I was reading an issue of Chance News last night and came across the article When Losing Leads to Winning. In short, the authors of this journal article found that, in 6,300 or so most recent NCAA basketball games, teams that trailed by 1 point at half-time went on to win more games than they lost. This they attribute to "the motivational effects of being slightly behind".
Naturally, I wondered if the same effect existed for footy.
This first chart looks across the entire history of the VFL/AFL.
The red line charts the percentage of times that a team leading by a given margin at quarter time went on to win the game. You can see that, even at the leftmost extremity of this line, the proportion of victories is above 50%. So, in short, teams with any lead at quarter time have tended to win more than they've lost, and the larger the lead generally the greater proportion they've won. (Note that I've only shown leads from 1 to 40 points.)
Next, the green line charts the same phenomenon but does so instead for half-time leads. It shows the same overall trend but is consistently above the red line reflecting the fact that a lead at half-time is more likely to result in victory than is a lead of the same magnitude at quarter time. Being ahead is important; being ahead later in the game is more so.
Finally, the purple line charts the data for leads at three-quarter time. Once again we find that a given lead at three-quarter time is generally more likely to lead to victory than a similar lead at half-time, though the percentage point difference between the half-time and three-quarter lines is much less than that between the half-time and first quarter lines.
For me, one of the striking features of this chart is how steeply each line rises. A three-goal lead at quarter time has, historically, been enough to win around 75% of games, as has a two-goal lead at half-time or three-quarter time.
Anyway, there's no evidence of losing leading to winning if we consider the entire history of footy. What then if we look only at the period 1980 to 2008 inclusive?
Now we have some barely significant evidence for a losing leads to winning hypothesis, but only for those teams losing by a point at quarter time (where the red line dips below 50%). Of the 235 teams that have trailed by one point at quarter time, 128 of them or 54.5% have gone on to win. If the true proportion is 50%, the likelihood of obtaining by chance a result of 128 or more wins is about 8.5%, so a statistician would deem that "significant" only if his or her preference was for critical values of 10% rather than the more standard 5%.
There is certainly no evidence for a losing leads to winning effect with respect to half-time or three-quarter time leads.
Before I created this second chart my inkling was that, with the trend to larger scores, larger leads would have been less readily defended, but the chart suggests otherwise. Again we find that a three-goal quarter time lead or a two-goal half-time or three-quarter time lead is good enough to win about 75% of matches.
Not content to abandon my preconception without a fight, I wondered if the period 1980 to 2008 was a little long and that my inkling was specific to more recent seasons. So, I divided up the 112-season history in 8 equal 14-year epochs and created the following table.
The top block summarises the fates of teams with varying lead sizes, grouped into 5-point bands, across the 8 epochs. For example, teams that led by 1 to 5 points in any game played in the 1897 to 1910 period went on to win 55% of these games. Looking across the row you can see that this proportion has varied little across epochs never straying by more than about 3 percentage points from the all-season average of 54%.
There is some evidence in this first block that teams in the most-recent epoch have been better - not, as I thought, worse - at defending quarter time leads of three goals or more, but the evidence is slight.
Looking next at the second block there's some evidence of the converse - that is, that teams in the most-recent epoch have been poorer at defending leads, especially leads of a goal or more if you adjust for the distorting effect on the all-season average of the first two epochs (during which, for example, a four-goal lead at half-time should have been enough to send the fans to the exits).
In the third and final block there's a little more evidence of recent difficulty in defending leads, but this time it only relates to leads less than two goals at the final change.
All in all I'd have to admit that the evidence for a significant decline in the ability of teams to defend leads is not particularly compelling. Which, of course, is why I build models to predict football results rather than rely on my own inklings ...