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SPORTS STORY

The anatomy of a match

Peter Webb learnt long ago that to truly understand football, you must break it down and model it. Once he did so, some interesting trends emerged which now inform the way he bets – and the way you should too

My foray into the gambling world began when I was very young; I have my father to blame. Each Thursday evening he would hand me a football pools coupon and ask me to fill it out in the next 10 minutes. The reason, he’d just seen the ‘pools’ man on the other side of the road and he would be here in a minute. It was this simple task that lead me into the world of statistics and gambling.

My first attempt at analysis was a process that has stayed with me ever since. My view was that rather than spending years 'feeling' if the odds were right, or using trial and error, it would help if I could understand a sport by modelling it. Armed with a tonne of Rothmans football yearbooks and a basic home computer, I spent hours punching in data to see if there were any trends I could see in football matches. Slowly, they began to emerge. Despite my rather basic maths skills, I started to get a good understanding of what happens in a football match and why. It goes without saying that goals are important in a match, so that was my first examination. Specifically, how many goals are in a match and whom do they go to?

Football is often marketed as a glamorous and exciting sport but when you look at the detail, the majority of matches can be pretty low scoring and dull affairs. In fact, the most ‘uninteresting’ result, 0-0, occurs around 8% of the time. This means that one in 12 matches you can look forward to ninety-plus minutes of nothingness. On average though, the number of goals in a match is typically around 2.60. This varies slightly by league and country but is fairly similar overall. This average per match means that you would expect to see a goal around every 35 minutes or so. Most spectators need to wait quite a while before anything happens, but when a goal does occur, it will always be significant. Statistics show that if the home team scores first then they have, on average, a 75% chance of going on to win. If the away team scores first then it’s a 60% chance. If either team take a 2-0 lead, there is a very high likelihood of a win.

Matches with significant numbers of goals and excitement are rare and not considered the norm. Though it’s nice to forecast lots of goals, if you do this, you won’t get it right very often. Aim low when thinking about the total possible number of goals. Even matches where strong teams meet weak teams, these matches only produce just over three goals on average. Given that there are only 2.60 goals on average, you can see why a goal is significant. If a team takes the lead then there would only be 1.60 goals ‘left’ in the match. If the leading team scores again, then there is only 0.60 of a goal ‘left’ and the opposing team would find it difficult to come back from two down with only 0.60 goals ‘left’ in the match. You can also see why 1-1 is the most common score. If you split those 2.60 goals equally between two teams you only have 1.30 goals per team. Truncate the 0.30 goal off both teams and you are left with the most common score line, 1-1. Around 12% of all matches end in a 1-1 draw.

Of course not all matches are between equally skilled teams and you also have ‘home advantage’. While it’s difficult to immediately explain why home advantage exists, apart from the obvious psychological aspects of playing on your own ground, it definitely does exist. On average, home advantage is worth about 0.40 goals per game. So if you now split the 2.60 goals between the home and away team including the home advantage factor, you now end up with 1.70 goals for the home team and 0.90 for the away team. This leads you to correctly predict that the most common home win scoreline is 1-0, this is also the most common away score and it also reinforces how 1-1 must be the most common score overall. Add together these most common scores with no goals at all and they add up in total to around 40% of the total number of correct scores you will see in a football match. If you want to be an accurate forecaster of goals don’t stray above one goal to either side. In fact, if you forecast a draw or 1-0 to either side you will be right 60% of the time. This is why ‘dutching’ the correct score market can be such a great tactic, you will get a good strike rate with a reasonable payoff if you do this.

When you look at these statistics it becomes clear what type of match is more likely to produce a draw as well. This would be a match where the home advantage is cancelled out by a stronger away team. In general, if you have one team higher than another in a league, then that is enough to start to cancel out the home advantage and increase the chances of a draw.

Because of the low scoring rate in matches, one of the first strategies I adopted when I started trading football matches on betting exchanges, was to trade out when a goal had been scored, especially if it is later on in a match. When a goal is scored the odds will change to reflect this and that change in odds will often be quite large. Rather than wait for the end of the match, trading out after the first goal is a less stressful way of profiting from a match. Once traded out, you don’t need to worry about what happens in the remainder of the match. In Figure 1 you can see I have backed Juventus with £100 at 3.50, when the goal went in the price has collapsed to 1.44 and I have greened up for £144.

Aside from goals it is also important to note that there are other reasons why the odds could change significantly during a match. Another event that will cause a significant shift in the odds is a sending off (see Figure 2). Contrary to the common myth that teams play better when they have a player sent off, statistics and the markets tell you otherwise. I would happily bet against the myth that teams play better when a man down. If a team has a player sent off, expect the odds to move sharply against the team that has lost their player. This can vary of course, according to the current state of play, but regardless of the underlying state, there is a definite disadvantage to a player being sent off. In matches where there have been no goals, the movement in the odds is much more pronounced that in matches were there have been goals.

At this point I should insert a caveat, each match has a different make up and there is no one-fits-all statistic that applies to all matches. This is why we have used the phrase, “on average” a lot throughout this article. To help you understand how odds move more specifically, we created a specialist tool for Bet Angel called Soccer Mystic. This allows you to profile each match individually. What took me years to understand, you can now have right in front of you in a couple of clicks!

Now we have a better understanding of the ‘construction’ of a football match. Next month we will take this on and look into areas that will allow us to take advantage of these facts.

If you want to learn more about using betting exchanges, get some free software to help you bet smarter and get extra information about Soccer Mystic, visit betangel.com

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