The Stats-Based Man of the Match

We are now just over 11 weeks away from the first game of the 2018 World Cup. On June 14, Russia plays Saudi Arabia, which is expected to herald a betting explosion around the globe as billions are wagered on the tournament.

Most people will have a bet on a team to win the tournament, but there will also be huge amounts gambled on individual games. Soon the World Cup could see a new betting market spring to prominence – one that has been largely ignored until now.

As the number of betting markets available on a football match has mushroomed, so have the ways in which you can bet on an individual player. You can back a player to score first, to score at any time, and – if you’ve decided your left-back won’t be able to cope with Mo Salah running at him – to get a yellow or red card.

Until recently, though, you couldn’t place a bet on one of the things football fans argue long and hard about: the Man of the Match.

A subjective decision

Why do football fans argue about the MoM? Simple: because it’s a subjective decision. We all have our favorite players, and it is a basic fact that if three people watch a game of football, they’ll see three different games. And it’s not as though the experts on TV are any different.

“Just a minute plus stoppages, Gary. Who’s your Man of the Match?”

“Well, Sanchez has got the goals, Young and Valencia have come up with the assists, but for me the player who’s really controlled the game is Pogba. It looks like he’s back in Mourinho’s good books and he’s absolutely dominated today.”

That’s it: decision made. At the end of the game, another teammate “does the honors” and Paul Pogba salutes the Stretford End with his MoM trophy in hand. Up and down the country, millions of people immediately start to argue.

A subjective decision from a pundit, however knowledgeable, made betting on the Man of the Match impossible. Customers would have little confidence in one man’s opinion, and bookmakers would be equally reluctant to adopt a market that was clearly open to manipulation.

Objective MoM analysis

One of the fastest-growing companies in the sports industry is WhoScored, an organisation that provides objective analyses of football matches. The website covers all the major games and provides detailed statistics for the top five leagues in Europe. Their player ratings are based on each event in a game, with the site using its own algorithm to measure the effect the event has had on a game.

Put simply, a five-yard pass in your own penalty area is a successful pass. A 50-yard through ball that creates a goal is also a successful pass, but one that has a far bigger impact on the outcome of the game.

At the end of every game, all the players receive a score based on this objective measurement of their game performance. The player with the highest score is, by definition, the objective MoM.

So, at the weekend, Germany played Spain in a World Cup warm-up friendly. The game ended 1-1, and it would have been easy to give the MoM award to Mueller or Moreno – the goal scorers. But WhoScored’s objective analysis gave it to Spain’s midfielder Andres Iniesta, who recorded the same rating – 7.2 – as German’s Julian Draxler, but statistically did enough to merit being named Man of the Match.

Bookmakers show interest

With an objective decision on the Man of the Match, it becomes much easier for bookmakers to frame a market. Victor Chandler has already dipped a toe into the market, and Betfair has recently announced it will start offering a Man of the Match betting option – with both relying on WhoScored’s ratings to determine the winner.

Betfair said: “In terms of popularity, the Man of the Match market has consistently been right at the top of our ‘extra’ or ‘peripheral’ markets, and it’s clearly something punters find an interesting market to bet on. At the moment it is available on Premier League games; however, we have plans in place to roll it out to more competitions in the future.”

Avoiding the usual suspects

Those extra markets will unquestionably include the World Cup: we all support our national team and we all have our favorite players. It is easy to see Man of the Match being at least as popular as First Goalscorer markets.

But a word of warning: WhoScored’s ratings don’t necessarily favor the big names or the big teams. Who was the only Premier League player to feature in their latest Team of the Week for the top five European leagues? James Tomkins of Crystal Palace. Which team has more players than either Liverpool or Arsenal in the season’s Best Statistical Premier League XI? Burnley.

If you’re looking for a Man of the Match at the World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi might not be the obvious answer.