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Don't expect free-flowing action in Football League playoffs

Wise words from the Soccer Boffin

Middlesbrough livewire Adama Traore
1 of 1

Goals and Football League playoffs: there is an interesting relationship between them. The last four semi-final first legs are on Saturday.

Two things influence the number of goals in a match: the difference in ability between the teams and the importance of the result. The smaller the difference in ability between two teams, other things being equal, the lower the score. The greater the importance of the result, other things being equal, the lower the score.

Promotion playoffs are always important, and usually there is not much difference in ability between the participants.

In the semi-final first legs Coventry play Notts County and Lincoln play Exeter in Sky Bet League Two, Scunthorpe play Rotherham in League One and Middlesbrough play Aston Villa in the Championship. The number of points separating those teams at the end of the regular season was, respectively, two, five, five and seven.

As often as not, the highest qualifiers have finished no more than seven points above the lowest. Playoff semi-final first legs therefore contain all the ingredients for a low score. Generally there have been even fewer goals than we should have expected when the teams met in the regular season.

The Football League playoffs were introduced in 1987. The average number of goals in regular-season games from then until now has been 2.6. The average number of goals in playoff semi-final first legs has been 2.1. Only 53 per cent of regular-season games featured fewer than 2.5 goals. But 66 per cent of playoff semi-final first legs did.

The lower the number of goals in a match the more likely it becomes that both teams will score the same number. The greater the chance, in other words, of a draw.

Overall 38 per cent of playoff semi-final first legs have been drawn. That is even more than we should have anticipated from the low number of goals. First-leg draws in future may occur slightly less frequently. If the differences in ability between teams and the number of goals remain roughly the same as they are now, we should perhaps expect a draw-rate of about 32 per cent.

Across the history of the playoffs, by the way, drawing a first leg gave the team playing at home in the second leg a 70 per cent of reaching the final, which is roughly the same as in other competitions – for instance, in Champions League knockout ties.

Refs set to be relaxed too if there's little to play for

Sunday is the last day of the Premier League season. There will be six games in which both teams have nothing to play for. The average over the last 20 seasons has been five. The highest number was eight, reached in 2013 and 2010. What normally happens in these circumstances?

In the Premier League, as in the Football League, there tend to be more goals on the last day of a season than on other days. And scores generally rise with the number of teams in a match who still have something to strive for. Here are some figures from the last 20 final days of the Premier and Football Leagues.

When both teams had something to play for the average number of goals was 2.9. When one team had something to play for the average number of goals was 2.8. And when neither team had anything to play for the average number of goals was 2.7. The average number of goals in all games at other times in a season was 2.6.

The chance of over 2.5 goals in a match was 56 per cent when both teams had something to play for, 54 per cent when one team had something to play for and 49 per cent when neither team had anything to play for. In all games at other times in a season it was 48 per cent.

The relaxed atmosphere at many grounds is evident from bookings stats. Referees’ reports tend to be shorter on the last day of a season. Bookings usually rise in tandem with the competitiveness of a fixture.

These figures come from the final day of the last 20 Premier League seasons, counting each yellow as ten and each red as 25, as in most betting markets.

If both teams had something to play for the average bookings make-up was 42, if one team had something to play for it was 36 and if neither team had anything to play for it was 27.


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Overall 38 per cent of playoff semi-final first legs have been drawn
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