Why going for draws is the biggest mistake in football

How the irrational fear of losing is causing football coaches to take way too little risks.

Let’s say I’ll hand you over 100 CHF and offer you the following deal: I’ll flip a coin. If it shows head, you have to give back the 100 bucks. If it shows tail, you’ll win 200 bucks more. Would you make that deal?

You most certainly would. But weirdly enough, most football coaches decline that deal. Again. Again. And again.

In 1995, FIFA had one simple idea to make football more attractive. Instead of just awarding the winner 2 points, they get 3 points. Surely, football clubs would take more risks for a win, since there were more points to gain.

Unfortunately, that never happened.

The irrational fear of losing

What FIFA did not expect is the loss aversion deeply rooted in the human minds. It is the illogical tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Studies show that losses have twice the emotional impact of gains.

So in football, the bad feelings when your team loses are more intense than the good feelings when your team is winning.

Why going for a win is the better option

You may watch a game, your team is the underdog and the score is still 0-0 with only a few minutes to play. Sure, a victory would be awesome, but just to hold that draw would be nice, too, right? So better not risk to much, bringing home that one point.

Well, you are wrong. And so are almost all football coaches.

Taking risks to avoid draws are worth it most of the time. The math is simple: with a win, you gain 2 points. With a loss, you only lose 1 point.

This are very good odds for taking a risk! Let’s take 10 games where the score is 0-0 near the end. Instead of securing that one point, you as a coach risk everything, going in full attack mode. Let’s say this goes wrong 6 times, and works out 4 times. Then you still gain +2 points overall! If it’s fifty-fifty, you’ll even gain +5 points.

The bigger the league, the less sense a draw makes

You may say: But if I risk everything and my opponent wins, he WINS the 2 additional points, which sucks. Fair enough. But gaining this points yourself has way more advantages.

Weirdly enough, the bigger the league, the less sense a draw makes.

Think of it this way: If you turn a draw into a win, you gain 2 points in comparison to ANY other team in the league. If you turn a draw into a loss, you lose only 1 point in comparison to ANY other team.

Let’s say we have a league with 18 teams. If you turn a draw into a win, you not only gain +3 points compared to your opponent, but also +2 to all the other 16 teams (+35 overall). If you turn a draw into a loss, you lose -3 points compared to your opponent, but only -1 to all the other 16 teams (-19 overall).

If the game ends up in a draw, it’s actually good for the other 16 teams, since only 2 points are distributed instead of 3.

Draws are fine in knockout stages

This is also why draw do make sense in knockout stages, where only your and your opponents result matter. In small groups, like at a World Cup or in the Champions League group stage, draws are also far less damaging.

There are also a few scenarios where it is actually more crucial for the opponent NOT to score the points than for you to score. Obvious example: Your team is fighting for relegation, there is only one game to go and you are playing your opponent who is one point behind. Here it is crucial the opponent does not score the 3 points and overtakes you.

Furthermore, there may be some psychological effects in play. While a draw does not help a team a lot with the score, it may prevents damaging the confidence, since a draw is often perceived from the players as a good result, especially if the team was the underdog.

A draw should be treated like a loss

Still, in most cases, a draw should be treated like a loss, from players, fans and coaches. Especially if your team did not take chances to turn that draw into victory.

So next time you celebrate a dirty 0-0 against a superior opponent, think again. It may was just a lost opportunity.

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