Football betting strategy: Understanding baseline handicapping

  • Written by David Bet
Football betting strategy: Understanding baseline handicapping

Many handicappers use a universal handicapping system which can be used to set lines for any sport and requires only minimal adjustments for injuries and other situational factors. How did they know? The 2006 Soccer World Cup can be used to illustrate.

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Baseline Handicapping48 games were completed in the group stage and a further 14 knock-out games played before the final . As the tournament reached its climax in Berlin, handicappers and sharp bettors had more and more information available for analysis. Many people were surprised that the Italy vs. France total opened at 1.5 goals, but baseline handicapping would have led you to this conclusion on your own.

Whether you are handicapping a total in baseball or soccer, the first step in any sport is to set a baseline figure for an average game. In other words, how many goals are scored in an average game during regulation time?

In the group stage, there were 117 goals scored in 48 games, for an average offensive production (and defense allowed) of 2.44 goals per match resulting in 1.22 goals per team per game.

In the knockout stages, there were 21 goals scored in 14 games during regulation time, for an average of 0.75 goals per team per game (excluding any extra time played or penalty shoot outs). If you combined the two, your “baseline” is 1.11 goals per team per game (138 goals in 62 games). The next step in setting your baseline is to compare each team’s offense and defense against this average.

France scored 8 goals while allowing 2 goals in its 6 games played so far. Les Bleus’ defense was 0.78 goals per game better than average (1.11 – 2/6), while its offense was 0.22 goals better than average (8/6-1.11). France’s offensive “power rating” would be +0.22, while its defensive rating would be -0.78 (with negative numbers being good for defensive ratings).

Meanwhile Italy scored 9 goals in regulation while allowing just 1 against (count the own goal against the US as a goal allowed). Italy’s offensive rating would be (9/6 – 1.11) = +0.39, while its defensive rating would be (1/6 – 1.1) = -0.94.

The Azzurri’s offensive rating might be slightly understated though, since we did not include the 2 goals they scored in overtime against Germany in the semi-final. The reason for this is that only goals scored during regulation time count for betting purposes when wagering on total goals.

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Number CrunchingWith these raw numbers, you can now make an estimate of how much each team will score in regulation. How many goals would we expect Italy to score? Start with your league average (1.11 goals per team per game), add Italy’s offensive rating (+0.39) and France’s defensive rating (-0.78). This suggests that we expect Italy to score about 0.72 goals, but remember that all teams tend to revert to the mean/average.

To “revert to the mean”, average this with the league average of 1.11 goals, for 0.92 expected goals (1.11+0.72/2 = 0.92). For France, we initially expect (1.11 + 0.22 – 0.94) = 0.39 goals. Averaging this with the league average 1.11 goals per game, we expect 0.75 goals.

If you want to convert these expected goals to a moneyline price for “Italy to win the World Cup”, simply take Italy’s expected goals, divide by France’s expected goals, and multiply by -100. In this case, it would be (0.92 / 0.75 * -100) = -123, which is pretty close to the current odds for Italy.

If you want to convert these numbers to a game total, simply add the team expected goals, and using probability theory check a Poisson distribution for any odds you want to set. For example, if you wanted a price on over 1.5, look at the Poisson function for (.92 + .75 = 1.67). Oddly enough, this goes under 1.5 50.3% of the time, and over 49.7% (exactly on market price). If you don’t have a chart handy with Poisson distributions, you can find an online worksheet at .

There are a few more things you can add in to gain additional precision. The first is an adjustment for “strength of schedule” by simply comparing how a team’s previous opponents did against the league/tournament average. While this becomes less important when many games are played, it can be extremely important in short tournaments or when it is early in the season.

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