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Random Goals: The Role of Chance and the Uncontrollable in Football

18 Jan 2024   ·   

Journalist specialized in culture and sports innovation. Analyst of the technological, economic, and social changes that are shaping the sport of the future.

Two factors explain the global popularity of football. Firstly, its rules have remained virtually unchanged for decades, making it essentially the same sport since its inception, which gives it qualities of authenticity. This is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to update it in one direction or another; it would require overcoming the resistance of fans who make up the cultural core of this sport. 

The other phenomenon is the element of luck. No matter how superior one team may be to another, a match can never be deemed won in advance. Here, the weaker team has more opportunities to win than in other sports. In a study covering the major leagues in England and the United States, a total of 300,000 matches, researchers found that football was the most competitive sport, surpassing baseball, ice hockey, basketball, and, lastly, American football

In football, weaker teams have a greater chance of winning than in other sports; you can defeat an opponent while performing below their level. In the Premier League, an investigation into the origin of goals in the championship revealed that only 34% of goals came from teams that maintained possession of the ball. This is a significant percentage, considering many matches end with just one goal difference. 

There is a higher probability of a random goal occurring when the score is tied, and this probability increases as the minutes pass.

This paradox is one of the great attractions of football, but it has also sparked a debate among analysts and fans about the need to distinguish between performance and success. Of course, the discussion is as old as football itself and far from being resolved, but sports science has established a differentiating factor: the random goal. These are goals that do not result from a clean play – without the intervention of an opponent, that is not from set pieces, or an assist that isn’t clearly aimed at a teammate. These are highly frequent game situations that increase audience anticipation. Moreover, football, being played with the foot, and the motor extremity, is even more random. 

According to this study, which covered the Premier League from the 12/13 season to the 18/19 season, 46% of all goals were of random origin, and nearly half of the scores were decisively influenced by one of these situations. If one out of every two goals is random, the element of chance is very significant in football. In fact, the researchers emphasized that there is a higher probability of a random goal occurring when the score is tied, and this probability increases as the minutes pass.

To determine which goals exhibit these characteristics, the research considered whether the goals resulted from long-range shots, shots deviating from their initial trajectory, goals stemming from defensive errors – such as own goals – set pieces, and goals preceded by a rebound or a high ball into the box. 

Statistical analyses show that possession play can generate more goals, but direct football is more effective in converting shots into goals.

All these situations share a common denominator: they are highly uncontrollable. Football is not unfamiliar with attempts to induce errors in opponents. A cross into the area that isn’t specifically aimed at a particular teammate but seeks the possibility of a shot or, failing that, an opponent’s mistake in clearing the ball away from their goal.

In any case, it has been noted, even in studies from 2004 when football was more evenly balanced, that teams with greater ball possession throughout the match or during longer periods, and those who manage to take more shots on goal, achieve more victories. Although there is no consensus, the winning style is defined as sequences of long, planned passes, ball control that dictates the game, positional play to create spaces, and waiting for the opponent’s error. Meanwhile, weaker teams, as they generate fewer dynamics of this kind, are forced to rely more on uncontrolled actions.

However, it’s important to consider that the style of play isn’t as definitive for evaluating random goals because teams, despite showing tendencies according to their preferred way of playing, can adopt different styles not only during the same championship but also within the same match. This is one reason why it’s not so easy to establish winning patterns in advance in this sport. The reason is simple: there are statistical analyses that show that possession play can generate more goals, but direct football is more effective in converting shots into goals. Moreover, 30% of all goals are scored from set pieces, a game situation with a scoring efficiency of 13% to 15%. 

The proportion of random goals has been decreasing, dropping from 50% to 44% over the years. The researchers’ hypothesis was that the technical-tactical level of the teams was increasing. Notably, the probability of random goals, according to the study, is exceptionally high in the weakest teams.

The same applies on a smaller scale to the analysis of shots on goal. Multiple variables can be analyzed to measure their effectiveness, such as the positioning and distance of opponents, but decisive factors include the skill level of the shooter or their psychological and emotional state. Some studies have used a player’s market value on Transfermarkt as a reference to establish expected goal ratios for each shot, but these values would also have to be related to the team’s position in the table, the expectations of the match, and the scoreline. It’s not the same to be trailing as it is to be leading. 

On the other hand, increasing economic disparities between clubs are marking another trend. A study on the competitiveness of Anglo-Saxon sports from two decades ago already showed that, following the satellite television revolution with its massive injection of funds, football had become more unequal and, therefore, less competitive. 

However, the study on random goals in the Premier League reveals that over the seven analyzed seasons, the proportion of random goals has been decreasing, dropping from 50% to 44%. The researchers hypothesized that the technical-tactical level of the teams was increasing, but it also pointed to the increased use of data in match preparation. Notably, the probability of random goals, according to the study, is exceptionally high in the weakest teams.

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