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Wednesday, 16 January, 2019

Expect fewer goals in cup finals than league matches

Wise words from the soccer boffin

Two-goal Paul Pogba celebrates Manchester United's sensationl win at the Etihad
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One of the ways in which FA Cup finals have differed from Premier League games is that they have yielded fewer goals.

There are two reasons for this.

First, the FA Cup final is nearly always more important than any one Premier League game. Scores tend to come down as the importance of an occasion goes up.

And second, the FA Cup final often features two of the better teams in the Premier League. The smaller the difference in ability between teams, generally speaking, the fewer goals there will be.

In the 25 FA Cup finals between 1993 and 2017 the average number of goals (excluding extra-time and penalty shootouts) was 2.1. In Premier League games during the 25 seasons from 1992-93 to 2016-17 the average number of goals was 2.6.

There were about 20 per cent fewer goals per game in FA Cup finals than in Premier League games.

If you looked at other periods you would see the same thing. The Premier League replaced the First Division of the Football League, which started in season 1888-89. Over the whole period from 1888-89 to 2016-17 goals per game were about 20 per cent lower in FA Cup finals than in the First Division or Premier League.

The market recognises that there are likely to be fewer goals when Chelsea play Manchester United in the FA Cup final than if they were meeting in the Premier League. Not certainly, but probably. I think it has got that call right and others too.

United finished second in the Premier League with 81 points, three places and 11 points above Chelsea. But United may have got better results than they deserved and Chelsea worse. There is probably not much difference in ability between them.

My spread betting expectations would be supremacy of 0.1 United/Chelsea with total goals of 2.25. These imply a 61 per cent chance of fewer than 2.5 goals.

They also imply a 36 per cent chance of a United win, a 31 per cent chance of extra-time and a 33 per cent chance of a Chelsea win.

The chance of lifting the trophy, if necessary after extra-time or penalties, would be 52 per cent for United and 48 per cent for Chelsea.

Unfortunately the market broadly agrees.

Smith was not the only one to fail

In the 1983 FA Cup final in the last minute of extra-time Manchester United and Brighton were level at 2-2. Brighton attacked. Michael Robinson passed the ball to Gordon Smith, who was unmarked in the penalty area.

When Smith shaped to shoot he was about eight yards from goal. “And Smith must score” yelled BBC radio commentator Peter Jones. Those words have since become famous. Because Smith did not score. United keeper Gary Bailey stopped the shot.

Shortly afterwards the referee blew his whistle. In those days finals that were level after extra-time were replayed. United won the replay 4-0.

“I thought I was going to score”, Smith has said. “Instead of being remembered as the man who missed that chance, I would have been remembered as the man who scored the winning goal against Manchester United at Wembley in an FA Cup final.”

How often, though, does a player score when they are unmarked and eight yards out with just the keeper to beat? Only about six times out of ten, I have read.

Opta now keep a record of what they call big chances. This season in the Premier League Mo Salah and Harry Kane missed about half of their big chances. In situations where almost everyone watching would have thought a goal was nearly certain the best strikers in the Premier League missed as often as they scored.

And that was not unusual. It seems as though at least half of all big chances are missed. I have seen data from the whole or part of three Premier League seasons. In each the scoring rate from big chances was under 50 per cent. Goals are much harder to score than most watchers realise.

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There were about 20 per cent fewer goals per game in FA Cup finals than in Premier League games
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