On Tuesday, Andriy Yarmolenko wasn't a player anybody imagined would end up at Liverpool this summer. For those paying attention to Ukraine's progress at the European Championships last summer or keeping an eye on Eastern European football in general, the 23-year-old winger will have stood out as a name to watch for some time, but serious links between Yarmolenko and Liverpool had been nearly nonexistent over the years and quite completely absent this summer.
Registering a goal every three games from the wing—and adding nearly as many assists—since breaking into the Dynamo Kyiv first team, the physically imposing attacker brings plenty of pace and trickery to the table and appears perfectly suited to Europe's top leagues. Along the way, strong performances in Europe and at the international level have eased concerns it is only playing in one of Europe's lesser leagues that makes him look so promising. But nobody considered him a Liverpool target.
Which made it odd when, on Wednesday, betting sites suddenly cut odds on the player signing with Liverpool from "you can buy a house with the winnings on a tenner" to "you might be able to fund the downpayment on a bottle of Irn-Bru." The plummeting odds came with suggestions there were rumblings in the Ukrainian press of Liverpool interest, but betting lines are rarely so proactive—and certainly not when based on no more than a scant few foreign whispers.
Despite occasional talk of what bookies may of may not "know," inside knowledge simply isn't how betting lines are set when one is dealing with massive enterprises like SkyBet, who kicked off all the Yarmolenko to Liverpool talk that has come since when they cut their odds to 2/5 in favour of him making the move to Anfield. When placing such a bet there may be the appearance—as there is in most forms of gambling—that one is playing against "the house," but the reality is nothing of the sort.
The reality is that, as in most forms of gambling, one is actually playing against every other person betting, with the broker acting as little more than an oversight body that takes a small cut of every bet made—win, lose, or draw. The goal, rather than to trick individual bettors into losing their money, is to balance the money coming in on each and every side so that no matter who wins, the money from the losing bets will cover 100% of the winning bets.
Odds, then, almost always rise and fall not because the bookie has access to some secret inside knowledge that an informed fan wouldn't, but rather to balance the line. A balanced line means the broker gets to take their minuscule cut off every dollar and cent and pound and pence that's been bet on each and every side and, in doing so, win. An imbalanced line is the enemy as it holds the potential to become a massive financial loss for the bookie—even if the imbalance is informed by some supposed insider knowledge.
Despite the popular conception, these bookies aren't actually in the gambling business. They're in the "charging a small transaction fee to allow you to gamble" business. The difference is subtle, but it's also very, very important when one tries to read the shifting lines as though they're tea leaves. It's a difference that means that when a line closes late in betting, all that's actually happened is that so many people have bet so heavily on one side that it's impossible to balance the line.
This could mean that a move, or a result, is inevitable. It could also simply mean that a whole lot of regular people with no particularly special insight think it's inevitable. The difference, once again, may seem small but can be quite important. Rapid movement, though, certainly does mean money is in play—and when enough money is played to move a line as quickly and drastically as Yarmolenko to Liverpool moved yesterday, it means that somebody thinks they know something.
Just what that is—or even whether the money played was on Liverpool, since if anything the rapid shift in the line yesterday will have spurred action from people who hadn't previously considered a move to Liverpool for Yarmolenko within the realm of possibility—is a very different question. About all that's certain is there isn't someone in the offices of SkyBet with inside knowledge into where Andriy Yarmolenko's future lies.