The European Football Championship is currently running in France. This has occasioned, of course, multiple self-declared experts and whatnots to discuss various aspects of the game (sometimes called “soccer”): how the players, the fields, or the coach’s tie color might be influential to the match’s outcome.
One of those things—one which I really thought to be true, too—involves the benefits scoring a goal just before half-time. The idea, which seems plausible indeed, is that this gives the scoring team a confidence boost during the break, and helps them psychologically when they come back for the second half. The other team might be more stressed during the break, and know they need to really score now in order to just have a tie. This pressure might hinder their break and recovery, and make them less confident for the second half.
But is it true? Professor Stijn Baert from the University of Ghent here in Belgium came out with a well-timed study (published in Dutch), where he analyzed all goals made in Champions and UEFA Europa League matches between 2011 and 2014 (1,179 in total), together with his assistant, Masters student Simon Amez. They even made the distinction between teams having home advantage and playing in another stadium.
For those playing elsewhere, there is no significant difference. And for the home team, the effect is even negative! A goal scored between the 45th minute and the end of the first half (a couple of minutes later depending on the number of interruptions in that half) has the net effect of decreasing the total number of goals in that match for that team, and it doesn’t improve their chances of winning. It seems scoring before the break may decrease concentration, and could make that team less eager to score some more goals.
The result is similar to some studies of the “hot-hand fallacy,” which derives from the assumption that athletes score more when they’ve just scored, like being on a winning streak. Studies of that phenomenon have produced mostly negative, but mixed, results.
Baert and Amez’s research speculates on some explanations, but the main point is clear: football experts (and yes, also me) are wrong in thinking that scoring just before the break is a good thing. It is actually quite the opposite! So, once more: science 1, common sense 0.