You may have heard the cliché that football is a game of two halves and, indeed, we have written about the statistical differences between the first and second halves of individual matches before.
But when it comes down to the essence of football betting systems, the keen observers amongst you will appreciate that every season is a season of two halves also.
Many of the continental European leagues operate with a winter break: the German Bundesliga (18 teams – 306 matches) pauses for a month in late December of every year (the average German winter break was 31 days in the five seasons 2011-16); the Russian Premier League breaks for three months in early December of each year, and so on.
Some leagues without a recognised mid-season break contain a natural break. The English Premier League (20 teams – 380 matches) is a good example. The league schedule here is for all Round 19 matches (halfway stage of the campaign) to be completed in the last few days of the calendar year. Round 20 always begins early in the new calendar year.
But why is the impact of these breaks such an important consideration for the discerning bettor?
Let’s first examine some of the more relevant differences between the two halves of a season.
1) Before a Ball is Kicked
Before the start of any new season the destinies of every team are completely unknown.
Public opinion (punters, press, TV, betting companies, etc.) dictates that some teams are earmarked as potential title winners or challenging for Europe; others as relegation candidates; the rest a mixture of unknown quantities, or teams set for a season of struggles.
In this way, matches are initially priced by the bookmakers based purely on the past performance of the teams involved. (There are no current statistics as the league hasn’t yet kicked-off). These prices are then adjusted based on the strength of public opinion. (In other words, according to the weight of money staked by punters).
The initial odds-setting exercises are often wide of the mark. They are guesses based on what has happened in the past. It takes several rounds of competition before the real mix of potential title challengers and relegation candidates begins to take shape and odds settle accordingly.
A classic example is the 5000/1 arbitrary price offered for Leicester City to win the EPL before the start of both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. 2014-15 saw them back in the EPL for the first time in 10 years with no relevant statistical form whatsoever. Surviving by the skin of their teeth was only good enough for bookmakers and punters alike to give them no chance again the following season. Having miraculously won the EPL title in 2015-16, they were lower than 60/1 with several bookies prior to the start of 2016-17, with only two seasons of relevant statistics behind them.
Ante post odds setting therefore becomes a more reliable exercise as the season progresses, when more results are recorded by each team, and league position and form become more apparent.
2) The Weather
Many European leagues have a formal Winter Break out of necessity to avoid the worst of the winter weather. When you have lived in Berlin during a December day that plummets to -25°C, and experienced petrol and diesel freezing at -40°C and below during a Russian winter, it is easy to understand why!
Most European leagues start in late summer. The first half of a season sees games played in gradually deteriorating weather conditions as summer enters autumn, and autumn enters winter.
The second half of a season usually begins during or at the end of winter, continues through the following spring, and into the beginning of the summer. It’s a complete reversal of conditions, and each team will have their own regional variations to contend with as well.
3) Domestic and European Competition Formats
At the start of every season, for most teams in a league there are fewer competitions to contend with. Most teams begin a season with a fully fit squad of players but a manager might not know his strongest team at the start.
Squad rotation only becomes an issue for teams with large enough squads to rotate, and is observed when teams wish to rest key players in less important games. Most of the EPL teams enter the League Cup in the last week of August, whilst those with European commitments have almost an extra month before League Cup duties commence.
Invariably, one or two teams begin their seasons before the league campaign kicks-off. Pre-qualification games for the Europa and Champions Leagues begin as early as June. As a result of playing up to three two-legged competitive ties, these teams may already be more ‘match fit’ before commencing their league campaigns.
The third round of the FA Cup is usually the first set of fixtures for EPL teams to face in the new calendar year. The 1st January is therefore a natural split and heralds the start of the second half of the season in England.
4) Player Fatigue, Injuries and Suspensions
As players accumulate more game-time during a season, their chances of missing matches through injury or suspension naturally increase.
It takes time for a totting-up suspension to attach to any player. In the EPL, the yellow card suspension system recognises the midway point of the season. Five yellows in the first half of a season leads to a ban. With up to four yellows to a player’s name, an armistice applies allowing him to continue playing in the second half of the season with the threat of a totting-up ban reset at the ten yellow cards mark.
Therefore, with the rules of the game and the limits of the human body it is therefore only natural that more suspensions and fatigue-related-injuries will occur later rather than earlier in a season.