There are those who will tell you that momentum in sport is merely an illusion; that the next game is independent of the last, with regression to the mean likely.
But that would fail to explain why football teams in particular are able to embark on winning runs – often defeating opponents that, had regression to the mean taken place, they would ordinarily lose to. How can that be explained?
If you’d asked Everton and Fulham fans about momentum in December 2023, they would absolutely agree that it exists – it would be hard to explain their uptick in form in any other way.
Sweet revenge for the Toffees
Both of those sides embarked on winning runs that month which saw them sweep away from the bottom three, changing the Premier League relegation odds so markedly that Burnley (-275) was made odds-on favorites alongside Sheffield United (-1400) and Luton Town (-1000).
The Toffees and the Cottagers, meanwhile, were considered nothing more than outsiders at odds of 8.00 and 34.00 respectively.
Everton’s upturn in fortunes was undoubtedly helped, ironically, by the ten-point deduction they suffered as a result of Financial Fair Play breaches. That galvanized the Merseysiders, who felt hard done by given that the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea have, so far, escaped punishment.
But does that explain why a set of relatively average footballers were able to embark on a run of five wins in seven games – downing the likes of Chelsea and Newcastle United?
How too would we muse on Fulham’s form between mid-September and late November (W1 D2 L4) and that of their most recent outings, at the time of writing, which saw them win three out of four and blast 16 goals?
Neither of these clubs changed their players or their manager, so there were no major stimuli to quantify their improved form. The takeaway is that winning breeds confidence, confidence breeds momentum… and the rest, as they say, is history.
Only fools rush in
Of course, the temptation for punters would be to back Everton and Fulham blindly next time out.
That is not a betting strategy that will yield positive results, because all runs of form and momentum come to an end at some point – typically when that team collides with an opponent of similarly high levels of confidence and belief.
But this is where markets like the Asian handicaps come in handy, because we can still back these momentum-laden teams and often take a payout even if they don’t win – the in-form Fulham, for example, could be backed at +100 to triumph or draw against the resolutely momentum-less Newcastle United when this article was written.
A complimentary betting strategy is to bet against those who find themselves without any momentum to fall back on. In December, pre-season title favorites Manchester City met a Luton Town side who were +100000 to lift the Premier League trophy before a ball had been kicked.
Now, if we subscribe to the theory of regression to the mean, Manchester City – despite not winning any of their four prior games – would demolish Luton, right?
Well, the Hatters went 1-0 up, and that’s the way it would stay until deep into the second half when City fought back to win by a single goal. However, those that backed Luton in the Asian handicap market enjoyed a full payout nonetheless.
These are all isolated examples, but combined together they confirm not a black-and-white fact but a theory that holds time-served weight: momentum is a key factor in determining the outcome of football matches.