Game in hand

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In competitive team sport, having a game in hand describes a team that has played one fewer matches than other teams around them, and as such has the potential to improve its relative position depending on the result of its subsequent game.

The term is regularly used in association football, but is also used in ice hockey, rugby league, rugby union and English cricket.

How games in hand occur[edit]

A team who is successful in a cup competition, for example, may find that League games are postponed to accommodate cup matches, especially in the latter rounds of the competition. For example, in the English League Cup, the Final is played on a weekend usually in February or March. As such, because only two teams are in that final, the rest of the League fixtures usually continue as normal, with only the games involving the two finalists being postponed. Early rounds of competitions usually include most teams from the League and no League matches are played, but as the competitions progress and fewer teams are involved, League games will take place under the assumption that neither team remains involved in that competition.

Involvement in other domestic and non-domestic competitions can also require League games to be postponed meaning that a team could have played two or three games fewer than those around them, especially if the teams around them have been eliminated from the domestic competitions in early rounds, or are not involved in the non-domestic competitions.

Postponements can also occur for other reasons, such as a frozen or waterlogged playing surface. These postponements are often made only a short time before the game begins and too late for alternative arrangements to be made - if such arrangements are even possible.

A game which is abandoned part way through usually has the result annulled and will require it to be replayed.

Finally, especially since the advent of sport being broadcast live on digital television, games are now spread throughout a whole weekend and are not always played on the same day. Thus a team can have played fewer games than their opponents, simply because their opponents play earlier in the weekend schedule.

How a game in hand affects the league[edit]

The explanation below uses the points system in English League Football as an illustration. Other sports use different scoring systems, but the basic premise of a Game in Hand is the same. In English League football, teams gain 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a defeat. There is no bonus point system.

To start, assume that three teams are aiming for the top position in a League table. Their current positions are detailed in the table below:

Pos Club Pld W D L F A GD Pts
1 Manchester United 30 20 8 2 41 10 +31 68
2 Chelsea 29 19 9 1 42 17 +25 66
3 Arsenal 28 19 7 2 40 24 +16 64

Pld = Matches played; W = Matches won; D = Matches drawn; L = Matches lost; F = Goals for; A = Goals against; GD = Goal difference; Pts = Points

In the table above, Chelsea has one game in hand over Manchester United. Arsenal has two games in hand over United and one game in hand over Chelsea.

Should Chelsea win their game in hand they will get 3 more points and be on 69 points, which would put them above Manchester United.

Should Arsenal win both of their games in hand they will get 6 more points and be on 70 points, putting them above both United and Chelsea, irrespective of Chelsea's result in their game in hand. Thus, although United currently lead the table, they could find themselves in third place once all three teams have played the same number of games. Conversely, Arsenal, currently third, could be first once they have played the same number of games as United.

It may be felt that United being top of the table is in some way a false position, since they could be as low as third once all three teams have played the same number of games. However, games in hand are merely games that Chelsea and Arsenal have not played, and if the results go poorly for them, they will not improve their League positions at all. Should the games in hand all be drawn, the League table would see United top by one point over Chelsea and two points over Arsenal with all three teams having played 30 matches.

Disadvantages of games in hand[edit]

Having games in hand is useful, since it means that you can improve your position in the League by winning those games. However, having games postponed for whatever reason means that they need to be rescheduled for a later date. often involves fitting in games whenever possible causing what is known as a fixture pile-up, numerous matches have to be played in a short period of time. Playing more games in a shorter period of time than your opponents can lead to players becoming tired and increase the risk of injuries.

Playing games in hand[edit]

In most sports all games in hand are played before the scheduled final League matches in a season. This is so that team know for certain where they have finished in the League, without having to wait for games in hand to be completed. It is common in most sports for every team in a League to play their last League games of a season at the same time. This can lead to a team playing numerous games in hand during the preceding days and weeks to clear the backlog of games in hand.