Streaks and steamers: How to assess good form rationally28th February 2019 / Julian
It’s funny how many of us knowingly or sub-consciously analyse form just prior to placing our bets. We can look at a form guide and make assumptions about the teams and players involved, but if we don’t take the time to investigate the underlying reasons why then really we are doing ourselves a complete disservice as smart bettors.
A run of three defeats does not make a team unbackable, nor does three consecutive wins make a side a ‘sure thing’. Streaks come to an end, we know that, but the deeper point here is that if we don’t investigate the minute details of each result, we can never truly make a rational analysis.
Let’s dig out an example. At the time of writing, Manchester United had drawn their last three home matches in the Premier League; two of which were against relegation-threatened teams.
Form Assumption: United are playing poorly.
Now let’s take a look at the reality: against Burnley, Jose Mourinho’s side had 72% possession, and fired 38 shots at goal: 11 of which were on target. They were also reduced to ten men after 68 minutes, and Burnley’s keeper Tom Heaton produced the performance of a lifetime. The conclusion we can draw? United were unlucky, and if the same match was played 100 times with the same parameters the Red Devils would win about 95.
Next up were old rivals Arsenal in a fixture that had the potential to deliver so much. But it didn’t, primarily because United completely outplayed the Gunners and halted their free-flowing football in its tracks. Arsene Wenger’s side produced a solitary shot on target: which happened to be their 89th minute equaliser.
Thirdly came the visit of West Ham. The Hammers took a freakishly early second minute lead as United’s defenders struggled to ‘wake up’. From that point on, a tidal wave of red shirts laid siege on the West Ham goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic equalised, and he and his teammates fired a further sixteen shots at goal – eight on target. Another goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, decided that Old Trafford would be the venue for his career-defining performance.
The point we are making is this: there will be plenty of punters writing off United at this point, and numerous murmurs in the media about the security – or otherwise – of Jose Mourinho’s position in charge. But that is hokum as we have just proved, and in the fullness of time the Red Devils will win plenty of matches at home and elsewhere.
That is just one example, but they are happening all the time in football, tennis, horse racing and other sports where ‘form’, as a concept, is often misunderstood.
So what can we do about it? Well, we can more accurately judge a run of form by asking five very simple questions: how, what, where, when and why?
This is the most basic question and the one we explored with our Manchester United example above. How have they undergone this particular run of form? Have they been lucky, unlucky, or have their results simply reflected the way that the matches have panned out?
Of course, there will be occasions where there is no underlying cause for a specific run of form. Quality outfits can win five games in a row simply because they are better than everyone else in the division, while poor sides can go on losing streaks because they are lacking in ability and devoid of confidence.
Form can be fluid, e.g. it comes and it goes, or it can explain a deeper-lying set of strengths or weaknesses. But only in investigating how the form run has been achieved can we draw more accurate conclusions.
This is an important point too, especially in football with its multiple competitions. If we told you that Team A had won four matches in a row, you might simply assume they were in good form and add them to your betslips blindly.
But what if we told you that of those four victories one was in the Premier League, the second was in the Champions League against a team from Malta, the third was in the League Cup against a team from English football’s fourth tier and the last of those wins came in the FA Cup against a non-league outfit?
This only serves to outline the second of the questions we need to ask about win/loss streaks: what is the nature of such a pattern?
This is an interesting one, and it pertains to football and plenty of other sports too. Quite simply, the vast majority of teams perform better at home in front of their own supporters than they do on their travels. That’s proven by data, and is something that all punters can appreciate.
So if a team has lost five matches in a row, but four of those were away from home due to a quirk of the fixture list, do we dismiss them as also rans, or instead open our minds to the possibility that they may improve exponentially when next at home?
The ‘where’ links inextricably to the ‘how’, in that punters should be doing their homework to ascertain exactly why a team is experiencing a losing streak away from home; are they too adventurous? Too negative? Or are they simply outplayed?
There is so much football played these days that fixture pile-ups and congestion are natural. One weapon in the arsenal of punters is to check the form of the teams immediately before and after their midweek Champions League duties; it’s amazing to see the regularity with which a changed starting eleven stumbles.
The Christmas and New Year period is also a time of football saturation, and if a side experiences a bad run here then they certainly shouldn’t be discounted readily for the rest of the season.
And finally… why?
The answer to ‘why’ can sometimes be answered very easily, and other times not so. Take a look at Bury, who at the time of writing had lost ten consecutive matches. We can run the tests above, but ultimately their lack of form can be attributed to off-the-field problems, with allegations that players aren’t being paid. That is a straightforward reason.
Alternatively, it could be similar to Manchester United’s strife at home; only by crunching the numbers do we find that they have been unlucky and will surely regress back to their mean in due course.
So the secret to analysis form effectively is to put in the hard yards; your betting bankroll will speak volumes if you do.
The tip is based on the personal opinion of the author. No success is guaranteed. Please gamble responsibly. 18+
* All mentioned odds were valid at the time of writing. Betting odds are subject to fluctuations. Please check the current odds with the respective bookmaker!
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