There is nothing quite like a local derby in football. No matter which club he or she supports, the first thing a fan will check when the season’s fixtures are released is when their team is scheduled to face its local rival.
Top-level European football is a globalised affair these days, and it is increasingly common for classic derbies such as Roma vs Lazio, Manchester City vs Manchester United and Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid to feature very few players born anywhere near the city in which the match is taking place. Yet despite this, these games continue to matter more than any other, with players and coaches quickly getting on board with the supporters’ passion.
There is a cliché in football which states that the form book goes out of the window when it comes to derby games. That probably is not true, but picking a winner from a grudge fixture should not be your first port of call. Instead, many bettors are drawn to the market for yellow and red cards, concluding that discipline is likely to decline in matches between rivalries.
On the face of it, this seems like an astute assessment. Local derbies are invariably emotionally charged affairs, with fans roaring on their team with even more vigour than normal. There will probably have been extra scrutiny on the sides in the build-up to the game, further ramping up the pressure. It is plausible that things like hard tackles will rise in such circumstances, leading to more red and yellow cards than usual, but is this really the case?
If we examine six derbies from the top divisions of Italy, Spain and England, we can determine whether there are more cards in such fixtures compared to normal, and then look at whether this is something bettors can take advantage of. We looked at matches between sides located close to one another who have a history of mutual ill-feeling, and explored how many cards per game were shown over a three-year average: Arsenal vs Tottenham (3.83) and Liverpool vs Everton (3.5) in the Premier League; Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid (6.83) and Real Sociedad vs Athletic Club (8) in La Liga; and Milan vs Inter (5.5) and Roma vs Lazio (6.67)
Over the same period, there were an average 3.4 cards per match in the Premier League, 5.31 in La Liga and 4.65 in Serie A. As we can see, that means all six derbies produced more cards than the average game. Interestingly, there was a decline in cards year on year across all three leagues on average, suggesting either a reduction in dirty play or an increase in leniency from referees.
As is often the case, we must bear in mind that three seasons’ worth of data represents a small sample size. However, the above data seems to bear out the idea that local derbies feature more red and yellow cards.
That, though, is only one half of the equation. If we are able to arrive at that conclusion with some brief data exploration, you can bet the bookmakers have also come to the same verdict. The next question, then, is to what extent the market adjusts its prices in local derbies.
It probably is not a surprise for seasoned bettors to learn that bookmakers do indeed adjust their prices for cards in local derbies. They too are aware that bookings and sendings-off are more common in emotionally charged games, making it difficult for punters to seal an easy win by piling cash on multiple cards when rivals lock horns.
Analysis shows that an Over bet on the Total Booking Points market would have only won on four occasions out of 24 fixtures analysed, with 18 losses in that same period. Conversely, the under bet came in 88 per cent of the time in the Premier League, and 72 per cent in La Liga and Serie A – suggesting that this may be the most favourable avenue for profit-seeking bettors.
So while there do tend to be more cards in local derbies, the bookmaker often overestimates the total number and it is therefore wise, in most cases, to back under rather than over.