When Teams Have Nothing To Play For

Jason McKenna analyses how a strange end-of-season phenomenon affects the output of teams with ‘nothing to play for’

At the end of Premier League seasons, we see highly anomalous games with plenty of goals. While this is highly entertaining for the neutral, this phenomenon does not seem to be down to chance. Instead, it is a provable trend that happens when “Teams Have Nothing To Play For”.

Overall, this is a situation when a team has reached a point in the season where it does not have a chance of improving its season’s outcome in terms of accessing continental competition, needing to avoid relegation, and so on. In this specific article, I have set strict parameters, but there does seem to be a point in seasons, especially for mid-table teams, where they are both “safe” and also cannot qualify for Europe.

My analysis will look at a designated statistical point of the season where this is most likely to occur and then I will explain the likely reasoning for this.

How To Define “Nothing to Play For”?

At the start of each season, teams set realistic goals for themselves, which we are not privy to, but these can also change throughout a season due to changes in a side’s fortunes. Arsenal managed to put an unlikely title run together in the 2022/23 season, and thus, their goals likely went from Champions League qualification to the pursuit of winning the league. However, without knowing these internal decisions, we can look from the outside in and find a point where matches appear not to matter any more.

I have set the parameters of games with ‘no meaning’ as when a team cannot meaningfully change their place in the league. A side can move up places in the league table, but the external incentive is not there to move to 15th to 10th. Although the league placement is more impressive a side does not gain much from this. The prize money is slightly more, but there is no pressing goal. A more quantifiable goal of avoiding relegation to European Qualification or even winning a league title is what is needed to be able to keep teams focused for the final few games.

Thus I have concluded it is the point where mathematically any points added cannot change their fate as much as these markers: relegation, European qualification or winning a title. This also means that there are many teams each season that have every game to play for.

To give insight into these trends and how big the impact of “having nothing to play for” has on teams, I have examined data going back all the way to the 2017/18 season.

What The Data Show Us

The analysis looks into the expected data as well as the actual outputs showing how the lack of an objective affects the mindset of teams. I have also split this up into areas of the Premier League to showcase the effects on those from top to bottom of the table.

Starting off with the overall numbers, we see that across the six seasons analysed in the Premier League on average, the teams who do have “Nothing To Play For” play around 2.2 games each season.

SeasonNo. Game W/ No to play forPPG BeforePPG AfterGoals/ 90 BeforeGoals/90 AfterConce/90 BeforeConce/90 AfterxG/90 BeforexG/90 AfterxG Con/90 BeforexG Con/90 After
6 Yr Avg.2.201.301.131.231.491.391.661.261.451.401.71

There is a considerable swing in a lot of data between competitive matches and just seeing the season out. When the teams have no objectives to fight for in these last 2.2 games of the season they score more goals (0.26 increase per 90) and concede more goals (0.27 per 90). This 0.53 goal total swing per 90 shows you how volatile these games can be. But what is interesting is that the loss of pressure seems to be coupled with a confidence that they can score more, and also maybe a lack of concentration defensively with the goals increased.

This is replicated in the xG data where the teams almost double their xG difference per 90, negatively, in that it goes from a -0.14xG per 90 to -0.26xG per 90 as the games become more open and they concede higher quality chances.

COVID certainly affected teams the most in terms of these highly anomalous swings in output. The xG difference and Goal Difference data of the season with COVID interruptions saw huge discrepancies when competitiveness was lost.

SeasonxG Diff (Before vs After)G Diff Change (Before vs After)

These were the seasons with the largest variations in goals scored with huge swings in terms of more goals score in these games, and also the second largest and third largest xG Difference variations, with 2021/22 campaign having the largest xG difference between the before period and after period.

Breaking this down by areas in the Premier League it is interesting to see how the lack of anything to play for affects those in certain positions. On average the teams in the top two positions over the last six seasons have had the most games with nothing to play for, owing to some titles being decided extremely early. What is also more fascinating is that these teams experience the most change when they do not have anything to compete for.

TeamxG Diff (Before vs After)Goal Diff (Before vs After)
Top 2 Average-0.050.44
3rd-7th Average-0.07-0.36
8th to 15th Average-0.050.03
16th to 20th Average-0.28-0.08

The top sides in the Premier League see almost half a goal larger Goal Difference per game in these final, ‘meaningless’ matches. The teams scored more and also conceded more in these matches, but with the handbrake off in these final matches, high-scoring games lead to an improvement in goal difference per 90.

The other European sides do not fare as well. They score about the same number of goals, but concede far more, seeing a swing in the other direction with a worsening of 0.36 goals per 90.

What is most surprising to see is that there is little actual variance in output between the 8th to 20th placed teams before and after they have nothing to play for in terms of goal difference. The lowest teams in the league, 16th to 20th, see not too much change in their goals conceded or goals scored output in these final games of the season. But the 8th to 15th teams seem to play without fear as they score more in these games (1.17 goals scored per 90 before compared to 1.58 scored per 90 after) and they conceded more too (1.47 goals conceded per 90 before compared to 1.87 conceded per 90 after).

The conclusion here is that the “Nothing To Play For” time at the end of the season has a big impact on the output of teams, but there are some surprising changes in the pre and post time period in the different sections of the league with the top two teams having the largest swing in their outcomes.

Reasoning For This

The explanations will lie under sports psychology and “goal setting”. In 2012 M Standage explained that “across long gruelling seasons and in the face of competitive failure… motivation is considered a foundation”[1]. Athleticism and ability is not enough to be able to see players get to their goals, there are also psychological factors at play. This is especially linked to Achievement Goal Theory (AGT). Motivation is often misunderstood and thus it is important to understand the parameters and scope of how coaches and sports psychologists can influence this. R S Weinberg [2] defines motivation as “the direction and intensity of one’s effort”, and this is where it crosses with the end of season lack of competition.

Without “anything to play for” players no longer have a goal to work towards and lack a direction of their effort. In AGT people define their successes and achievements, thus setting goals for themselves. While this can have a positive effect as it gives groups and individuals a well defined set of things to strive towards, and it gives measurable markers to keep attention throughout a campaign, there is also evidence that goal setting can have ceiling effects. A. Moran and J. Toner open out this stating that “that the goal effectiveness curve flattens out or reaches a ceiling as people approach the limits of their ability”[3]. This “ability” can be a reality or a perception, and with a season coming to an end the belief is that the team has met its goals, or it has not, but with a lack of competition, there is nothing to work towards and put the effort in for.

This is exacerbated due to the problematic short-sightedness that plagues professional football. We all know too well the tenure of a top flight manager is very short, and with this there is the fact that seasonal goals are also set in a very short termist lens. This is what Ordonez et al. describes as an “Inappropriate Time Horizon”[4] where “goals that emphasise immediate performance… prompt managers to engage in myopic, short-term behaviour that harms the organisation in the long run”. In this case with football once the goal has been achieved (for most teams it is Premier League survival) then there is a tendency to “relax, rest, and pause”, as described by the above psychologists.

Apart from rare long-termist projects where managers are given time to grow squads and imprint their ideas, there is such a short term nature to football that the ceiling set by goals and quick time horizons that squads do not have the motivation to use the extra games left in a season to push towards achievements in the next season and beyond. We have seen more discussions of “projects” in football: Mikel Arteta at Arsenal or Pep Guardiola at Manchester City have been brought in to install more than just a play style and instead oversee a footballing identity. This may in the future help with the lack of competitiveness in final games. Instead of seeing the season as “over”, it could be useful to frame it as an extension to the preseason work done over the summer and of importance to the next campaign.

The players, when faced with this proposition of “nothing to play for”, move from an extrinsic motivation state, which means completing a task for meeting a goal or target, and move over to an “intrinsic state”, which is where they must perform a task for its own sake. Intrinsic states are harder to motivate, especially at the end of the season, as players are mentally and physically exhausted and so playing for the sake of playing does not hold much inspiration (this could be a good justification for contractual incentives to maintain performance).

An extra addition to this is that there are overall team goals but, in addition, players will have their own individual motivations that may then clash with the overall goals of the team once this point of “nothing to play for” is met. A player may have the extrinsic goal of wanting a transfer, and thus once his team is safe in the division he may play in a more conservative fashion so that he is not injured for his potential new club and scupper a move. This is again something that comes to the fore in the literature when Moran and Toner say, “Unfortunately, a difficulty that can afflict control groups in goal-setting research is that participants in such groups may spontaneously set goals for themselves – whether consciously or unconsciously”[5].

All this is not to offer a criticism of players themselves. It is more an analysis of why this phenomena happens. Players do not get “lazy” and their work ethic is not lost. Instead concentration is moved onto other aspects of their game or their lives.


It is clear to see that “When Teams Have Nothing to Play For” it affects their output and playstyle. This is something that is part of the current way football is viewed and how goals are set up for individuals. Over the coming years we may see a shift towards long-termist thinking to be able to extend the amount of time and/ or quality teams get from players during matches to help bolster far-ahead goals.

There are a multitude of reasons why players may lose their motivation at the end of a season. Moreover, it may not even be a psychological block for some; it could just be fatigue. But it was useful to explore what is probably the main driver behind this.

One of the limitations of my exploration is that teams will feel “safe” when there is a high statistical possibility that things will not change. So, for example, in many of the seasons that have been explored in the data, teams may have reached a point where relegation was highly unlikely, but also there was virtually no chance of improving their position. This is the real likely point where “Nothing to Play For” psychology comes into play. But, this is much less quantifiable as this would need further analysis of the data to look at times when teams were statistically likely to stay up. Adding to this, it would also be guesswork at the point that teams felt “safest”. Here, my methodology is probably too conservative and does not incorporate enough games into the data, but still makes it a stronger data set with more objective parameters. 

I feel, however, that it is still useful to illustrate the effects and is the most realistic way to quantify the “Nothing To Play For Effect” for now.

[1] Weinberg,  R.  S.  (2009)  Motivation.  In  B.  W.  Brewer  (ed.)  Sport  psychology:  Handbook  of  sports  medicine (pp. 7–17). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

[2]  Weinberg,  R.  S.  (2009)  Motivation.  In  B.  W.  Brewer  (ed.)  Sport  psychology:  Handbook  of  sports  medicine (pp. 7–17). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

[3] Moran, A.P. and Toner, J. (2017) A critical introduction to sport psychology. Third edition / Aidan Moran and John Toner. London: Routledge.

[4] Ordóñez, L.D. et al. (2009) “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Overprescribing Goal Setting,” Academy of Management perspectives, 23(1), pp. 6–16.

[5] Moran, A.P. and Toner, J. (2017) A critical introduction to sport psychology. Third edition / Aidan Moran and John Toner. London: Routledge.

Header image copyright IMAGO / NurPhoto

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