Football Betting: The State of the Nation

In this special blog posting, SBC Editor Greg Gordon, himself a scout and proven football tipster from the Scottish leagues as well as a deep thinker on the sport helps examine the state of the modern game from a betting and tipping perspective.

Where We’ve Been

As Sir Alex Ferguson might say: “Football, bloody hell!” Another season over but after 10 months where the front page coverage dominated the back pages it’s a hard one to weigh up.

Amidst Rooney-gate and ref strikes, mail bombs and super injunctions occasionally some football did actually break out.

Barcelona confirmed their pre-eminence in the world game with a panache no-one else will likely match, for as long as the Catalonians’ retain their focus.

Elsewhere winners appeared to emerge almost by default and it wasn’t just some leading tipsters who endured a season of two distinct halves.

In The Bundesliga virtually every club changed their manager at some stage – contributing nothing to a muddling competition that was as dull in the second half as it had been exhilaratingly car crash before the winter shutdown. After losing The Carling Cup final, Arsenal’s points-per-game total thereafter put them in 14th – below Wigan, Wolves and Blackburn as they ‘earned’ another fourth placed finish from a season that had intermittently promised more.

On balance, Manchester United deserved their 19th Premiership title. They recorded the most wins (23 in all) and fewest losses (4) in the season, knocking Liverpool off their famous perch as the record top division title holder. Nonetheless, Sir Alex’s latest title crown was won despite a United away record that was no better than lowly Newcastle’s in a season where home sides predominated.

Fulham’s John Pantsil equalled the most Premiership own goals in a season with three (a record he now shares with Wigan’s Andreas Jakobsson).

Bolton’s Kevin Davies commited 123 fouls the highest individual crime count in the Premiership since 1996. Not only is that surely a pub question answer in the making – it also confirms the current reality that even the poorest tacklers are expected to put their shift in, earning their corn with team performances where strikers are the first line of defence.

Man City have now spent more than £300m since 2008 to snare an FA Cup, a third place finish and a shot at next season’s Champions League. Confirming just how thin the margins were, City simply wouldn’t have been there but for eight deflected goals last season – the only Premiership table they topped last season bar the one for net spending, of course.

Out With The Old

Writing in Champions, the official UEFA Champions League magazine, Jonathan Wilson, author of the excellent Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, sounded a last post for 4-4-2. It is easy to see why after a World Cup where 18 of the finalists adopted the now universal default formation of 4-2-3-1 and only two, Paraguay and Uruguay utilised the dominant team shape of the last 40 years. In the Champions League last season, only one Quarter Finalist, Bayern Munich, considered 4-4-2 – and even then without conviction, thanks to their withdrawn striker (Muller) and advanced wingers.

There is no doubt things are subtly changed – especially at the elite end of the game but what isn’t clear is how that might effect us as punters – and none of our monitored tipsters can quite agree either.

And In With The New

Spain’s Andres Iniesta is certainly speaking from a fashionable position when he defines creating space to play, as opposed to possession, as our modern game’s most precious commodity.

The role of specific positions now seems increasingly blurred (as the Kevin Davies example shows), so to the demarcation between defending, attacking and counter attacking.

The key concept is to be able to move the ball at pace to maximum effect. That means, say in the top leagues, your more likely to see games changed by individual brilliance, shots from distance and less goals from corners than ever before. To confound athletic, well organised opponents the elite coaches are favouring currently deep-lying playmakers and goalscoring centre-backs, bold first half tactical substitutions and the so-called ‘extreme strikerlessness’of the kind championed by Roma under Luciano Spalletti in 2005 and further developed by Ronaldo-era Man Utd and UEFA Cup Finalists Rangers in 2008.

In this context, and a against a background of emergent new roles for ‘inside-out wingers’ like Ribery and Robben, ‘wide forwards’ (Ronaldo and Eto’o), ‘wide creators’ (Messi and Pandev) and ‘defensive forwards’ (Kuyt), it is hard to know whether a sea-change is under way or whether this is simply a new way of talking about the same old stuff.

Indeed, the only thing that our panel of monitored tipsters appear to agree on is the indisputable fact that, in The Premiership especially, away wins are harder to come by. It is a theme picked up by The Sportsman, Winabobatoo, Football Elite and Football Investor.

As Winabob’s Mike Lindley suggests: “Home advantage counts for more in the Premier League than in any other English League, even though, surprisingly, the conversion rates of shots at goal to goals are greater in the Conference than in the Premiership. The advantage of playing at home is counting for even more these days, which is supported by the better teams’ inability to win on their travels.”

Stewboss of Football Investor concurs, saying: “Be careful when betting on away wins. There is a new pattern emerging that goes against past data. “

A Levelling Down Or A Levelling Up?

Goran Trpevski of Goran’s Winners believes that a lack of overall quality this season was the biggest theme: “Ancelloti had no vision for Chelsea and Mancini, a coach who spent over £250m to see City hang on the ropes in half their games, can’t be taken seriously. Arsenal started yet again with only one quality central defender (Vermaelen) and he was out all season long. Liverpool, yet again, are a joke with some of the players they have playing. You don’t need 30 solid players. You need 15 very good and five solid ones. Once Liverpool figure that out they can maybe go places.”

Goran says: “It was a poor league this season and one that will be remembered that United won because there was no one else do to so. The Premiership had no top team this season, Serie A had no good team, in Spain, Real and Barca won all the time, Bayern had many problems with injuries.”

So what does a lack of quality mean in real terms?

Personally I reckon it means over-coached, unspontaneous players who while they are quicker, fitter and better drilled than their forbears from previous eras probably lack the psychological toughness that genuine big game players have in spades – exactly the kind of mental qualities that are required to win three points at inhospitable away venues. In future years, I suspect we might look back on the academy system as a conveyor belt that produced timid, robotic players that played their best stuff in home games.

Where To Bet?

The Sportsman’s Scott Armstrong does believe, however, that the tactical seachange, in terms of formation, has facilitated this home win bias.

He says: “I think one of the dynamics to take on board with the deviation from playing 4-4-2 as a betting angle is backing the team who has scored first to go on and win the match. Teams are more scared of losing in recent times, with so many managers being bulleted so quickly. Teams seem to be more defensively orientated and I’d suggest teams taking the lead recently do well percentage wise on going on to win matches more than say 5-10 years ago.”

Scott also believes that it is becoming increasingly difficult to turn a profit from fixed odds 1X2 bets.

Like Goran Trpevski, he feels that there may be more profit in concentrating on in-play and antepost betting. With the availability of Twitter, SMS and on the move betting it seems likely that we’ll see more in-play bets within services.

Scott Armstrong says: “I believe there is next to no value on match betting odds. I only bet on UK football so can only pass comment on the EPL. I am also quite different to many bettors who take a patient approach at the start of the season waiting six weeks or so for players to bed in to new clubs etc. My view is there could be value in the early season games.”

This, he says, was evident last season in the over 2.5 goals market prices for Blackpool matches which incredibly, began the new season at odds against. “It wasn’t too long before the prices were very much odds-on. Similarly as the season began in Scotland prices against the Old Firm were much better in the win markets than they were as the season progressed.”

Is Team News Still Important?

Another key area of disagreement between the tipsters concerns the role of specific factors in terms of shaping results.

As you can read in our exclusive Q&A session from our latest Sports Betting magazine, Matt Love of Football Elite believes that both possession stats and more controversially that team news can be a red herring. Especially so when there are both underrated sides such as Hannover and Blackburn around that excel at using the ball efficiently and also when the big clubs can all boast ample cover in their squads.

But while The Sportsman’s Scott Armstrong says that he never really takes too much heed of teams possession stats and shots on goal when looking at match angles he is adamant that team news can be key: “I believe a team’s substitute bench at a higher level counts for a lot and should be considered when looking at a potentially tight match. A manager should also be able to change styles in a game as the likes of Spain did so successfully in the last World Cup. Some managers like Mancini, at Man City, seem to have little in the way of a Plan B and you see that counting against them quite often.”

For his part Goran Trpevski, as a former top flight player with Malmo and Sweden’s U21s, believes team news is a fundamental part of betting effectively.

He says: Team news is one of the most important factors – there is no question about that. It’s not up for debate. Anyone not having this as a priority can go and play the lottery where he would have a better chance. I always say Barca without Messi would be a very good side but Barca with Messi is the best side ever by a big margin. Today there are exceptionally key players in every team that you just can’t replace. Bayern without Robben will still have the same ball possession but they will lack the same means to break through tight defences. That makes them a lot more predictable and predictable in football is bad.

As for big squads in the bigger clubs? It isn’t as simple as that, he says. “Barca’s Krkic would have trouble holding down a place at Santander, Obi Mikel is a player for Wigan at best and we have many scenarios like this where the thirteenth or fourteenth players in a squad gets game time at top clubs. Barca’s fourteenth or fifteenth players are no better than the ones Harry Redknapp has at Spurs. AC Milan’s subs in the centre of midfield would have trouble getting into the bottom teams in Spain and England.”

Goran says: “Yes, there are teams where knowing the first eleven that is going to start is still important, but it’s not life and death. However, there are the teams where you must almost know the first eleven for definite before you start analysing the game to find where the value is.”

The Word From On High

So what help can we get from UEFA, football’s governing body, whose Technical Director Andy Roxburgh produces reams of data and analysis on current trends to inform the content of elite coaching courses?

There latest report covering the 2009/10 Champions League is well worth a read.

Breaking The Mould

One of the telling features of the 2009/10 campaign was that the likes of Arsenal FC, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid CF and FC Bayern Munich – teams usually associated with high percentages of ball possession and a desire to carry the game to the opposition – were also effective exponents of the counterattacking art.

Although the decisive, match-winning breaks in the final might provide a temptation to hang the “counterattacking team” label around the 2010 champions’ necks, FC Internazionale’s campaign confirmed their status among the teams equipped in all facets of attacking play. “We don’t have especially fast players,” José Mourinho said after the final, “but we are able to play fast counters.”

Mourinho’s comment strengthens the theory that effective fast breaks are not to be equated exclusively with running speed. The top teams demonstrate that the keys are often rapid movement of the ball and well-rehearsed positional options rather than exceptional sprinting speeds.

As Roy Hodgson remarked, “I don’t think Inter won the final because they had better players. I think their success was down to team shape, tactical discipline and the speed of transition into a defensive block.”

In the 2009/10 season, fast breaks accounted for 27% of the goals scored in open play. The fact that the percentage has fallen away (from figures nudging 40%) can be interpreted as a consequence of the ability to “counter the counter” becoming an increasing concern to coaches in the UEFA Champions League – to the extent that game plans are now adjusted in order to cope with the opposition’s counterattacking reputation.

Flying Solo

“Every good team has at least one player who is ready, willing and able to run with the ball,” according to Gérard Houllier who also serves with UEFA’s elite coaches’ panel.

Analysis of the season’s 320 Champions League goals revealed that 26% of them came into the solo category. Apart from dribbling with the ball, these individual contributions took the form of direct free-kicks and long-range shooting.

When Goals Are Decisive

The 2009/10 season also allowed the dust to be blown off old clichés about “games of two halves”. A season ago, it was noted that, whereas 52% of goals were scored after the 60-minute mark ten years ago, this figure had registered a steady descent since. The 2009/10 season consolidated this trend, with only 41% of goals hitting the net in the final half-hour. On the other hand, exactly a quarter of all goals were scored after the 75th minute – which, incidentally, is when most substitutions are made. Can the two figures be linked? Or is it more a case of gunpowder being kept dry for a final push towards victory?

An interesting pattern also emerged from the first half: traditionally, the first quarter-hour is the least prolific period, with teams akin to boxers who scope each other out but keep their guards high. But in 2009/10, the opening phase became the most prolific period of the first half in which, it could be argued, teams aimed to catch their opponents cold, to strike before defensive blocks had had time to settle into place, or to spring a surprise with positional permutations.

From a betting point of view it could pay therefore to bet your favoured selection in play, allowing the prices to drift a bit if the opening exchanges stay goalless.

Even more weight was added to historical evidence during the 2009/10 campaign that scoring first generally proves decisive.

Although the first technical report recorded that only 55% of the 85 games played in 1998/99 were won by the team scoring first, the percentage rose to a peak of 72% in 2004/05. Since then, there has been a significant downward trend, but the fact that only one game in seven is currently being won by the team conceding an opening goal in the CL still amounts to compelling evidence.

Apart from the dip to 285 goals in the 2005/06 season, the goal tally for the 125-match format has been relatively stable within the 300–330 bracket. The 2009/10 campaign was no exception, registering a 0.07 drop on the previous season but maintaining an average of over 2.5 goals per game. As it had done in 2008/09, the group stage proved to be less prolific than the knockout rounds, which produced exactly the same outcome for the second successive season: 82 goals were scored at an average of 2.83 per match. A total of 28 of these goals were scored by the visiting team. Only 7 of the 125 matches remained goalless and all of them were played during the group stage.

Corner Threat? What Corner Threat?

The fact that only 23 Champions League goals were scored from 1,242 corner kicks means that the success rate continues to drop – from 1 in 37 in 2007/08 to 1 in 41 in 2008/09 and, now, 1 in 54 in 2009/10 – bringing it closer to the 1 in 64 registered at EURO 2008. This means the success rate has declined by 46% in just three seasons.

Clearly, from a punting perspective, having a significant setpiece threat should carry less weight than having a team packed with players who can dribble, shoot from distance and turn a game in open play with a moment of inspiration.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

However Goran Trpevski believes that the stats produced by UEFA’s report are not particularly meaningful for punters.

He says: In general, these reports only show you stats that will only confuse the average football fan.”

Indeed Goran has no doubt where UEFA should be concentrating their energies. “What they need to worry about more is keeping their stats correct when it comes to corners, shots on goal and offsides. Many of my members did not get their money as UEFA.COM had the wrong info in the games and some bookies followed them. That’s basic, low level stuff.

Goran says: “Luck plays a part in football and we need to limit that by as much as we can. One way of doing that is to tell Blatter and his friends that their football belongs in the 1950s. The luck factor would be reduced if we could have video technology and a game clock that is stopped when there is no play (like in basketball). With that we would then no longer see the ‘he kicked me and now I am dead’ antics nor will we see time wasting substitutions in the 94th minute. England (although they sucked) got robbed at the World Cup. Who’s is to blame? Well, that’s easy: Fifa of course. The luck factor must be reduced in football. For punters especially it’s a massive enemy.”

Making Money With Football Betting – Our Tipster Guide

Well, you’ve read the theory now consider the practice and the Smart Betting Club’s just published End Of Season Football Tipster Guide is the best place.

There are many things that set top tipsters apart from the common herd of losing punters. Patience, selectivity, hard work and the temperament to always maintain an even keel – even in the choppiest of waters – are just four of them.

On our seasonal guide you’ll see examples of the tipsters you can rely on to come up with the goods. All of them will have bad months, all of them will have bad spells, some will perform below expectations some seasons but all have proven their merit and quality over time.

Take Football Elite for example (as you can see below). Matt Love’s English and European elite league service have a remarkable record. This has been a poor year by their standards. But nonetheless,  if you’d starting out with £5000 at the start of the season, and stuck to Matt’s simple staking plan, you’d still have made a £648 profit this season – a return of more than three times your annual subscription fees. Not bad for a bad year, no? And if you’d followed the service for the last four seasons you’d be £11,606 up, set against an outlay of £719.96 in fees for that period. Pretty good going.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got 14 top tipsters, we think you should know about all fully covered in our seasonal special. That’s a portfolio that have combined profits of over 2,050pts during the period we’ve backed them. Even backing each of their selections at just £50 per point that’s a bottom line equivalent to £102,570.  Dig a little deeper, and with our advice, your sure to find a tipster or tipsters to suit your pocket, lifestyle and attitude to risk.

If you are serious about your football betting there is really only one question worth asking: Can you afford to be without an SBC subscription?