Shiels sparks debate with women’s game comments

On April 12, in front of a record crowd of over 15,000 spectators in Belfast, the Northern Ireland women’s team succumbed to a 5-0 World Cup Qualifying defeat against England.

In the post-match press conference, the home manager, Kenny Shiels, caused a furore.

In the women’s game, I’ve noticed…when a team concedes a goal, they concede a second one in a very, very short period of time. Right through the whole spectrum of the women’s game, because girls and women are more emotional than men.

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The backlash was immediate. The Guardian’s football writer, Suzanne Wrack, nailed much of the sentiment against his comments,

For too long women have faced criticism for being too emotional or sensitive or overdramatic, feeding a narrative that women are erratic and unruly whereas men are calm, collected and in charge.

From park pitches to Wembley, football would cease to exist without the emotions it conjures. Fans eviscerate players deemed to lack ‘passion’, while lauding those who make up for a shortfall in ability by their robust tackles and frenzied gesticulations. It’s why I have a friend who maintains that Jamie Pollock would start in his all-time Manchester City XI, ‘to add a bit of Teesside steel’.

Despite Shiels’ sexist tropes, is he right about women’s teams being more likely to concede goals in quick succession?

A view emerged online that he must be wrong because, as everybody knows, football teams are more vulnerable when they’ve just scored.

It’s a myth that has percolated through football’s bedrock for so long that it’s become an immutable fact. It’s also nonsense.

Let’s assume the ‘period of vulnerability’ after a side has just scored is five minutes. If the theory is correct, the goalscoring side should concede more at this stage than in any other five-minute spell during the match.

There have been 797 goals scored over the past two WSL seasons. It’s a small sample size, but enough to illustrate the point. Dividing that figure by 18 (as 90 minutes fits into 18 five-minute chunks) gives us an expected 44 goals per random five-minute segment. So, if teams really were at their most vulnerable, we’d expect to see a larger number than that.

That WSL sides only let in 31 goals within five minutes of scoring suggests they’re less likely to concede than at any other point during the match. By contrast, sides followed up one goal with another on 88 occasions, which is double the expected value. So, not only are WSL teams less likely to let in an immediate reply, but they are twice as likely to score again than in the average five-minute spell.

On the face of it, Shiels’ contention that women’s sides are more likely to concede a swift flurry of goals is correct, but we need to compare those figures with an equivalent level in the men’s game.

Of the 1,071 goals scored in this season’s Premier League, the opposition grabbed a quick goal back on 52 occasions (12 per cent lower than expected), while the scoring team struck again 74 times. That’s 25 per cent better than any random five-minute block.

In other words, elite men’s teams ship goals at a much higher rate when they’ve just let one in, too.

The inflated figures in the WSL are because even at the highest domestic level, the women’s game is still developing. Should the sport continue its incredible growth, from grassroots to the pinnacle, each new generation will have a wider and stronger playing pool. That will raise standards, making serious mismatches – and their attendant goal gluts – much less likely.

For now, though, the disparity is plain to see in the results. Not just across the WSL and European club competitions, but on the international stage, too.

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When the England men’s side put ten past San Marino in November 2021, it was the first time they’d hit double figures in almost 60 years. For the Lionesses, it’s a regular occurrence. They recorded the same feat four times during this qualifying campaign alone, including beating Latvia 20-0 in Doncaster.

These scorelines don’t mean that the women of Latvia, Luxembourg and North Macedonia are too fragile to compete against the top bracket of national sides. It shows what happens when you pit amateurs against world class professionals.

To compound it all, Northern Ireland didn’t even concede any goals during their ‘periods of vulnerability’ in that 0-5 reversal. Instead, they’re a part-time squad gearing up for their country’s first appearance at a major tournament with a seven-month training camp.

Ranked 46th in the world, they’ll be by far the lowliest country at the Euros. They meet the hosts in their final group match at St Mary’s on July 15.

The Author

Ian Burke

Ian is a writer and broadcaster from Manchester. He spends most Saturday afternoons watching his beloved Hyde United, and most Saturday nights wondering why he bothered.

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