Thursday 3 May 2012

The FA Cup Final.Goal Feast or Famine?

Despite it's demotion to the status of merely the most important game of the day,the FA Cup Final still remains a great national occasion and is bound to attract a large local and international audience.The match up between Chelsea and Liverpool is fairly typical of the finals we have witnessed since the formation of the Premier League 20 years ago,as the trophy will be fought over by two relatively successful top tier sides.We saw here that the "romance of the Cup",if it exists,has rarely made the trip to Wembley or Cardiff.In the last twenty years,the median pyramid position of the subsequent finalists on third round day has seen 3rd beating 7th.When the big teams entered the competition this January,Saturday's opponents,Chelsea and Liverpool were placed 4th and 6th respectively in the EPL.So we have a game that is entirely consistent with historical trends,where Chelsea are slightly favoured over The Reds.

Wembley Stadium on Cup Final Day.

If history could have helped us decide the likely identity of the finalists and the ultimate destination of the Cup back in January,we can perhaps also learn something about how the trophy will be lifted.Finals are often low scoring games.Neutral territory and an understandable reluctance to take too many early risks may result in both teams adopting a cautious approach and if we go back to the start of the Premiership era we can see that corresponding FA Cup Finals have been relatively low scoring.Of the 20 Cup finals played,15 have had 2 goals or less and only 5 have contained 3 or more and the average number of goals scored in the 90 minutes is only 1.9.(The "extra" Cup Final is Arsenal's defeat of Sheffield Wednesday in the last minute of extra time in the days when replays settled the tie.Andy Linighan,anyone?)

Goals naturally become scarcer as a knockout competition progresses towards it's climax,especially one with such a wide starting base as the FA Cup.Over 700 teams entered at the various qualifying stages and the comparative gap between say the Combined Counties League and the Isthmian League can be a lot wider than the gap between Premiership and Championship.Mis matches therefore comprise a higher proportion of the qualifying and early proper rounds of the FA Cup and because lopsided games on average yield more goals,you will see higher scoring at the start of the tournament compared to the final rounds.

Average goals per game in the qualifying rounds typically come in at around 3.5 goals,dropping to a still elevated 3 per game when the first round proper sees the first wave of professional clubs make an appearance.As games become more comparable to every day league encounters,the number of goals scored declines further still and the average number scored in the semi finals over the EPL era is just 2.3 goals per game.

Typical Goals per Game Averages for the FA Cup over the last 20 Seasons.

FA Cup Round. Goals per Game.
3rd Qualifying Round. 3.50
1st Round Proper. 2.95
3rd Round. 2.81
4th Round 2.42
Semi Finals 2.29
Final. 1.9

As we've seen the final is the only round where the average number of goals scored drops below 2. A Premiership game between teams of similar competitive balance would appear to mimic the typical Cup Finals we have witnessed recently.However,closely contested EPL games,while being less goal laden than EPL games as a whole still see around 2.4 goals per game scored,significantly more than the average recent final tie.Therefore,the suggestion that finalists also adopt a cautious approach would seem reasonable and this approach enhances the expected lower number of goals seen in games between evenly matched teams,resulting in particularly low scoring games.....Or alternatively 20 Cup finals may simply be too small a sample size and more finals will see the average goals scored rise.

Both Stoke and Chelsea have recently scored five goals on their own at the supposed frugal end of the competition and Sholing beat Blackfield & Langley 1-0 at the profligate beginning,so even a low or high scoring environment doesn't guarantee the most likely scoring pattern will occur....but don't be too surprised if Chelsea and Liverpool fight out a low scoring affair on Saturday evening.

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