The ultimate football urban myth, or a statistical anomaly that has real-world data to back it up? The notion of a 2-0 lead being dangerous has been peddled time and time again over the past few decades by pundits, commentators and managers alike.
Statisticians have historically been quick to counter this narrative, but the fact remains that this saying didn’t emerge from mere thin air. So here, will dive into the data, as well as the history behind this famous myth – to find out once and for all whether 2-0 really is a dangerous lead in the way many would have you believe.
Why is 2-0 thought to be a dangerous scoreline?
So popular is this line of thinking that the phrase ‘2-0 is the worst lead’ actually has its own Wikipedia page. Almost always uttered when regarding football (the only other major example is Ice Hockey) the notion is that a 2-0 lead for a given team places them in a uniquely complacent and comfortable position.
As such, proponents of this theory suggest that the leading team will be more prone to conceding goals and losing focus. Furthermore, the psychological blow of the losing team bringing the game back to 2-1 – in the opinion of those who say 2-0 is a dangerous scoreline – sees panic set in amongst players on the winning side and hands momentum to their opponents.
If the scoreline goes to 3-0, or even 3-1, the dynamic is thought to be very different, as the scale of the task is that much greater. While there are notable examples of teams overturning a 3-0 deficit – Liverpool’s stunning comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League Final being the most notorious – such examples are incredibly few and far between.
The etymology of the word can be traced back to a Czech football coach-turned-television commentator Josef Csaplar. Specifically, regarding the precarious nature of a 2-0 lead at the half-time mark, he went so far as to suggest that this scenario for the winning side could only end in defeat – a phenomenon that became known as ‘Csaplar’s trap’. Since then, the term has attained widespread adoption, with every case of a team-leading 2-0 – only for their opponents to come back and win – being quoted ad-nauseum by proponents of the theory.
Indeed, some of the most famous and successful managers of modern times have been guilty of using the ‘2-0 is a dangerous lead’ line when its expedient to do so. For instance, Jurgen Klopp, following Liverpool’s 2-0 win in the first leg of a Champions League Last 16 match with Inter Milan last year, stated:
“The danger everybody knows about. It’s 2-0, the lead I think which got turned over most often in the history of football. Because if you enter half-time 2-0 up and you have a team who thinks we are halfway through then you are already on the wrong path, so we are long enough [in the competition] and we know that. It’s a much better result than I would have expected, to be honest, before we played there. The game didn’t look like we will win it 2-0 for most of the time.”
As we will get to, the stats don’t necessarily back up the German manager’s claim, something which former FIFA World Cup golden boot winner-turned-TV presenter Gary Lineker pointed out in the days following Klopp’s quote. On twitter, the broadcaster wrote ‘I suspect statistics will not support this”.
The responses from journalists and football statisticians were numerous. One of the most viral came from Andrew Beasley, who showed a graph on Twitter of teams who took a 2-0 lead into the second leg of a Champions League knockout tie. As the football writer pointed out, only one game out of the previous 16 (Manchester United’s stunning defeat of PSG in 2019) saw a side overcome a 2-0 deficit in the second leg to progress to the following round.
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) March 7, 2022
So, now that we know some of the data when it comes to two-legged affairs, how about games where a side races into a 2-0 lead; just how often is the losing team able to draw level or even complete a comeback victory? Let’s find out.
How often do teams overturn a 2-0 deficit in the Premier League?
Over the past few years and decades, the English Premier League has garnered the reputation of being the ‘league of late goals’. Indeed, much of the EPL’s global appeal comes from the notion that it offers more entertainment and late action than any other major European league. But does this mean we also see more comebacks from 2-0 deficits compared to in other divisions?
On the face of it, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to either win or earn a draw still seems to be a very rare phenomenon. Indeed, data collected between the Premier League’s inception in August 1992 and May 2017 shows just how rare comebacks of this nature truly are.
During this period, 2,766 teams held a two-goal advantage during an EPL match. Of those, a remarkable 2,481 ended with the leading side winning the fixture, with only 212 ending as draws and 73 leading to victories for the opposition. Put simply, this means that 90% of sides that gain a 2-0 lead went on to close out the game and earn all three points.
Further to this, and somewhat predictably, a 1-0 Lead proved to be far more precarious than 2-0 between 1992 and 2017. Of the 5,721 sides that have been one goal ahead during the Premier League era, 2,987 won the game, 1,747 drew, and 987 lost.
What is worth noting, however, is that a 2-0 lead is far more dangerous against some opponents compared to others. For instance, between 1992 and 2022, Manchester United completed 12 comebacks from a 2-0 margin – more than any other side. Naturally, if United (or any high-flying side with a history of scoring late) claws one goal back, you’d back them far more than other teams to go on and win the game. Second to United in terms of overturning this deficit is Spurs with eight wins, while Arsenal and Liverpool are joint-third overall with six.
Premier League-era comebacks from 2-0+ down (by club)
|Club||Wins from 2+ goals down||Overall EPL wins|
Overturning 2-0 deficits at the FIFA World Cup
Having observed the dangerous scoreline myth vs reality in British domestic football, it’s time to turn our attention to football’s biggest and most watched competition – the FIFA World Cup. The famously low-scoring tournament that takes place every four years sees the best 32 sides in the world compete for the Jules Rimet trophy.
Given the relative absence of goals, especially from the knockout rounds onwards, it’s hardly surprising that the 2-0 scoreline is seldom overturned. Indeed, the scarcity of such comebacks (in the modern era, at least) is somewhat shocking.
Between South Africa 2010 and Qatar 2022, there were just two examples of teams at the World Cup coming from 2-0 down to win or draw. Those were the USA in the 2010 Group Stage against Slovenia – who earned a 2-2 draw, and Belgium who came back to beat Japan 3-2 in the Ro16 at the 2018 edition. Overall, there were 95 instances of a team taking a 2-0 lead across all four tournaments, meaning there’s an average of just over 2% in terms of comebacks from this deficit.
|FIFA World Cup Edition||2-0 leads (total)||2-0 lead percentage (from all games)||Comebacks from 2-0 down|
|South Africa 2010||20||31.25%||USA 2 Slovenia 2, Group Stage|
|Russia 2018||25||39.1%||Belgium 3 Japan 2 (Ro16)|
Other famous examples of comebacks from 2-0 down
Milan 3-3 Liverpool
Liverpool’s famous Miracle of Istanbul saw them recover from 3-0 at halftime to draw 3-3 and then win the 2005 Champions League final on penalties.
Germany 4-4 Sweden
Never write off the Germans? Never write off the Swedes more like. Back in 2012, Sweden came from 4-0 down after 55 minutes to draw 4-4 in an unbelievable WC qualifier in Berlin.
Reading 5-7 Arsenal
2012 was very much the year of the ridiculous comeback. Reading led 4-0 after just 37 minutes in this FA Cup tie but Arsenal hit back to draw 4-4 before winning 7-5 in extra time.
West Germany 3-2 Hungary
The Miracle of Bern is perhaps the most incredible comeback of the lot because it occurred in a FIFA World Cup final. The West Germans trailed by two goals after just eight minutes against one of the greatest sides in history. A two-goal comeback in 82 minutes is not that astounding on the face of it but remember, the Mighty Magyars had dispatched of their previous opponents 8-3 en route to the final.
Special mention – Argentina 3 France 3 (2022 FIFA World Cup Final)
While the side that raced into a 2-0 lead on this occasion went on to win the World Cup, this game is worthy of inclusion as it reopened the ‘dangerous scoreline’ debate. Argentina went 2-0 up in the first half, only for France to force extra time with two late goals from Kylian Mbappe. Lionel Messi’s side would eventually go on to lift the trophy having won on penalties, but it was a clear example of a team conceding once and then seemingly handing the initiative – and the momentum – to the opposition.
Despite a two-goal lead having a reputation as a dangerous score (to the side in front), it should come as no surprise to any devoted football fan that it is far more dangerous to the side that is behind by that same margin. Stats lifted from the first 25 years of the Premier League – as well as the most recent FIFA World Cups – showcase this fact beyond any doubt.
The fact that these comebacks occur so rarely perhaps explains why football betting sites are able to offer these seemingly very generous promotions: as history shows that they are not actually giving all that much away. So be sure to bare that in mind the next time you hear a Premier League manager or pundit proudly proclaim just how dangerous a lead 2-0 is.
This is especially true in international tournaments like the World Cup, where – as we’ve shown – there have only been two comebacks from a 2-0 deficit since 2010. So remember, unless you are betting on a Manchester United comeback, the odds are very much against you!