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Why being lucky is half the battle in Football

Luck seemingly repesents the antithesis of what statistics try to achieve. A concept with connotations of random chance and a quantity which most people would assume is an external factor that prohibits the sense of regularity that make statistics so powerful. Luck seemes like the tool which would always play on the mind of someone when predicting the outcome of a football match. But can it be accounted for? If so, how?

Skill is something that defintively exists in football. The void in skill can clearly be seen when comparing your average Sunday league player to the elite regularly featuring in the nation’s top league. But even within the top leagues where only the best can make it, a void still exists with talent levels clearly differing, between clubs and between leagues.

We can highlight one example of luck in the Premier League by looking at a game in 2009, where Darren Bent, at the time a Sunderland striker, was able to score from a rather tame shot against Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal. In fact, the Spanish goalkeeper had not been to blame for this and the shot had take a nast deflection, but not from a player. In fact, the shot rebounded off a red beachball that had found its way on the pitch, wrong footing the keeper and confusing everyone in the stadium as well as everyone sitting at home. Liverpool found themselves 1-0 down and despite Liverpool taking 15 shots that game they couldn’t muster any points from the game. They had lost due to a beach ball.

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Well how much of footall is based on skill then and how much of it is based on luck. If the game was pure skill then ultimately the best team would always end up winning, but we know that this is not always the case. If it was purely based on luck, then there would be no real division in points in the league and there would be no reason for teams to splash the cash on new signings or to develop their youth systems. Most academics have come to the conclusion that football consists of a 50:50 split between luck and skill, something which may be hard for any football purists reading to comprehend as they appreciate the intracicies of the beautiful game.

To further the football myths, the percieved beauty of a team, i.e the slick passes and long build up play leading to a finessed finish is no real measure for how objectively effective a team is, it is often just a by-product of a succesful team but is in no means what defines the success of a team. As many of us may have learnt, correlation does not indicate causation and this is a great example of this idea. The actual efectiveness of a team can be more accurately measured by looking at metrics such as ball retrieval, shot numbers and even as simply as goals. It is an objective fact, that the most succesful teams score more than others or concede less than others, usually a combination of both, however a beautiful style of play is most certainly not an indicator. The best example of this is Sir Alex Ferguson’s United who were a well drilled machine that would grind out results and always go fo the most pagmatic approach, which led them to winning 13 league titles in his tenure. A paticular example stands out when they played Arsenal in March 2011 and Sir Alex played 7 recognisd defenders in his starting line up against the visually pleasing Arsenal side, but still walked away with a 2-0 win.

If we were to look at bookmaker’s odds, the point behind this article is further illustrated. If we were to look at the success rates of pre-game favourites in a variety of sports in the 2010-11 season, in handball the bookmaker was corect 72% of the time, basketball 68%, american fooball 67%, baseball 61% and football sits right at the bottom of the pile with only a 52% success rate. This is other words, shows that bookies pick favourites less successfully in football alluding to the factor of luck or to be more scientific; random chance. Obviously the draw plays a significant part in the poor quality of predictions as this result is very common in football due to the rare nature of a goal, with the daw being a much less likely outcome in the other sports listed above.

When delving further into the odds we can almost classify the pre game favouits into two categories “strong” and “weak favourites”. To determine how much a favourite is advantaged over the opponent you can analyse the diffeence in odds between the favourites winning and the underdogs winning. In this we will define a strong favourite as one team’s oddds of winning as more than 2 times the other, suggesting, in an ideal world, if the two teams played three times then the favouite would for sure at least win twice and possibly win/draw or lose the other game. In football these strong favourites win only 65% of the time, less than the absolute minimum value according to the statistical theory, which would be 67%. In actuality it would be higher as in some cases the odds may be 3, 4 or even 5 times higher for on team than the other. In basketball the strong favourite wins 80% of the time, much closer to the value you would expect.

From these studies, including the one undertaken by Eli Ben-Niam from the Los Almos National laboatory, we can definitely conclude that football is the most uncertain of sports. According to Ben-Naim’s study above where he analysed 300,000 games and found that the chance of an underdog winning was 45.2%. However as established in the expected goals article, wins and even goals can be misleading. Even if you break it down to a statistics which is shots which we have established as one of the best indicators for determining the disparity in quality between sides, we can see that on average in Europe’s top five leagues the likelihood of the team that takes the most shots winning is only 47%, again hinting at that 50/50 proposition. Even if you use the even more precise metic of shots on target the tale is similar with teams that take more shots on target win only 55% of the time.

The real importance of this article however, is to show how football is rooted within statistics and chance. Within football we are seeing probability come to life and football fans need to acceptt that like so many other phenomenana that we see, football itself has this intrinsic random-element. Just like the decay of nuclei and the number you role on the dice, football also comes down to chance. In all these cases there are possible outcomes, either the nuclei decays or it doesn’t, you roll a 6 or you don’t you win or you don’t. Football seemingly comes down to probability as well, however unspurprisingly chance only takes into effect around 50% of the games. In half of the games we see the better side rewarded with the win. The other half comes down to the flip of a coin.


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