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Wednesday, 19 December, 2018

Goals change games but our odd punting rituals stay the same

The Soccer Boffin with his weekly dose of betting wisdom

Teams are likely to win more corners when they are trailing in games
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Dr Hasselbacher is a character in Our Man in Havana, a novel by Graham Greene. It is set in pre-revolution Cuba. Every week Hasselbacher buys a ticket in a lottery with a prize of $140,000.

He says: “As long as nothing happens everything is possible, you agree? It is a pity that a lottery is ever drawn. I lose a hundred and forty thousand dollars a week, and I am a poor man.”

Eventually, for better or worse, every bet is resolved. Over the years I have learned that I am not the only one who has rituals for discovering the outcome. Some of my colleagues do. Editor Bruce Millington has written entertainingly about his.

I want to move as quickly as possible from not knowing to knowing. If I could I would eliminate altogether that moment of discovery, when hope is extinguished or sometimes fulfilled.

I establish in advance where on a website page the result of my bet will appear. When the time comes I cover my eyes, scroll down then whip my hand away.

Even though I wish it were otherwise, there is always that split-second before which I do not know my fate and after which I do. But sometimes I get intimations earlier.


More from Kevin Pullein

Pulis sacking shows owners' failure to grasp probability

Growing trends of teams doing better when ahead

Teams happy to be more adventurous on home soil

Winning becomes more important with a big clash on the horizon

How other sports can teach us so much about football


I bet mostly on things other than the score. Before I find out whether a bet has won or lost I know the score. I check somewhere else that the match has finished. And depending on the score my hopes rise or I prepare myself for disappointment. Because everything in football is inter-connected.

If I have backed a team to take most corners and I see that they scored most goals I brace myself for bad news. While they were leading they probably took a step back, and their opponents probably took a step forward.

Goals change games, as someone once said. When a team are leading they tend to have less possession than before, which means they spend less time with the ball in the opposition half, which means they have fewer shots and force fewer corners.

The longer a team are in the lead the less likely they are to take most corners.

In the Premier League during the last 11 seasons – 2006-07 to 2016-17 – home teams took 50 per cent of all corners awarded while they were leading, 57 per cent of all corners awarded while they were drawing and 62 per cent of all corners awarded while they trailing.

If I have backed a team to receive most cards and I see that they conceded most goals my pulse quickens a bit. I am more likely to have won my bet if they lost the match.

While they were losing they will have done less defending and more attacking. Normally that would be a bad omen. Cards, as I have said more than once, are for the most part a consequence of defending. While they were trailing this team will have spent fewer seconds in each minute without the ball, but during those seconds they will have been more eager than usual to get it back – rather than wait for their opponents to give it back.

Footballers, like everyone else, can get frustrated when things are not going their way. And a frustrated footballer is more likely to make a rash challenge provoking a yellow card or even a red.

In most bookings markets each yellow counts as ten points and each red as 25 points. In the Premier League during the last seven seasons, home teams received 42 per cent of all bookings points awarded while they were winning and 48 per cent of all bookings points awarded while they were losing.

So sometimes I get a hint. But of course it is only a hint. Raised hopes can be dashed. Or I can compose myself to see bad news and find to my surprise that it is good. Each time I only know for sure when I take a breath and whisk my hand from my eyes.


Early-season firings make negligible difference to club fortunes

A rain dance will be followed by rain. Dancers stamp the ground and sooner or later the heavens open. Nobody does a rain dance unless they are desperate for water. Eventually every drought ends.

So a rain dance will be followed by rain, but the rain does not fall because people danced. There is no cause and effect relationship. The rain was going to fall anyway. A dance preceded it but did not produce it.

I was reminded of this when I read an article on Premier League managers sacked in October and November. It contained this horribly misleading sentence:

“We’ve looked back at the past ten Premier League seasons and, remarkably, in all but one instance where a club sacked a manager during October and November, their average points-per-game return increased over the remainder of the season.”

Why are managers sacked in October or November? Because in the early part of the season wins were scarcer than usual. But just as every drought gives way to a deluge, whether or not anyone danced, so the bad results of an under-performing football team will be succeeded in time by better ones, whether or not the manager is sacked.

The comparison that should have been made was not between results before and after a manager was sacked but between results in the rest of the season for teams who had sacked their manager and other teams who had been in a similar predicament but not sacked their manager.

Professors Stephen Dobson and John Goddard did that for a book called The Economics of Football. They found that teams who had sacked their manager improved – but not as much as teams who had not sacked their manager.

Dobson and Goddard concluded: “On average, a change of manager that takes place within-season tends to have an adverse effect on the result of matches played during the remaining weeks or months of the same season.”

They go a bit further than most academic researchers of football and other sports, who generally find that sacking a manager makes no difference. That is what I found in my own more modest evaluation of Premier League sackings.

Leonard Mlodinow has co-written books with Stephen Hawking. As sole author of The Drunkard’s Walk he wrote: “Mathematical analysis of firings in all major sports has shown that those firings had, on average, no effect on team performance.”


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I want to move as quickly as possible from not knowing to knowing. If I could I would eliminate altogether that moment of discovery
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