How much depends on luck in a football match?

By Walter Broeckx

I remember a few years ago that I wrote an article after Arsenal lost a match. It was an article on how luck can decide the outcome of a match.  As it was after Arsenal had lost a match in an unlucky way I got called some names by the usual suspects.

I said then, and being in football for more than …. 45 years (my god I’m getting older…), I still am convinced, that the lucky bounce of the ball will win you matches or make you lose matches.

A deflected shot can cause all kinds of troubles. The ball goes wide instead of going in or the other way round of course. Or the keeper who was thinking of making a comfortable save suddenly sees the ball ending up in the empty net or the other way round as he knew he was beaten by the shot and then it suddenly falls in his hands because of the deflection.

I was wrong they told me. I was looking for excuses.  Well I am still convinced that a manager on the touchline can’t do anything about such situations. In fact that might look like an excuse but surely no manager will ever say to his team:  “make sure you deflect  the ball in your own net”.

Such things are just purely accidents. But they can be the difference between winning and losing a match.

Just as referee decisions can be the difference between winning or losing a match. Again they call this excuses but the fact is we have reviewed more than 500 matches so far and have found that rather a lot of matches have been decided by errors from referees. But still people will dismiss it. But they forget that the few other referees out there who attempted to do the same came to the same conclusion. And it doesn’t really matter if Arsenal was the victim of all those researches (also from those not related to Arsenal). What matters is the fact that referees can make errors and that those errors can lead to teams winning and losing.

Those are two things no manager has in their hands. He can say to his players: you run here and you run there, and when we have the ball you do this and when we don’t have the ball you do that. That is something the manager has more or less in his hands. Of course we still have to see if the players do as they are being told or not. Whether that happens is something we don’t know.

Am I saying that a manager is not that important? Of course he is. But a manager is not the only factor that will have a say on the result. Like I said the referee who is on the field can completely destroy anything the manager has told his players to do within seconds. Sending a player off  wrongly for example. Or giving a penalty that isn’t a penalty. And whoops out the window goes all the manager has told him team to do.

But let us go back to “the lucky bounce of the ball”.

Because today is the birthday of Michael  Thomas.  And any Gooner who doesn’t know this name should be kicked out of the Emirates at his next visit. And for those who really don’t know his name… Anfield. May 26, 1989. Ring a bell?

Yes he was the man that brought the title to Arsenal in the most amazing circumstances. We had to win with at least 2 goals to beat Liverpool at their ground to win the title in the last match of the season.  And Thomas delivered with a goal in extra time. With almost the last kick of the match.

So what has luck got to do with this you might say. I urge you to have a look at that goal again. I think we all know the way he chipped the ball over the Liverpool keeper with the outside of his right boot. Some might even recall the pass from Dixon to Smith. Smith who then passed it to Thomas.

But this is where luck enters the world of football. Because Thomas controlled the ball and tried to play it away from the defender. But his attempt to go past the last Liverpool defender hit the defender.  At that moment in time I think the title was decided.

The ball hit the defender almost on the hip and it could have flown to every possible direction. No way could Thomas have intended to make a 1-2 with the Liverpool defender.  That the ball ended up back with Thomas was pure luck. Nothing else. Nothing to do with managers, even the referee was not involved, nothing to do with technical skills. Pure luck.

Lady Luck was on our side in those seconds. I gladly admit it. It was a lucky bounce.

And still it could have gone wrong. Because as the ball bounced back from the Liverpool defender it flew back to Thomas who didn’t expected that to happen at all.  It bounced against his upper leg just above his knee. And footballers can do a lot, but controlling a ball with the knee is almost impossible. Because the knee is a hard bone and the ball can go anywhere.

Once again Lady Luck was on our side in that split second. The ball bounced kindly for Thomas who could chase it further and finally score. But if that ball had made full contact with his knee we would probably never had won the title.  It might have gone out of his reach, a Liverpool full back might have had time to recover.

But no. It didn’t. It fell kindly for Thomas and for Arsenal.

Does this mean that our title has decreased in value because we were lucky? Of course not. It still has the same value for me.

Except that I can accept that to win a title in the end you not only need to be good or even great. No, you also have to rely for a big part on luck.  Of course you can enforce your luck as we did when we went to Liverpool. We made sure that we could have that lucky instant by playing for it in the other 37 matches.

But in the end… it was one lucky bounce of the ball that was the difference between heaven and hell.  Heaven it was….

Recent Posts

Remembering the opening of seasons gone by. (the full list of today’s anniversaries are on the home page)

  • 25 August 1899.  Chairman and benefactor George Leavey warns his players about drinking before a match.  “No man with a skinful of whisky can play football.”
  • 25 August 1923: Debut of Harry Woods v Newcastle.  It ended Arsenal 1 Newcastle 4 in front of 45,000.  The large crowd was probably caused by the fact that Arsenal were undefeated in the final nine league matches of the previous season.
  • 25 August 1928.  For the first match of the new season Chapman introduced numbers on the players’ shirts.  The FA said subsequently said “no”, for no apparent reason other than it was new.
  • 25 August 1934: Wilf Copping’s first game v Portsmouth away.  The 3-3 draw (Bowden, Drake and Bastin) suggested Arsenal might score goals, and they did.  Eight in the next match and  115 in the league winning the third successive title.
  • 25 August 1954: Jimmy Bloomfield and Joe Haverty league debuts – a 0-1 away defeat to Everton.  In fact Arsenal lost all three of their opening games of the season.
  • 25 August 1964: Arsenal played their first ever home match on a pitch with under soil heating.  It finished Arsenal 1 Sheffield W 1 in front of 35,590.  Simpson scored.  Arsenal went on to win only two of their first six games and finished 13th in the league.


27 Replies to “How much depends on luck in a football match?”

  1. I still remember that moment and totally agree with you about luck. Thank goodness I am not the only paranoid person in this planet.
    Even this minute I get goose bumps thinking about it. When I watch it again (and again and again), I always feel lady luck will change the scenario and I wake up in a different timeline. It was so surreal for me.

    I was a young lad in Malaysia then, and live football is a premium. It was ecstasy for me when the terrestrial channel decided to show this match live. It was early hours in the morning and I still think my neighborhood was tempted to call the police and have me arrested to screaming my lungs out when the final whistle was blown. My face was pressed literally against the TV screen when the commentator said “Thomas charging through the midfield….Thomas it’s up for grabs now….THOMAS!!!!”. I think my eyesight must have been adversely affected that morning.

    My mom did give me a good dressing down for causing a racket so early. I still hold that night dear to me.

  2. Really the only thing a manager can control in a match is the performance of the team as a whole (as Wenger referred to in almost every post-match presser last season).

    So the manager will set his team up to create many high quality chances (chances with a higher probability of resulting in a goal, I.e. shots in the box from good angles) and limit the opposition to few low quality shots (shots from long range with a low probability of resulting in a goal). In this way, expected goals for and against will favor us and so in theory we should win. Last season we set up in this way better than any other team in the league I think.

    But then luck comes in. What does depend on luck is conversion rate. Some teams take few, sometimes low quality shots and score goals and win, like Burnley and Boro in recent games. Those high, sometimes near 100% conversion rates represent great luck for them and bad luck for the opposition (or a bad keeper like Mignolet or Guzan) and usually don’t last so you can expect those teams to revert to poor results in the near future unless the performance drastically improves in future.

    Sometimes a team will take a large number of shots, most of which are high quality but they will have a really low conversion rate. This happened to us a lot last season and was really bad luck because we dominated teams. The perfect example of this was Southampton at home in which ten high quality shots on target were all saved. Those kind of poor conversion rates don’t last and you can expect the high quality team to start scoring again soon. While those sorts of high save percentages don’t last either and you can expect the other team to start conceding soon. So those sorts of games represent highly improbable events, i.e. 9 teams out of 10 the high quality team whose manager set them up better would have won, so they were really unlucky that time.

  3. Like Gunner 6 , I watched it in the wee hours of morning . I had waited patiently for 17 years for Arsenal to win the league , and what a win it was.

    Other than that lucky bounce that Walter mentioned, the Liverpool players were mostly in a terrible shambles. When Steve McMahon put up that one more minute finger and then clenched his fists looking rather unconvinced himself , and together with the look of panic on John Barnes face , I knew it was all ours .

    And it did end up being so , because we wanted it more .

  4. There’s an element of luck in most games, it’s random, as is honest unintentional referee errors. Percentage football [which we played quite a lot of back in that Graham era] relies somewhat on the lucky flight & fall of the ball when booted upfield.
    Yes, Thomas got a couple of lucky touches for his great goal. Alan Smith was also slightly lucky for his first goal in that he caught the ball on the side of his head/face instead of getting a clean front forehead contact.
    I’ll take a lucky win over a controversial one any day.

  5. Of course luck or good fortune and vice versa, plays a positive role in all sporting activities.
    It causes mistakes and recoveries all in equal measure.
    Personally. I firmly believe we have guardian angels working for each of us. That is why we don’t necessarily succeed in all we do. Only what is in our best interests, which we don’t always understand at the time. 😉

  6. LUCK = Labour Under Constructive Knowledge

    Luck is dependant on actions and sometimes one can create one’s own luck.

    For instance, having a shot and getting a deflection, running with ball at an opposition player, being spontaeneous, they all contribute to luck.

    So Arsenal needs to create more of it’s own luck too by “Labouring” “Under” the “Constructive Knowledge” of knowing their opposition well.

  7. If you have seen the film “Sliding Doors” you would see that Arsenal would have won anyway.

  8. Forest consider themselves “lucky” to have drawn us in the EFL cup.
    Probably fair assessment by them to be honest.

  9. And an example of Bad luck for us and Good luck for Brummie City is the 2011 TinPot Cup Final. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have finished the game off long before that moment but Bad luck lost it for us.

  10. Indeed Andy. It was bad luck. But don’t dare to say that to any WOB. It was Wenger his own fault… Nobody else.

  11. Sometimes luck can be bent. It is not always luck that wins when there is a whistle in the hands of a selectively blind official. There is the rare occasion when the official might miss his chance to do the bidding of his masters. The days of luck being uncontrollable have gone. They were replaced by PGMOL. The benders. Benders of all things natural & lucky.

    Despite this, Arsenal have been managed by the most brilliant mind. His methods are simple & work.

  12. When things turn put the way we wish them to be, we call it lucky. Other times, we moan about our lack of it.

    Please go and check the science. Luck doesn’t play such a big role in our lives. Things happen in our lives. When we are prepared, we get to use those incidents to our advantage. When we are incapable, we are unable to use the opportunity and then we start crying about bad luck.

    Please stop being superstitious! Barcelona haven’t been lucky in the past 10 years, they were simply good. Arsenal, although sometimes things didn’t go their way, haven’t been at that level and the results show. Luck has very little to do with it.

    Let’s not clutch at straws, just to explain the most recent disappointments. This is Arsenal as it is, and we love it for whatever it is.

  13. Leon… I think they think their lucky because of the additional revenue smaller teams get from playing one of the big clubs, not because we look like an easy match.

  14. Why do you have to do that Walter? You come up with a great article that’s extremely well written and shows your experience. Then you have to get in a childish comment! It makes you sound like a little girl in a school playground complaining that someone stole her skipping rope! Them nasty WOB might write a bad comment!! Tears and tantrums!!

  15. Mr Sammy u say barca dnt need luck WOW!such a u rem chelc vs barca!d refereeeeeee.Dats luck fr u man.barca never deserved to win but luck of refereee luck of football gave dem d win

  16. Not an Arsenal fan until 1998, I went to watch the goal via YouTube and I can tell you it’s definitely the most dramatic league season ending the English League has ever seen. Even more than that of Man City in recent years and to accomplish it and take the league away from Liverpool in Anfield in such manner is drama at its best.

    Kudos to Arsenal and a Happy Birthday to Michael Thomas. He is indeed an Arsenal hero/legend.

  17. Let me shoehorn this in here; after all, injuries can be unlucky. I was a bit annoyed at Coleman’s hypocrisy concernig Aaron Ramsey’s hamstring so looked up the Wales team against Portugal. Leaving out Ashley Williams, transferred two days before the opening weekend; Robson-Kanu, no club: and Bale in Spain, all the others apart from Neil Taylor were either starters or on the bench for the first game.
    Oh, yes, and Aaron, of course did not play the semi final because of a suspension. His last game was the week before the Portugal game.
    So, whatever the rights and wrongs, Coleman is well out of order – any chance our football media will call out the pathetic points scoring attempt of the great Fulham and Coventry manager?

  18. I think the comment about players make their own luck needs more words to be more precise. I think players create situations in which luck (good or bad) can manifest itself. And something a player needs to try and do, is to maximize opportunities where good luck may arise, and minimize opportunities where bad luck may arise. Getting into those situations requires skill much of the time.

    In terms of how much a game is determined by luck, my guess is that it is slightly over half.

  19. I think to place so much emphasis on “luck” is to pass the buck, spread the blame. “Honest guv, not my fault we lost, it was back luck / referees / media conspiracy / aliens”.

    Whilst luck can play a part in football, and can decide marginal games, the point is that we need to look at ourselves first and foremost. Luck didn’t make us play badly against Liverpool, or Southampton, or Swansea, or West Ham.

    I saw the mention of the Birmingham cup final upthread. Yeah, the goal was unlucky, but had we played anywhere near our best we should have been two or three up by that time. The lucky late goal should have been a consolation, not the winner.

    The point is, how many times have we seen Arsenal dominate a game, only for the opposition to go up the other end and score from their only shot? You can either hold your hands up and blame Lady Luck, or you can look at the root causes and try and stamp them out.

    Fullbacks getting caught upfield, midfielders not covering, Petr Cech letting a savable goal past him. Luck is a factor, but I find the continued attempts to blame our inefficiencies on anything and everything except Wenger to be pretty hilarious.

    Look, I’m no WOB, he’s done a lot for the club and I think he’s got more to offer. I’m not shouting for him to be sacked, but neither am I blind to his faults. He’s not terrible, but he’s not a saint either. The truth lies in between, and the rabid anti and pro Wenger camps are both as bad as each other, IMHO.

  20. So there we have it luck a four letter word that is fortunate to begin with ‘l’. Dirty if it began with ‘m’. Quackers if it began with ‘d’. Money if it began with ‘b’. unsavoury if it began with ‘s’. A plaything if it began with ‘p’. And glorious if it began with ‘f’, for some anyway.

  21. Got a science background Ryan? Go do some research at arXiv on modelling soccer/football. Luck is a huge part of football.

  22. Was Lampard a lucky player , he scored so many goals from deflections so in one sense he was but in another he made his luck by taking the shot in the first place. Then Beckham how many free kicks did he bend into top corners . Was he lucky to get the opportunity to have the shot or were the free kicks played for. I would say that luck does have an influence but I would also counter by saying that you can make your luck . Lampard got his goals because Chelsea played for him they gave him the opportunity , just as United’s policy of dropping like stones around the box helped Beckham and later Ronaldo too. Gary Player said ” the more I practice the luckier I get ” So the lesson might well be to take the half chance and aim for the moon because you might just hit the ceiling. ( I think Paul Merson’s dad told him that.)

  23. @ Menace -August 25, 2016 at 8:21 pm – What I think of their comments when it begins with a ‘y’.

    Comfortably (?) ensconced in each other’s arses when it begins with a ‘t’ !

    Referring to ‘them’ as oozy, sticky, or slimy substances , when it begins with a ‘g’ .

    Meaning a great mass of undistinguished or inferior persons or things, when it begins with a ‘r’ !

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