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The not-so-dangerous 2-0 lead

3 April 2012

QPR beat Liverpool from 2-0 down - an exception to the rule

Some might argue Liverpool’s capitulation at Queen’s Park Rangers last month was the perfect example of 2-0 being a dangerous lead. Cruising against a side battling relegation, Liverpool’s complacency turned into anxiety and then panic as QPR scored three in thirteen minutes to win the game.

Yet this was the first time Liverpool had dropped points from a 2-0 lead in nine and a half years, and their first defeat from such a position since November 2000. Two-nil hasn’t been a dangerous lead for the Reds at all in the Premier League; indeed it’s been quite the opposite.

The Power of Goals’ Mark Taylor suggests why there is this perception:

One of the many hoary old football myths is that the hardest lead to defend is 2-0. The leading team feels the win is already in the bag and the opposition, with little to lose, play with much more freedom, take outrageous chances and soon the score is back to all square. Of course the reason we think that a team is very vulnerable when leading by two goals is because we tend to remember the times when that lead collapses and forget the more numerous occasions when the lead is converted to a win.

Tottenham’s 5-2 defeat to Arsenal comes to mind too – but this was the only other defeat from a 2-0 lead all season. With thanks to Infostrada Sports (follow them on Twitter at @InfostradaLive), data show that from 134 two-nil advantages there have been a further six draws, and 126 victories.

Over the course of the Premier League, a mere 1.8% of 2-0 leads have been squandered into defeats, whilst 93% have been converted into wins. It’s fairly safe going, with an even bigger advantage for teams leading at home.

The odds on a comeback from such a deficit are remote at best, and shrink as the match progresses. Liverpool’s 72nd minute goal to establish a two-nil lead was the latest-ever in a Premier League defeat, making QPR’s upset all the more miraculous and – importantly – unrepresentative.  The chart below illustrates the chances of winning given a 2-0 lead was taken in that group of minutes.

If your team goes 2-0 behind with less than half an hour left, you may be better off taking the early train home; in an average game there is a less than a 1% chance of salvaging anything from the match.

But rationality has rarely, if ever, been part of a football fan’s makeup. The prospect and faint hope (or fear) of a comeback is enough for people to believe a rarity is a distinct possibility.

Manchester United fans can rest the easiest at 2-0 up. Only once in the last twelve years have they failed to take three points from a 2-0 lead, and have never been beaten from that position in the Premier League. Of teams to have taken a minimum of 30 two-nil leads, only Portsmouth can match that, though have featured in considerably fewer games (38 compared to 276). The chart below ranks the top five teams in Premier League history given this 30-game minimum requirement.

Meanwhile Arsenal (95%) and Chelsea (94%) have had fair comfortable win rates over the years, but Spurs hold a strange record of more losses than draws from 2-0 leads. Of the eleven times they have not held on, eight have ended in defeats, most recently against Arsenal at the Emirates, and most notably against Manchester United (twice, in 2001 and 2009). Fulham (3 defeats, 1 draw) have shown a similar knack for capitulation.

On the flip side, Spurs have been one of the better teams at overturning 2-0 deficits. More than half of their comebacks have ended in victories too, a record matched by Liverpool. Neither side are as good as United though, who ‘only’ lose three-quarters of the time from 2-0 down. Again, a minimum of 30 two-nil deficits is imposed on the chart below.

Crystal Palace and Nottingham Forest are the only two clubs since 1992 to have failed to collect a single point from 2-0 down. The vast majority of clubs have loss percentages well over 90%.

It may be interesting to see what happens to performance when teams are 2-0 up or down; do indicators such as the rate of shots or passes change?

Whatever the definition of ‘dangerous’ though, 2-0 leads do not match the description. Comebacks are special and exciting for this reason: they are relatively rare.

Data kindly provided by Infostrada Sports. You can follow them on Twitter @InfostradaLive, or visit their new website

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 April 2012 11:06 pm

    Good piece. I personally hate when commentators utters words such as your title as well as you’re never as vulnerable as when you just score. If it gets proven once its as if they’re vindicated.

  2. Peter, Denmark permalink
    25 September 2012 2:10 pm

    There are other statistics on the ‘dangerous’ 2-0 lead that I’d like to see.
    My assumption is this: Theoretically, in one out of ten 3-2 matches the losing team scores the first two goals. Compare it to having three red balls and two blue balls in a bag and picking them one by one; in 10% of all cases, the first and second ball will both be blue. Is this correct?
    If so, 10% of all 3-2 matches should be like the QPR-Liverpool match and see the losing team score the first two goals. If statistics show that this actually happens more frequently than 10%, we have evidence that 2-0 is a dangerous lead.
    Can anyone tell me if this is correct, and does anyone know how often the losing team scores the first to goals in 3-2 matches?

    • 25 September 2012 3:54 pm

      Interesting… the picking balls analogy – that assumes goals (picking balls) are independent of one another, but I’m not sure they are. Intuitively (not looked at numbers), I’d have thought the scorer of the second goal depends positively on the scorer of the first.

      • Peter, Denmark permalink
        4 October 2012 1:33 pm

        Let’s find out. I’ll register the goal scoring sequence of every 3-2 match I come across, and when I have enough (say 500) I’ll let you know if the LLWWW sequence is more frequent than 10%.

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