Football, at the most basic and fundamental level, is a simple game. The aim is to score goals and, in the process, win matches. When those goals came during a 90-minute match is very often immaterial. And yet, on occasion, the time at which a goal is scored does matter a tremendous amount.
Early goals can often help to open a game up, forcing the side which just conceded into attacking with more intent. By contrast, a late goal inflicts a huge psychological blow on the opponent, leaving them little time to respond. As such, the time period in which the ball hits the net can sometimes be decisive in dictating the way a game turns out.
Here, we will attempt to ascertain just how often late and early goals occur – and to what extent this can impact a match. We’ll dive into the data to explore not only how often this takes place but also why it does.
History of late and early goals in football
Firstly, it’s important to clarify what we mean by an early and late goal in an average football match. While some quarters might categorise any goal before the 30-minute mark as ‘early’, in many betting markets – and indeed most football databases – early is defined as the first 15 minutes of the match, with ‘late’ being the final 15.
The early/late goal betting market is very popular online, with numerous bookmakers offering odds on how likely it is for goals to be scored during those specific periods. As was mentioned previously, it is important to clarify when exactly those periods are defined as. For instance, if the ‘late’ period is characterised as anything after the 70th minute, you’ll be given less favourable odds compared to if it was the 75th minute and beyond.
For the remainder of this article, ‘early goals’ will be defined as taking place before the 15-minute mark, with ‘late goals being anytime (in normal time) after 75 minutes. Hopefully, this can give you a better idea of just how often we see goals during these two bookends of a match to inform – and maybe even help you the next time you fancy a flutter.
Through the ages
In order to gain a better understanding of early and late goal frequency, it’s important to see how the data varies through the ages. Indeed, this might help shed light on what exactly causes there to be more goals in a certain period of the match. To find this out, we have compiled early/late goal data from two different competitions in separate decades. We begin with the FIFA World Cup, specifically the first two editions.
The 1930 World Cup was far smaller in scale compared to what it is today, consisting of just 13 teams (yes, 13) playing a total of 18 games between them. In total, there were 70 goals, with 24 coming in the early/late periods combined. Interestingly, there were 12 early and 12 late, going against the conventional wisdom which suggests that late goals are far more frequent. It’s important to point out how small of a sample size this is, but even so, it’s an interesting fact.
At the 1934 World Cup in Italy, A similar picture emerged. Remarkably, there were eight early goals and eight late, as the hosts went on to lift the Jules Rimet trophy. However, if we fast forward to the 1970 and 1974 World Cups, the halfway point between the first editions and the present day, things beginning to change somewhat. At Mexico 1970, there were 14 late goals and 12 early, while four years later in West Germany, the gap was even bigger, with 19 late and 13 early.
Notably, the story is similar in the European Cup – the precursor to the modern-day UEFA Champions League. The very first European Cup competition, 1955-56, also produced the same number of early goals as late (23). Indeed, it wasn’t until the following season – an edition that was also won by Real Madrid – that late goals began to pull clear. That year (56/57) there were 31 late goals to 22 early from 44 games played, but the gap would only increase as the years went on. By the turn of the 1990s, football across the board was seeing far more late goals than early. During the 1989-90 European Cup, there were 41 late to just 16 early. This trend continued right through the reminder of the decade – but why?
|Tournament||Games Played||Goals Scored (Total)||Early Goals Scored||Early Goal %|
|1930 FIFA World Cup||18||70||12||17.1%|
|1934 FIFA World Cup||17||70||8||11.4%|
|1970 FIFA World Cup||32||95||12||12.6%|
|1970 FIFA World Cup||38||97||13||13.4%|
|1955/56 European Cup||29||127||23||18.1%|
|1956/57 European Cup||44||170||22||13%|
|1989/90 European Cup||59||170||16||9.4%|
|1990/91 European Cup||61||169||27||16%|
|Tournament||Games Played||Goals Scored (Total)||Late Goals Scored||Late Goal %|
|1930 FIFA World Cup||18||70||12||17.1%|
|1934 FIFA World Cup||17||70||8||11.4%|
|1970 FIFA World Cup||32||95||14||14.7%|
|1974 FIFA World Cup||38||97||19||20%|
|1955/56 European Cup||29||127||23||18.1%|
|1956/57 European Cup||44||170||31||18.2|
|1989/90 European Cup||59||170||41||24.1%|
|1990/91 European Cup||61||169||36||21.3%|
Reasons for the early/late differential
While there isn’t one stand-out reason which explains why late goals are so much more common in contemporary football, several factors could contribute to this.
Firstly, it’s important to note how much football tactics have evolved since the 1930s and 50s. Indeed, where football was once far more attacking in nature and open-ended, coaches started to organise their sides better and create more effective defensive units over time.
Developments like ‘Catenaccio’ and the deployment of sweeper defenders made it trickier for opposing teams to score with such frequency. This may help explain why late goals are now so much more common than early.
Your biggest opportunity to score against a defensively disciplined side will be when they start to tire and lose shape. Naturally, this is more likely to occur late on. Furthermore, modern elite football often sees sides able to retain possession far better than in previous eras. What this means is that goals might be scored later on, with the side in possession – much like a boxer in the opening rounds – attempting to feel out their opponent, looking for vulnerabilities to exploit later on. It’s also worth mentioning how fitness levels have changed, too, meaning that attacking sides will be more capable of pushing all the way until the very end.
The rule change that allowed substitutions in 1965 was similarly a game-changer in this regard. It allowed teams to bring on fresh legs late in the game, players who would often utilise their energy levels to great effect. This birthed the rise of so-called ‘super subs’ – players like David Fairclough and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had the uncanny ability to come off the bench and score vital late goals.
Early goals in the Premier League
With this historical data in mind, it’s time to look at how that compares to the English Premier League. We begin with early goals, which, just as was the case with the World Cup and European Cup data, is defined as taking place within the first 15 minutes of a match. Initially, we will be looking at current season EPL data (2022/2023), which is correct as of the 24th January 2023.
What we see from the 19/20 matches nearly all teams have played is that some 13.1% of all goals scored came within the first 15 minutes of play. The overall number was 72 out of the 552 scored. Looking at the 0–15-minute data from each individual club, some interesting patterns begin to emerge. Firstly, high-flying Brighton and Hove Albion can very much be classified as the league’s fast staters, having scored nine goals during this early period – the most of anyone.
However, arguably the most impressive early record is held by Arsenal, who scored seven goals and didn’t concede at all during their 21 matches so far. The worst early records in terms of goals conceded is jointly held by Bournemouth and Aston Villa, who each shipped seven goals, while West Ham United hold the distinction of being the only club to not score at all during the first 15 minutes of a Premier League match this season.
Late goals in the Premier League
By contrast, there have been many more late goals than early in the Premier League so far this season. As the data shows, of the 552 goals scored (as of 24/01/23), 101 – or 18% – came in minutes 76 to 90. This is the second-highest 15-minute period, only a few shy of minutes 46-60.
Once again, Brighton and Hove Albion show themselves to be excellent finishers as well as starters, having scored seven goals during this late period of the game while only conceding once. The most goals during minutes 76-90 came courtesy of Manchester United, who have scored nine, while Spurs are second on eight.
At the opposite end of the scale are Bournemouth, who conceded eight and scored two – and Wolves, who scored just once and conceded six times.
Goals Scores / Goals Conceded Per 15 Minutes
|0-15||16-30||31-45||46-60||61-75||76-90||1st H.||2nd H.|
|West Ham Utd||0-2||4-5||4-6||3-4||4-4||2-4||8-13||9-12|
Early/Late goals in the UEFA Champions League
In 1992 football changed forever with the creation of the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League. The latter was a rebrand of the existing European Cup, which we have already gathered historical early/late goal data from. Here then, is a deep dive into more contemporary statistics to help us distinguish how – if at all – the frequency of goals during these time periods has changed.
In the current Champions League season (2022/23), with the Group Stage now behind us, we can see that 11.8% of goals so far have come during the early period. Tellingly, there have been almost double the number of late goals (36 to 66) – or around 22%. This differential holds true throughout the decades, as a similar gap was observed in the 1989/90 and 1990/91 European Cup seasons too.
It was a similar story during last season’s 2021/22 Champions League campaign, albeit the gap was slightly smaller. There were 51 early goals in total (13.4%) to 88 late (23.2%), showing once again how goals in the modern day tend to come later on.
FIFA World Cup
The recent 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar became infamous for games that took a while to heat up, and the early/late goal data shows that this reputation was fairly well earned. Overall, there were 42 late goals to 15 early, with a remarkable 24.4% of the 168 goals scored at the tournament coming in the final 15 minutes of normal time.
From here, we can also see that several sides scored two goals during the 0-15 minute mark, including Brazil, the Netherlands and Spain. South Korea were the team with the worst record in the early stages, having conceded three goals in total. While goals, in general, were few and far between during the early exchanges, the same cannot be said of the final 15 minutes.
Eventual runners-up France were the most prolific, scoring six times and conceding just once in their seven matches. Remarkably, the side with the worst record in minutes 76-90 was actually winners Argentina, who scored only one goal and shipped six. This includes the Netherlands’ two late goals in the Quarter-final, which took that tie to a penalty shootout.
So that’s the 2022 World Cup – but what about 2018 in Russia? In terms of the late/early goals ratio, it remains broadly similar to the Qatar World Cup. Of the 166 goals scored in Russia, 21 (12.4%) came during the early period, with 37 (21.9%) coming late. In fact, there were more late goals at the tournament than in any other 15-minute period.
Only two nations – Belgium and England – managed to score three times during the early period in 2018, while only Tunisia, Russia and Croatia conceded twice from minutes 0-15. As for late goals, the kings of the closing stages were Brazil, who bagged four times without conceding. Next up came South Korea (3-0), followed by Croatia (3-1) and Belgium (3-2). Eventual winners France were most prolific during the middle of games, scoring just twice in the first 15 minutes and the final 15 combined.
As we have shown, in the current era, there are consistently more late goals than early in football matches. Looking at all of the various leagues and tournaments we have collated data from, on average, between 10-13% of all goals scored come during the 0–15-minute period, while 19-23% are scored in minutes 76-90.
This is in stark contrast to previous eras, such as the 1930s and 1950s, where the ratio between early and late was much more even. Therefore, it’s worth noting that, in general, almost regardless of the league or competition, you are far more likely to see a late goal than an early one in a football match today. Moreover, of those late goals, they will tend to be scored by better teams with good fitness levels and/or a tactical plan to open up their opponents.
For evidence of this, just look at last season’s edition of the UEFA Champions League. Winners Real Madrid had the joint-best 76–90-minute record (alongside Bayern Munich), scoring nine goals and conceding just twice in this time. Contrast this with their early record, where they actually conceded more than they scored. The best teams might not always start brightly, but – more often than not – they certainly finish in style.