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In praise of the draw, and why soccer still embraces it


On Dec. 19, 1863, a soccer match took place at Mortlake, London between Barnes Football Club and Richmond Football Club. It was the first game under Football Association rules, and it finished 0-0.

Nearly nine years later, the first international match was played at the West of Scotland Cricket Cub in Glasgow, and Scotland and England finished up 0-0.

So before the formalized sport was even a decade old, two of its prominent milestones had finished scoreless, handing any disparager of the sport plenty of ammunition.

We often hear said that soccer is a game of slim margins, and it is true. Goals are rare, so winners and losers are often separated by just a goal. Many times they cannot be separated at all, and both teams settle for a tie.

The proclivity of draws makes soccer very different than any other major sport in the world. High-scoring North American sports such as baseball, gridiron football and basketball frown on ties (draws in many other parts of the globe) and have added various forms of additional play to decide a winner and loser.

“A tie is like kissing your sister,” is well-used put down of soccer draws, and the North American aversion to ties even affected the startup of Major League Soccer. Such was the conventional wisdom that North Americans needed to see black and white, a winner and a loser that it took MLS until 2000 to add a “T” column to the league standings. Even a look at Major League Soccer’s record book offers little in the way of information relating to ties.

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Underpinning the distaste for ties seems to be the mistaken belief a game that doesn’t produce a winner and loser must automatically be boring. Ties can be but so can a game that finishes with a winner and a loser.

Just last week the Premier League produced two games that finished 3-3, and nobody who watched Newcastle and Liverpool score very late equalizers against Manchester United and Arsenal will forget those matches for a very long time.

When your team is facing the prospect of finishing with nothing, a single point can seem almost as good (or even better, depending on the opponent and situation) as a win. After all, in the process of snatching a point, your team is also depriving the opposition of two.

And what about the situation when not so neutral fans have two adversaries playing each other? A tie is rarely a bad result when two rivals clash – both dropping two points can be better than one finishing with three points. Then there is the FA Cup – hands up those who would prefer a rival to tie and be forced to play again, even more so than being knocked out?

Certainly, over the years, as soccer has had to bend to the vagaries of television and a packed schedule and when it comes to knockout competitions, the role of the replay has been gradually marginalized. It is hard to imagine but there was a time when in the event of ties European club competitions went to replays from round one right through to and including the final.

It was the same for the World Cup and it was not unusual for a place in the finals to be decided by a replay. Even the World Cup finals included replays during the knockout stages, although a semifinal or final never required an extra game. (Of course, the first World Cup to be decided by penalty shootout had to happen at USA ’94 after a 0-0 draw).

The FA Cup still requires replays up until the semifinals and final stage. It is understandable, but there is something lost by not allowing two sides slog it out until the bitter end. The Chelsea-Leeds FA Cup final that required a replay in 1970 was a classic, and five years earlier, Leeds and Manchester United literally battled it out over 180 minutes in a FA Cup semifinal. Then there was the epic Manchester United-Arsenal semifinal replay in 1999.

Perhaps the difference between a soccer fan’s view of a tie and fans of other sports is embracing the added possibilities and permutations ties provide. Rather than being boring, ties actually add flavor and seasoning to what is on offer. We know that league titles and cups are not shared. We will get to a winner eventually.

Impact of a tie

The late Jimmy Hill was the man who championed the idea of three points for a win and one for draw, and over a number of years, he watched the idea take root.

A snapshot of the present Premier League offers a couple of examples of how turning draws into wins impacts the standings. By the same token, salvaging a draw rather than a loss can provide a team with mid-table breathing space.

After 22 rounds, of play Everton has lost five games. That is the same as the two Manchester clubs. But Everton has drawn half of its games so far (11), while Manchester United have tied seven, and Manchester City just four. Everton sit lower mid-table on 29 points and 11th while Manchester United are fifth with eight more points. City are just a point off the top with 43 points and are currently third.

Conversely, Everton has only actually won the same number of games (six) as Chelsea (14th), Bournemouth (15th), and Norwich City (16th). However, while these three clubs only sit four, three, and two points above the relegation zone, Everton enjoys a substantially greater gap, with eight points separating them from 18th placed Newcastle United.

Premier League history

Over the last 20 seasons the Premier League has operated a 38-game schedule. Five times in these 20 seasons, the Premier League winner has recorded the fewest draws (ties); three times the second fewest; three times the third fewest.

Only four times in that period has the Premier League champion recorded double figures in draw: Manchester United (11) in 2011; Arsenal (12) in 2004 (the Invincibles); Manchester United (13) in 1999; and Manchester United (12) in 1997.

On the other hand, Chelsea drew just four games in 2006, the lowest recorded by a champion team in the last 20 seasons. Chelsea also recorded the fewest draws by any Premier League club in a season when it drew only three times in 1997/98.

Finally, some records, in honor of the draw:

135 – Most draws in Major League Soccer history, Chicago Fire (565 games)
32 – Highest percentage of Premier League games ending in a draw in one season (2013/14)
29 – Percentage of matches drawn during the 2015/16 Premier League season.
26.55 – Average percentage of Premier League games that end in a draw each season (through 2014/15)
23 – Most draws in a top-flight English soccer season (Norwich City, 1978/79)
20 – Lowest percentage of Premier League games ending in a draw in one season (2005/06)
18 – record for number of draws in a 42-game Premier League season (Manchester City, 1993/94; Sheffield United, 1993/94; Southampton, 1994/95)
18 – most draws in a Major League Soccer season (Chicago Fire, 2014, 34 games)
17 – record for number of draws in a 38-game Premier League season (Newcastle United, 2003-04; Aston Villa, 2007/97 and 2011/12; Sunderland, 2014/15)
6 – Number of goals scored by each team in the highest-scoring draws in club soccer history (May 2015, Swindon Town vs. Sheffield United; May 2010, Motherwell vs. Hibernian; Aug. 1999, Genk vs. Westerlo; Oct. 1960, Charlton vs. Middlesbrough; April 1930, Leicester vs. Arsenal; source: Sporting Intelligence).
5 – Number of goals scored by each team in the highest-scoring draws in international soccer history (March 1912, Netherlands vs. Germany; May 1928, Hungary vs. Austria; July 1952, USSR vs. Yugoslavia; Feb. 1952, Ghana vs. Ivory Coast; Aug. 1957, Vietnam vs. Singapore; Sept. 1999 Netherlands vs. Belgium; source: The Guardian).

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Christopher Scheck

    January 22, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    Great article and explanation of the meaning of “ties” in world football.

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