst kept secret was finally showcased on Sunday night as Liverpool forward, Mohammed Salah was crowned the PFA Player of the Year by his fellow professionals.

The Egyptian has had a sensational season/year that it doesn’t come as a surprise. 31 goals in the Premier League, 41 in all competitions, 4 games away from breaking club and league goal scoring records; it may be a little, scratch that, it will be hugely weird and awkward to say what I am about to say now on the evidence of these stats.

But, I have built a career and a life on treading where most dare not to and trying to look at issues from a totally different angle than most.

So, I am going to say this: Mo ultimately deserved to win the PFA gong BUT his win isn’t because he had a better season than the other candidate for the title, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bryne. It is down majorly to what I have termed RECENCY BIAS!
Here’s exactly what I mean.

Take your mind a little back to the last two nights of the UEFA Champions League and all the drama it served us.

First, Roma pulled a shocker defeating favourites Barcelona 3:0 to overturn a first leg 4:1 defeat. And then Juventus were seconds away from the unthinkable at the Santiago Bernabau. 

Both matches were so significant, not just for the obvious importance to the teams involved but CRUCIALLY for the race for who gets to win the 2018 Ballon d’Or. 

As soon as Barca got knocked out on that Tuesday night, Cristiano Ronaldo became a trending topic on social media. Reason? He was already being crowned as the number one favourite for this year’s crown. Win the Champions League and he will be voted 2018 Ballon d’Or winner many posted. 

A day later, Juve were a few seconds away from turning a 3:0 first leg home deficit into one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the UEFA Champions League knock out stage. 

Then Cristiano happened!

The Real Madrid great was as cool as ice as he tucked home the winning goal from the spot in the 8th minute of added time. 

The penalty that resulted in the winner is still the subject of debate even as I write this. And believe it or not, one aspect of this debate is centred on the 2018 Ballon d’Or. 

On one hand, Barcelona cum Messi fans are adamant referee Michael Oliver has a “bag of rubbish for a heart” – (apologies Gigi Buffon). On the other hand, Madristas and Cristiano lovers have praised Oliver for having the guts to call the decision so late on. 

Bottom line however is, that call – which was the right one by the way – reignited a conversation: who gets to win the Ballon d’Or.

Which brings me to the essence of this piece: “Recency bias” plays a huge and sometimes unfavourable role in choice of football award recipients. 

The criteria for judging the best player of a league, continent or world football is always open for debate.

Is it who scores the most goals?

Makes the most assists? 

Is it who wins a trophy?

Or better still, who wins the biggest trophy? 

What’s the calendar used? 

A calendar year? 

Or the European season calendar which starts in August and ends in May? 

There’s no definite parameter to be honest – at least none given by organisers of these awards. But what we do know for sure is that these awards are voted by a combination of fellow professionals, coaches, journalists or at least one of them depending on the award in question. 

What also I do know for sure is that the recent form of a particular player at the time a vote is cast tends to work in favour of that individual – which is what I’ve termed “Recency Bias”. 

Here are examples:

Lionel Messi controversially won the 2010 Ballon d’Or when many expected Dutch maestro, Wesley Sneijder to carry the day.

The previous season the former Inter Milan man was arguably the best player in Europe and the world helping Inter on their way to a famous Treble.

He was also instrumental to a Dutch side that went all the way to the final of the World Cup finishing as Runners Up. Messi on the other hand had a great year leading to Barca retaining their league crown.

But crucially, between August and December of that year, Messi was in blistering form scoring goals and generally the fulcrum of a wonderful Barcelona side.

Unfortunately for Sneijder, at that same period, Inter Milan were on a downward spiral culminating in a loss of form for the Dutch International. 

I ask, when was the votes for that year’s Ballon d’Or cast? Yes, your guess is as good mine: same time Sneijder was in poor form and Messi was awesome.

Let me take you back a few more years. The 2003 – 2004 season remains Arsenal’s greatest ever season.

At the heart of it all was a certain Thiery Henry with 30 league goals and 6 in Europe on their way to a quarter final exit.

That same season, Barcelona started poorly but by December, a certain Ronaldinho took the world by storm leading Barca to an unimaginable second place finish.

Matter of fact, if not for the poor start to the season, many believe they could have overturned Rafa Benitez’ Valencia lead. Ronaldinho continued that same form at the start of August, crucially at the time votes were cast for that year’s FIFA Player of the Year award.

Oh, lest I forget, very few remembered that Barca were even knocked out by Celtic in the second round of the UEFA Cup sometime in February. Topping the league in November/December as well as excellent start in the Champions League at the time trumped the infamy of a disgraceful UEFA Cup exit early part of the year.

Interestingly, AC Milan’s Andrey Schevchenko won the Ballon d’Or with Henry finishing second while Ronaldinho won FIFA’s version, again Henry finishing second. 

Still not convinced about how “Recency Bias” plays a major role in swaying these votes?

In 2013, Cristiano Ronaldo scored 4 goals in a World Cup Play-off in
November. A game that came after FIFA controversially extended voting for that year’s Ballon d’Or. We all know the result of that 4 goal haul as a certain Frank Ribery who had an amazing season with Bayern leading to a Treble, finished behind not just Ronaldo but Messi. Recency Bias again played a crucial role as Bayern and most importantly Ribery suffered in dip in form in the months leading up to the vote cast. 

Fast forward to April 2018 and Recency Bias is again at work. Or how else do you explain the notion out there that Barca’s exit from the Champions League means Ronaldo will win or deserves to win the Ballon d’Or more than anyone else if Real Madrid win the Champions League? 

How else do you explain the fact that many believe Mohammed Salah is the best player in the Premier League this season and it will be a tragedy or is it travesty if he isn’t crowned PFA Player of the Year? 

Let’s start with Ronaldo. By his high standards, the first 5 months of the 2017-2018 season weren’t good enough. For any other player, it wasn’t bad. To be ranked as the world’s best however, even Cristiano himself will admit he was way down the pecking order.

But since January ending, the Portuguese has been in devastating form. He is the top scorer in this year’s Champions League and after heroics of the last two UEFA Champions League nights against Juventus, Real could as well be crowned winners for the third time. 

The crucial question now is, does winning the European trophy suddenly negate the fact he has only been great for 3-4 months? 

Does it automatically wipe out Messi’s consistency from August till now if you chose a league season calendar or January till now if you choose a calendar year?

In a season where Barca could end up winning the league undefeated and are on course to get a double, does winning the Champions League wipe away consistency of a 9 month league season? 

I’ve heard many say Messi would need to win the World Cup to finish ahead of Ronaldo in the race for Ballon d’Or if the Portuguese wins the Champions League. 

The truth is, a Champions League win for Ronaldo will give him an almost equal right to a Ballon d’Or win as Messi’s incredible league season. The notion that the European win automatically means one trumps the other can only be made because of Recency Bias. 

And to Mo, four weeks ago I brought up the topic on my radio show about who deserves to be named PFA Player of the Year should be and overwhelmingly, the Egyptian Messi -as Mo Salah is fondly called – got most of the votes. I kept asking the callers if Salah’s recent performances wasn’t beclouding their judgements and the replies I kept getting was “No, he’s been on fire all season.”

Make no mistake, Salah has been one of the most consistent performers in the Premier League this season. I’m not sure the Liverpool hierarchy believed he would turn out this good when they paid 30 million pounds last summer.

However, I find it ridiculous that most of us believe no other person in the Premier League comes close to the Egyptian. 

And I attribute this assertion to Recency Bias.

Like I’ve asked a few times, as at December 2017, who is that one player in the Premier League touted as the overwhelming favourite for the PFA Player of the Year?

Who was that Premier League player who was touted as a possible competition for the aliens that are Messi and Ronaldo in the race for the 2018 Ballon d’Or? 

His name isn’t Mo Salah. 

As at December 2017, Manchester City’s Kelvin De Bruyne was heads and shoulders above everyone and at the heart of a City team who were being compared at the time to the Invincibles.

So, has Kevin suddenly become poor now? 

I’ve heard many – including colleagues – say that the Belgian tailed off in the second half of the season and only had 6 great months as opposed to Salah who’s been consistent all through the year.

Guess what, that is the most untrue thing ever said in 2018!

I am not big on stats and I hate using it as a basis of football analysis because I am old enough to know you can skew whatever stats you want to suit your argument.

But check this out: for all of Kevin’s supposed brilliance in the first half of the season, it wasn’t just about his goals and assists records. Because if it was, then Mo Salah would have been the name on our lips back in December and not Kevin.

In August, he had no goal or assist in 3 games.
September, he scored 1 and set up 2 in 4 games.
October, scored none and had 3 assists in 4 games.
November, Kevin scored 3 and assisted 1 goal in 4 games.
And scored 2 with 2 assists in December over a 7 game period.

So, for the first half the season which almost all of us agree Kevin De Bryne was the overwhelming PFA Player of the Year favourite and even had many listing him for a possible Ballon d’Or nomination, the Belgian scored 6 goals and 8 assists in 22 games.

In that same period, Mo Salah scored 17 goals and assisted 6 goals.
On the basis of stats, Mo had a better first half of the season, Yet, Kevin was the one touted by many as the next PFA Player of the year at the time.

And no, Kevin hasn’t had a poor second half of the season as insinuated in certain quarters.

He didn’t score or assist against Watford in January but was at the heart of everything good for City in the game; had an above average performance at Anfield in that 4:3 loss; ran the show against a stubborn Newcastle the following week and against West Brom the next game.

He had a majestic performance at the King Power in February; combined with Silva to decimate the Gunners at the Emirates at the start of March and ran the show against the Blues without any goal or assist in both games.

Dictated play for at least 45 minutes against Mourinho’s United a few weeks back and was brilliant against Spurs just a few days ago.

But you see, the problem here is, for all of De Byrne’s brilliance this season, Mo Salah has since the turn of the year been stealing the headlines with jaw-dropping performances.

The fact that City effectively won the title at Old Trafford on December 10th more or less took the focus off Pep’s side and to some extent De Bryne. We in the media needed something new to talk about in a season that effectively became a One-Horse race since December 10th.
And Mo’s brilliance which took a turn for the better since January gave us more headlines.

Do you know when the votes for the PFA awards were cast? Your guess is as good as min
e.  Certainly not November or December 10th.

Let’s even for the sake of this conversation agree that Kevin was only sensational for one part of the season. Errrr, anyone remembers a certain player getting the FIFA Player of the Year award on the back of one sensational month in a year he didn’t play football for up to 6 months?

See, that whole half season wonder argument really doesn’t hold up sometimes when votes are cast. The here and the now, otherwise known as RECENCY BIAS does come into play largely.

Take the 2017 CAF awards held this year as a case study. Even if Victor Moses scored 30 goals and got 25 assists to help Chelsea win the league last season, the fact that as at the time the votes were cast – between August and December – coincided with a purple patch for Mo and loss of form for Moses meant there was only going to be one winner.

The same way Ronaldinho beat Henry to the award in 2004; Messi trumped Sneidjer in 2010 and Ronaldo beat Ribery years ago is the same way ticket that has given Mo Salah this year’s PFA Player of the Year – Recency Bias!



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