Chance: Is Soccer a Game of Skill or Luck?

Unlike basketball, American Football or rugby, soccer is a low scoring sport, with on average only about three goals scored per match. So, why then do so many fans find the game exciting? Well, the truth is that it is actually the low scoring nature of soccer that drives much of the excitement in the sport. Matches tend to be tight affairs, and games can change in an instant, with a flash of brilliance from a striker, or a mistake by a goalkeeper. This means that in soccer, chance plays a greater role in determining the outcome of matches and competitions, compared with other sports.

Matches aren’t over until the final whistle blows, and the fans know this. There is always hope! So, if Manchester United have been playing badly, but are only 1-0 down with ten minutes to play, their fans know that they still have a chance, because they might score a late goal against the run of play and save the match. Indeed, that is exactly what they did in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final, when two late goals in injury time from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær stole the match from Bayern Munich. Failure turned to success in an instant, and chance played its part. Ryan Giggs’ assist was a miss-hit shot that fell to Sheringham, who was able to sweep the ball into the net.

Because soccer is a low scoring sport, chance events can have a big effect on the outcome of matches and leagues. Goalkeepers and defenders can make silly mistakes, key players can get injured or sent off, and poor shots that are going wide can ricochet off defenders into the back of the net. These and countless other chance events mean that in soccer, the best team does not always win. Indeed, the bookmakers’ favourite generally only wins about 55% of the time. So, chance, luck and uncertainty are very much a characteristic of soccer.

Having said this, in football leagues the best teams very quickly rise to the top, while the poorer ones sink to the bottom [1]. In the long run, skill and talent always beats chance and luck, otherwise top teams like Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool would not win so many competitions.

So, how much does luck play in the outcome of the English Premier League? Well, in Soccer Analytics: An Introduction Using R it has been calculated that chance accounts for about 21% of the variance in the points awarded to teams in the Premier League [2]. This means that about one in five points awarded can be attributed to random chance events, which is quite a lot when you think about it. However, it also means that four out of five points awarded are probably due to skill and hard work. So, skill, hard work and determination are much more influential in soccer than luck.

We often attribute luck or bad luck to chance events, depending on whether or not they go in our favour. But in reality, change events are not inherently lucky or unlucky, nor are they unusual. They are simply events that cannot be predicted with any accuracy. For example, we all know that over the course of a season many players will get injured, but we can’t predict who will break a leg, or when this might happen. So, we say that these random events occur by chance, because we cannot predict when they will occur.


  1. Beggs CB, Bond AJ, Emmonds S, Jones B. Hidden dynamics of soccer leagues: the predictive ‘power’ of partial standings. Plos one. 2019. 14 (12), e0225696
  2. Beggs CB. Soccer Analytics: An Introduction Using R. Chapman & Hall. 2024

Copyright: Clive Beggs