Why 90th minute goals are frequent in FIFA

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One of the most common claims about scripting is related to the frequency of (sometimes decisive) goals scored in the 45th or the 90th minute. Why does these goals happen as often as they do? Is it scripting or could there be a natural explanation? I did the math.

A lot of people are strongly convinced that these late goals are scripted into the game on purpose.

“Why is it there are so many dramatic 45th and 90th min goals? Yes one could argue that you have injury time and are therefore stuck on that minute for a while longer. But its plain too see that whilst you get ever closer to this minute the pressure and momentum ramps up.”
(user Angry_Gooner on reddit.com)

“But in the 45th minute. i think there’s a script to enable bullshit in ,added time and against silver/bronze teams.”
(user justlur on reddit.com)

The motive…?

Before we get to the hard facts, let’s take the opportunity to discuss the possible motive here. Or perhaps rather the absence thereof. When you think about it, it’s difficult to imagine why EA would have a special preference for goals scored in the 90th minute and to an even lesser extent the 45th minute.

Goals scored during stoppage time hardly impacts a person’s incentive to buy packs in any particular way. The perhaps most popular belief with regards to the motive behind scripting, momentum and handicapping in general is that EA wants to make matches more even or make lesser players win more often.

In either case, I have a hard time seeing the connection between the alleged means and ends. Why would the wish to create even matches lead to a particular preference for goals scored in, say, the 45th minute rather than the 38th minute or the 20th minute?

Anyway, the lack of a credible motive isn’t the only reason to be skeptical about the idea that EA script goals into out matches in the 45th and 90th minutes.

How frequent are 90th minute goals?

Before we move on, let me be very clear: I do not dispute that 45th and 90th minute goals happen far more often than other goals. In my survey from 2014, the participants responded to how often they experienced decisive goals scored in the 90th minute.

How often are matches decided by 90th minute goals?

The most common answer was 5/10, i.e. in every other match. It is however likely that these reports are somewhat exaggerated due to the von Restorff effect, i.e. the cognitive bias which causes us to remember (apparently) outstanding events better.

Although the von Restorff effect is a likely contributor to the complaints about 90th minute goals, I still consider it beyond dispute that many of us experience goals in the 45th or 90th minute as often as in every other match due to the reasons I’m going to explain in the following sections.

The longest minute

When people talk about “45th / 90th minute goals” in this context, they usually mean goals scored while the clock was stopped at 45:00 / 90:00, i.e. during stoppage time. Stoppage time is added due to stoppages during ordinary time. Referees add stoppage time in order to ensure that the match lasts 90 effective minutes of playing time.

As an example, let’s say that the fourth official shows the “5 minutes” sign as below. What this sign actually means is that at least 5 minutes will be added, but the referee may add additional time if new stoppages occur during stoppage time itself.

4th Official Phill Dowd shows 5 minutes extra time to be played

If the referee adds 5 minutes, we have to assume that only 40 effective minutes were played during ordinary time. Following that, 5/45 = 1/9 of the effective playing will take place while the clock is stopped at 45:00 / 90:00.

It follows, that if “the 90th minute” aka stoppage time is 5 effective minutes long, it contains 300 effective seconds, whereas ordinary minutes only contained 53 effective seconds on average. If we assume that the probability of scoring is constant throughout the match, the chances of scoring while the clock is stopped at 90:00 will be 5.7 times higher than the chances of scoring in any single minute during ordinary time.

However, the 90th minute being considerably longer than any ordinary minute isn’t the only contributor to the excessive number of goals scored during stoppage time.

How the scoring chances increases towards the end of a half

In real football, goals aren’t evenly distributed across the duration of the 90th minutes. In reality, the goal ratio increases throughout the match and of course particularly towards the end of either half. The closer you are to the end, the bigger the chance of scoring during the next minute.

The average number of goals per minute in a match as a function of the time (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0047678)

In the BPL, the goal ratio between the 30th and the 45th minute is 70 % higher than the goal ratio between the first and the 15th minute, and during the first rounds of EURO 2016, nearly 1/3 of all goals were scored in the dying minutes of the match.

Image (c) Telegraph.co.uk (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/football/2016/06/17/euro-2016-on-course-to-break-record-for-late-goals-scored-but-wh/)
Image (c) Telegraph.co.uk

A number of factors contribute to late goals being more frequent in real football: Psychology and fatigue imply that players make more mistakes. Many teams apply different tactics during the last minutes of a match. In particular in a cup-system tournament like the EURO, many teams will attack more aggressively, because every point matters.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that FUT is subject to the same effects. After all, all the needed ingredients are present:

  • Humans, who are able to become nervous or mentally fatigued.
  • Virtual footballers, who will perform worse and make more mistakes due to fatigue.
  • The ability to make tactical changes, where you take a bigger risk in the dying moments.

With regards to the psychological and tactical aspects, it’s worth noticing that not only FUT Draft and tournaments but also FUT Seasons contains are large proportion of knock-out matches.

As explained in our article on the difficulty of promotion and relegation matches, the combination of a very brief season and three different point thresholds implies that anything between 2 and 9 matches per season are deciding promotion, relegation or winning the title. In our article on decisive matches, we assess that most players in fact will experience that significantly more than 50 % of their FUT seasons matches are potentially decisive.

A notable fact to consider in this context is that even if player 1’s match may be indecisive, player 2 may be having his final chance of securing promotion. Hence, if 50 % of player 1’s matches are decisive and 50 % of player 2’s matches are decisive, 75 %  of all matches will be decisive to minimum one of the involved players, meaning that minimum one of them has a reason to go all out attacking to claim that final, decisive point – or – become nervous towards the end and concede a stupid goal.

Many goals = many goals in stoppage time

A third factor which influences the occurrence of stoppage time goals in FUT is it’s overall goal ratio.

In a recent 8-0 win, I managed to score twice in “the 90th minute”. Was this scripting? According to some scripting believers, EA scripts matches to make them more even. Clearly, my 7-0 and 8-0 goals didn’t make the match the least bit more even. Considering that I was playing against an opponent who lost 9 out of his 13 FUT seasons matches this year, this hardly was a case of the game helping a noob out against a better player. My example illustrates the inevitable fact that if there are many goals in general, there will be many goals in stoppage time – and in any other random range of time you may define.

A relevant, real life example of this is Liverpool’s 4-5 win against Norwich on January 23rd 2016. The match contained two, potentially decisive 90th minute goals. According to BBC’s detailed commentary, Bassong equalized at 90 + 1:57, whereas Lallana decided the game at 90 + 4:19. The match finished at 90 + 5:33. A notable detail is that the two goals scored in the 54th and 56 minute actually came closer to one another (1:40 in between) than the two goals scored in “the 90th minute” (2:24 in between).

Liverpool4-3

In this article, I counted the average number of goals across 400 FUT 15 matches, which is a fairly large sample. I found that the average was 5.5 goals per match. An average of 5.5 goals per match is extremely high when compared to real football. Among the the five big leagues, the Bundesliga has the highest goal ratio with 2.82 goals per match.

At 5.5 goals per match and 1/9 of the goals scored during stoppage time, we should expect to see .61 goals scored in stoppage time per match, assuming that the scoring probability remains constant throughout the match.

Of course, the ratio of goals scored in stoppage time will vary depending on the number of goals and the number of added minutes. The table below shows the expected frequency of stoppage time goals with different combinations of added minutes and goal per match ratios. What you should notice in the table is that even if we look at the more conservative section of the table, stoppage time goals still happen frequently.

Minutes added per half
+2 +3 +4 +5
Goals/match 3.5 0.16 0.23 0.31 0.39
4.5 0.20 0.30 0.40 0.50
5.5 0.24 0.37 0.49 0.61
6.5 0.29 0.43 0.58 0.72

Expected number of goals per match scored in stoppage time

When I collected data for the previous mentioned article, I also counted the average number of goals per match in a sample of 500 matches. The most common ratio of goals per match is between 6 and 7. In fact, 70 % of all matches contained 5 goals or more. Hence, the majority of players should expect goals scored in stoppage time in about every other  game – but for natural reasons.

Goals per match
Goals per match

Why 90th minute scripting is a myth but bullshit goals aren’t

The point I have made above is first and foremost that the very frequent goals scored in stoppage time are accounted for. There is no residual of unexplained goals, which in theory could be put in in purpose. And quite honestly, no one has been able to explain why EA would want to put those goals in.

There is no such thing as 45/90th minute scripting. It’s a myth!

Having said that, the facts listed above tell us something else about the goals we score and concede in FIFA:

As stated, FIFA has an extreme goal frequency. With 5.5 goals (FIFA 14) in a match which lasts just 12 minutes, we end up with 0.45 goals per minute, whereas the average Bundesliga match has a frequency of 0.02 goals per minute. We are not even close to realism here, and that is hardly a coincidence.

If we got the chance to ask them, I think EA would confirm that the goal ratio is intentional. FIFA probably wouldn’t have sold 12 million copies a year, if the goal ratio was at a more realistic level.

So, while rejecting the claim that EA has a particular preference for 45/90th minute goals, I find it beyond dispute that EA are “at blame” for making it relatively easy to score and hence unfortunately also concede goals. After all, they are in this business to entertain us – not to bore us to death.