This column by TSG’s Nick Sindt with support from: John Nyen, Jose Ceniceros, Nathan Gower, Luke Sandblom & Matthew Connors.
The piece was originally conceived due to our Soccer Cliches piece thanks to the contribution of Matt Mathai.
Soccer is a wonderful sport for many reasons; the skill on display, watching 11 men or women playing as if one, the momentum shifts that can turn a lost cause into a great day, and so on.
It is the ability for one pass, one shot, one tackle to completely change the momentum and course of a match that is likely at the heart of one of the most tired clichés in all of soccer broadcasting: “a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer.”
Back in January during a Manchester United-Birmingham game, the commentator made a statement about 10 minutes into the game about United manager Sir Alex Ferguson wanting a “second goal” which would’ve made the score 2-0.
Surely one of the most decorated managers of all time wouldn’t wish his team to score another goal and thus entering themselves into the Bermuda triangle of leads.
United went on to win that game 5-0 and, it should be noted that nary a comment was made about 2-0 being the most dangerous lead.
Then you take a Blackpool-United game on the evening of January 25th and 2-0 takes on a completely different meaning; this time United were down and managed to come back to win 3-2. During the entire match I heard nothing about Blackpool holding onto the most dangerous lead.
In the two examples above, the two-goal lead led to an insurmountable victory and a narrow defeat which begs the question ‘what makes a two-goal lead so dangerous and what are the criteria surrounding this two-goal lead that make it so perilous?’
First, let’s address the most important elephant in the room for this often- and ill-used limerick, the data.
There were 380 games in La Liga this year. Of those 380 matches, 167 of them reached a 2-0 lead.
In 95.2% of them (159) the team that had rippled the nets twice went on to win. Six teams relinquished the lead and ended up “earning” a draw. Only two, TWO, of those teams lost.
But wait, is it really fair to look at all 2-0 leads? When a team tacks on an insurance goal in the 90th minute–those should be excluded right? Ok, fair point for review.
In La Liga, 78 matches featured a team with a two-goal lead at the half. How many of those teams went on to win?
Well that answer is 96% or 75 wins for the team leading by a couple at the break. Two draws and one loss.
Busting pitch myths is not just limited to the Iberian peninsula.
Let’s check out the Barclays.
175 matches featured two goal leads. Win count? 157, or about 90%. Tack on another 8% for those that ended in a draw. A loss? A meager 4 matches, or 2.3%.
Sanity check on time to comeback? 53 matches saw a two goal lead after the 1s 45′. Win percentage for those teams? Almost 87% (46 wins). Three draws, four losses.
About the only other interesting point here? Of those four losses, two were by West Ham, and two were by Birmingham–two of the three teams that ended up getting relegated.
And lest, we forget the domestic league count (at the time of this review) this season. The totals?
In MLS, 33 teams have found themselves winning 2-0. 31 of these teams ended up winning, and the other 2 would draw.
Of these 33 teams, 13 were winning 2-0 at halftime. All 13 of these teams won their games.
So the data doesn’t reflect the cliche–then why does it get invoked so ear-bleedingly often?
Most will tell you that momentum is the reason that two-goals are the least safe of leads; if the trailing team scores one they’ll be able to nip another while the leading team is getting itself sorted out. However, this doesn’t explain games where the trailing team takes longer than five to 10 minutes to complete their comeback.
Also, if momentum were the answer, wouldn’t this cliché be abused in American Football, Rugby, and Aussie Rules Football to name other sports? [Hockey has been omitted due to their abuse of the cliché, and basketball has been left off the list because of the quickness with which a two score deficit can be made up]
So, what other factors play a role in whether or not a two-goal lead is able to be overcome?
For starters the quality of the commentators will play a role in whether you hear this drivel repeatedly or not, but not necessarily on whether the lead is actually dangerous. As an example, the two United matches from January mentioned above, had quality commentators and I didn’t hear this utterance once.
However, if John Harkes or Marcello Balboa had been calling the game it can pretty much be guaranteed that it would’ve been heard so often I would’ve had an aneurysm. I digress, on to the real factors that determine whether a two-goal cushion will stand fast or wilt under the pressure of a goal and the subsequent momentum shifts.
Quality of the teams – The quality of the teams involved plays a huge role in whether a two-goal lead makes for a comfortable day at the office or is the double edged sword.
How often have you seen United, Chelsea, Barca, Real Madrid, either of the Milan teams, the Three Lions, the Azzuri, the Germans, Brazil, or Spain take a two-goal advantage over their opponent and been worried or tentative about the outcome of the match?
Though the aforementioned teams account for what most of us would consider the upper echelon of teams in terms of quality, their opponents on the day are just as important. Any of these top-class teams would only find themselves sweating a two-goal lead against another top team in the context of a match that would be considered a shootout or end-to-end, otherwise Barca fans don’t usually sweat going two goals up against Panathanaikos.
In fact, looking back to those La Liga stats, Barcelona had 10 of them at the half and Real Madrid an astounding 14 of them–neither team gave it up. Amazingly for Jose Mourinho’s minions, when they didn’t have a 2-0 lead, they had quite a pedestrian winning percentage, 62.5%. Only 15 wins in 24 matches.
Basically if one of the teams mentioned above is holding the two-goal lead, it’s time to relax. If the team holding the lead is of a higher stature than their opponent, the lead is pretty certain but some other factors can creep in to change the outcome. If the team holding the lead is of the same or lesser quality than their opponent (Fulham vs. Stoke and Blackpool vs. United are good examples) the advantage inspires significantly less confidence and most fans begin to start calculating all of the other factors listed below.
Mental toughness of the teams – This attribute can also be viewed within the umbrella of the “Overall quality of the team” but it bears splitting out as there are some teams that are good but don’t quite have the mental toughness to be great. Arsenal of the last few years is a good example of this; they play well on most days, have shown the ability to hang with the best in the world for 90 minutes or so, but they don’t have that mental edge to do what it takes at all times a la Manchester United this season who may not have been spectacular but they are deserving champions.
It is this extra something in the deep recesses of the mind that makes a champion and gives the players and a team the ability to steal the nerves and put the game to bed when up by two, or to press on when the opponent begins to make their comeback. Mental toughness is also responsible for a team pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and managing a comeback when faced with the two goal deficit.
Context of the Match – When, where, and why the match is being played has some bearing on whether or not a team will be able to hold onto or come back from this kind of margin. David vs. Goliath matchups in the domestic cup competitions usually sees the better teams’ lesser players getting a run out leading to less mental fortitude or the Davids of the world playing as if they have nothing to lose. Raising the stakes to Continental or International competitions often raises the level of concentration, from the leading team, and “fight back” in the trailing teams. Whereas league matches don’t always have the same fire and intensity. Bitter rivalries also raise the level of concentration and “fight back” especially when trophies are involved.
Based on the obviously quasi-scientific analysis mentioned above, I’ve come to the conclusion that a two goal lead is not dangerous, as in getting a two goal lead assures that you will, more often than not, NOT concede at least two goals and count yourself lucky to escape with a point. Initial research bears this out as well; the Premier League and La Liga see 95% of teams that take a two goal lead escape with all three points, and the 2010 World Cup saw 96% of teams (24 of 25) emerge victorious after taking the two goal lead – the only one who earned a draw after going up by two was Slovenia against the US, and we all know they were extremely lucky to even get a point from that match. And lastly, the 2011 Gold Cup saw 93% of teams emerge victorious – the lone blemish again involving the US, but not in a good way for fans of the USMNT.
However, there is some logic to this dead horse of a sportscaster cliché. Having a one goal lead keeps you focused as it’ll only take a fluke to level the scores. Having a three goal lead or more means you’re probably facing off against a team that doesn’t possess the quality to come back from such a deficit, and you’re likely home and dry. But only being ahead by two goals may relax your team just enough that the opponent can claw their way back into the match and use the momentum to level the match or even take the lead themselves – just ask my men’s league team who snatched a draw from the jaws of victory this past weekend after being up by two on two separate occasions and our “second” team who’s done that on multiple occasions this season.
Thank you Kyle Martino! Thank you for not saying it last night and [assumption] thank you for not letting JP Dellacamera say it!
Let’s put the above ideals to the test in the best Freudian application possible – that is structuring your theories on the fly to fit the results you’re seeing…I jest. The Gold Cup Final saw a team take a two goal lead and spectacularly lose it, and then some, so let’s put it into the proper context:
Quality of the teams – The 2011 GC Final saw the two teams most expected to be there as they are the biggest fish in the relatively small CONCACAF pond. Though Mexico had dominated the early days of this matchup (it wasn’t a rivalry until the US showed they could actually beat the Mexicans), the US has caught up to them and now there appears to be more ebb and flow as to who the actual “dominant force” is. Based on their form in the tournament, the Mexicans were the better team heading into the final with the US reprising its role as good but not quite good enough.
Mental toughness of the teams – Since the US took the 2-0 lead, we’ll examine their mental toughness…Faced with adversity, of their own making, throughout the tournament you would think that the US would have the edge necessary to polish their turd of a tournament and embarrass their rivals in front of the home crowd. Alas, it was not meant to be and the mental frailties that led to the US digging its holes in the previous matches resurfaced (along with some other factors) to conspire against the US successfully thwarting the Mexican attack.
Mexico must be commended for their attitude and fight in this match; based on all of their hot-headed, ill-tempered arrogance in the 2000 decade which saw the US own El Tri when games were played in neutral* settings. This newer edition appears to have more respect for the United States, which leads to less stupid red cards and better opportunities to overcome deficits.
*Neutral settings here meaning anywhere outside the borders of Mexico as any game in the US is at least 50-50 pro-Mexican support, and most falling closer to the 70-30 or higher splits.
Context of the Match – The Gold Cup Final was not only the final of a tournament (trophy on the line) but this was yet another installation of this bitter rivalry, which would likely see more concentration from the US and more fightback from the Mexicans. Only one of those panned out on the night and the score line was an accurate reflection of how each team reacted to the context and gravity of the match.
As you can see the Gold Cup Final ended up being somewhat of an exception to the rule.