What Stats Won’t Tell You About Football – Limitations of Statistics

Are you trying to predict football matches? It’s pretty hard, right?

Analysing statistics is a great starting point. But football, more so than most other sports, has so many different influences at play — many of which are majorly overlooked by sports bettors.

Let’s explore some of the complexities in football prediction and the reasons why nothing is ever certain in the beautiful game.

 

The Complexity of Football

There are some obvious reasons why football is harder to predict than most other sports. Consider the following:

  1. There are three outcomes. Most other sports have two outcomes (Win and Lose), while football also has the Draw. This not only creates unexpected results — but it also means that teams aren’t necessarily seeking to win every game.
  2. There are 11 players per team. Unlike individual sports such as Golf, Darts or Tennis, it’s harder to accurately predict how a football game will play out. Teams are made up of individuals, serving a different purpose to the collective. Interestingly, some teams function better than the sum of their parts.
  3. The pitches are huge. The sheer size of the playing area is rarely spoken of. But it means there’s enormous scope for different plays, tactics, and combinations to take place throughout a game. With so many options available to players and managers, football is one of the least repetitive professional sports.
  4. Playing schedules are extremely busy. While team sports such as basketball also have congested fixture lists, football is arguably the most physically and mentally demanding of all. This is partly due to the fact it’s a contact sport — which makes injuries highly probable. It’s also because rest breaks are short due various domestic and continental tournaments running simultaneously.
  5. Atmospheres are intense. Football is a notoriously passionate and atmospheric at games. It’s unrivalled by any other sport in this departments, and it creates immense pressure on players and managers. Some thrive, while others crumble under it.

So from the outset football gives sports bettors a lot to think about.

 

Stats Only Paint The Overall Picture

While statistics are the driving force behind any profitable football prediction model, there are limitations that must be recognised.

Granted, by using relatively simple statistics you’ll be able to compile your own probabilities for football matches and, overall, make fairly accurate generalisations. In fact, it’s not too difficult to break-even over a season by basing a betting model around statistics such as:

  • Recent form – Wins/Losses/Draws
  • Goals per game
  • Shots on goal
  • Possession
  • Head to head stats (between teams)
  • Tackles made per game
  • Goals per game

I’ve detailed some ways of using basic football statistics to create prediction models.

That’s all well and good as a starting point. The problem is, most predictive models are based on average outcomes from the data provided. This means that they create an overall picture of the sport which does not account for unmeasurable factors that add the unpredictability of the game. Therefore some details are disregarded — which could be crucial.

So there are limitations to how much insight basic statistics alone can provide. Let’s talk more on this.

 

Things We Can’t Easily Measure

With so many people and moving parts contributing to the outcomes of football matches, there are countless factors that could impact upcoming games. But so many aspects of football take place behind the scenes or are too difficult, abstract — or simply impossible — to quantify as data. Consider the following:


Player Motivation

There’s a number of things that might get a team motivated. Many of which are difficult to measure. For example:

  • Club buyouts / new management
  • Changes to salary structures
  • Friendships and comradery
  • Relationships with staff / management
  • Holidays / rewards
  • Crowd noise

Emotions

Players aren’t robots. As outsiders we don’t know how players truly feel at any given time. Emotions can be impacted by:

  • Personal life – scandals, tragedies, relationships, homesickness
  • Stadium atmosphere
  • Fan & media pressure
  • Belief in the current project (or lack of)
  • Boredom (yes, it happens!)

Physical Aspects

The public are informed of major injuries, but we never know everything about the players’ physical states, including:

  • Fitness
  • Mild Illnesses (colds, throat infections, temperature, upset stomach etc)
  • Tiredness / fatigue
  • Impact of travel to games

Team Aspects

There are several factors that influence whether a team is likely to play to their best:

  • Tactical approach and suitability
  • Player abilities and strengths (some are more gifted than others)
  • Club objectives
  • Work ethic
  • Luck (or lack of)
  • Team synergy (how the individuals work together)

Adaptation

Teams don’t stay still. For better worse, there many things that can cause a change in performance, such as:

  • Recent relegations & promotions
  • Manager / Coach changes
  • Stadiums changes / moves
  • Transfers (including loan deals)

 

I believe that all of these factors, and many others, impact football games and how seasons change. Unfortunately most of the above factors can’t be measured. For example, how do we accurately measure the impact of pressure on a football team? And how can we truly determine a player’s motivation level?

Human factors in particular are ever-present in sport, but are incredibly difficult to incorporate into any kind of mathematical system. So my advice is to always be aware of less-known factors that might influence a football match, and be sure that you recognise the limitations of any stats-based approaches you attempt. In other words, what you can measure may not be as all-encompassing you you initially thought.

 

The Betting Exchange Is The Best Predictor

Sports betting odds from the betting exchange incorporate the complexities of football — despite the fact they’re so hard to quantify. That’s because it’s all based around opinion.

For instance one person may strongly believe that the introduction of a new manager will have a huge impact on an upcoming fixture, and base their view around that. Someone else may hugely disagree by believing it has little-to-no baring on a match. Bets are placed according to highly varied opinions and perspectives.

With enough participants and enough diversity (of opinion), the betting exchange pools together everyone’s ideas and meet in the middle. What this achieves is an average price — and this is the most accurate estimate that we have for sports events.


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As strange as it may sound, the public is collectively very wise, and as individual bettors we struggle to outsmart the market. Therefore, we need to look for something highly influential that the public, as a whole, has neglected. The best bettors usually have a strong mathematical method that will identify good value odds whenever a market is inaccurately priced.

Some of my unmeasurable factors are worth keeping in mind while you devise your own approach to football betting. You might also find the following posts useful:

Toby @ Punter2Pro
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Eric Dewitt
Eric Dewitt
5 years ago

I like the idea of your Mug Bets. You’ve done ok considering some people would get into debt after that many bets!! Not made a profit though…..

Toby
Reply to  Eric Dewitt
5 years ago

Yeah, it’s gone pretty well. As I said at the beginning: I expect it will break even. I’m pretty happy to see hat this prediction has held true, because it demonstrates a lot of the things I write about on this Blog. Particularly market efficiency/accuracy, and the fact that you need a solid method of finding value in order to make consistent profits.

Lenard K. Reed
Lenard K. Reed
5 years ago

When there’s big changes at a club do you think the odds go off piste and then come back into line once the exchange ‘learns’? Or is the betting exchange smart enough to get it right first time?

Toby
Reply to  Lenard K. Reed
5 years ago

Hi Lenard – that’s an interesting question. I think you’ve hit on a good point. Very often the market goes too far in one direction on certain events e.g. a red cards. And i think that this also happens with clubs over a period of time (across all markets). The public becomes attached to the idea of the club and what they’re doing as opposed to the team’s performance on the pitch. The markets often come to learn that some ideas were speculative, somewhat unfounded and given too much ‘weight’ – so the odds draw back into line soon enough.