Stats more like it: Promotion juggernaut with worrisome slant?

Stats more like it: Promotion juggernaut with worrisome slant?

We’ve jumped to the brink of automatic promotion, but less than efficient goalkeeping could be a roadside bomb to our promotion challenge, especially as our clinical edge in front of goal seems to be on the wane.

Feedback since I wrote the first “Stats more like it” article on Owlsalive.com has been surprisingly encouraging, so   in this second installment I examine a home truth about life in the Football League.

I will also stick the thermometer into our season a month further on than last time. Some interesting trends, both for Wednesday but also for the other teams in the division, are unveiled.

As I did last time, I’m using teams stats collated from ESPN Soccernet (http://soccernet.espn.go.com) for League 1. If anyone out there know of anywhere else that supply similar stats or – even better – even more stats than the good people at Soccernet, I’d very much like to know.

In addition to looking at the Soccernet stats, I’ll also be giving stats from Football365 a look, and see just how different the Wednesday team of this season is compared to those of our recent history. Finally, inspired by Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant 2 part column on the development of competitiveness in of the Premier League (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/oct/19/the-question-how-competitive-premier-league and http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/oct/25/premier-league-less-competitive-question), I expand the enquiry to the rest of the Football League, beginning with the Championship. In the increasingly suffocating shadow of the Premier League, the Football League, even more so than its big brother, often market itself on competiveness; that any team in the Championship, League 1 and League 2 respectively can beat any other team in their division. That marketing line certainly seems to have by now become a home truth among the fans of those 72 teams. But is it also a real truth?

First up, though, how our Wednesday have fared in League 1 in the month that has just gone; a time where the promotion juggernaut has shown signs of sails being rigged, and we’ve jumped from 8th to 3rd in the table.

 

 

A month ago, when we last had a look, we only ranked as 22nd out of the 24 teams in League 1 in terms of the number of shots we’d had. We’ve moved up since then; in fact, with 57 shots in our last 5 matches we’re 3rd in number of shots if you look at the last 5 matches in isolation. The number in brackets next to the (hopefully correct) team names is the league position of the team. Only 2 of the teams in top 6, are among the 14 teams in the division with most shots. It’s quite remarkable, that both we, Charlton, Huddersfield and United have managed so few shots. It doesn’t seem like you have to create a ton of chances to be successful in this division; sheer Barcelona-like attacking domination of other teams isn’t where success for those vying for promotion from League 1 comes from (Barca who, incidentally, have had 148 shots  in their 9 matches – 30 percent more than Scunthorpe in League 1, or more than double the shots we have every match).

What does, then? Gary Madine (11 goals), Bradley Wright-Phillips (8 goals) and Jordan Rhodes (11 goals). Remove Wright-Phillips from Charlton, Rhodes from Huddersfield and – indeed – Madine from Wednesday’s team, and would those 3 teams still be pushing for promotion?

There’s no clear precedent from last season: Southampton and Peterborough were top in number of shots, while runaway division winners Brighton managed fewer shots than 15 other teams in League 1.

Turning instead to accuracy with those shots – where we ranked the worst in League 1 in September – it’s still the same story for us:

Indeed, the story seems to be that – not surprisingly – the three strikers mentioned give seem to give their teams an edge in efficiency:

There are definitely some issues with how Soccernet register the stats at this micro-level, but all else being equal, the numbers of the 531 League 1-players are interesting.

If we look at the 20 players with 5 or more goals in the division so far, only Wright-Phillips seem to get a decent number of his shots on target (61 %; Madine 52 %, Rhodes 41 %). None of the three are particularly accurate with their efforts. Looking at the percentage of shots that end up as goals, Rhodes (50 %) and Madine (44 %) stand out, whereas Wright-Phillips – who with 36 shots have had the most of all in the division – looks less prolific (22 %). That may reflect their playing style, though, with Rhodes and Madine being box strikers, and Wright-Phillips dropping deeper to dribble at the defence (case in point: The latter’s goal against us at The Valley earlier this season). Speaking of scorers on that day, Clinton Morrison (and ad board avenger Leon Clarke) both do very well goal-wise from their shots (scoring 75 % and 88 % of them respectively).

Rounding off the player stats, Semedo (3rd) and Madine (5th) are among those who have committed the most fouls in the division; but they’re also among those being fouled the most (5th and 1st respectively). A sign of a more combative style of football on our behalf perhaps, getting in the thick of the action? We’re certainly committing and suffering more fouls than we did last season (where we were on average compared to the rest of the division).

As our unhappy trip to Carlisle proved, there are still lingering doubts about our back 5. Since our last look at the stats, Megson have signed Steven Bywater on loan to cut down on goals conceded. Remarkably, Steven Bywater’s still only made 9 saves during his time with us. If anything, the number of saves ought to reflect how well the defence does. A team may be successful, not conceding too many goals, with the ‘keeper’s many saves the saving grace. Looking at it like that, our defence is perhaps not as soft or suspect as some of us may be led to (again) believe after the Carlisle match:

Another way to interpret the number of saves is to see them in relation to the amount of goals conceded. Chesterfield, whose ‘keepers have made a lot of saves according to the graph above, have also conceded a lot of goals2 (26, 3rd most in the division). So it might be that their ‘keepers aren’t as good as the number of saves – taken in isolation – might suggest. Constructing a ratio of goals conceded to saves made may give a better indication of how good the ‘keepers in our division are. The lower the percentage, the better:

That ratio-percentage might be a bit confusing on the surface. One way to understand it is: For every 100 shots the opposition has on target, how many end up in the net? For us that number is 61, for current clean sheet kings Tranmere it’s 13. There’s no Bywater-effect either: His number alone is 67 (O’Donnell’s 61, Weaver’s 56). Said even more simply: With Bywater in goal 2 out of 3 of the opposition’s shots on target go in.

“The Bywater Effect” – if there is a such – may simply be that he’s an experienced ‘keeper that knows how to direct the 4 men in front of him, and who – through his experience and vocal presence – has the trust of our defenders. And that is a factor in us allowing so relatively few chances (only Huddersfield and Stevenage have fewer saves and goals conceded than us). Though I think that’s characterisation is unfair on Richard O’Donnell (who, as I’ve said before, I have a lot of time for), as he’s a confident and also very vocal ‘keeper.

There are definitely some caveats with those interpretations of mine, but even allowing for those some trends for us from the last look at the stats seem to be solidifying: We’re not allowing the opposition a lot of chances, but those that they do get they more often than not score from; and our efficiency in front of goal is covering the fact that we don’t seem to create a lot of chances. On that last point, though, it’s worth pointing out that in the last 5 matches, we’ve needed 57 shots (30 on target) to score 10 goals, so our efficiency has been just average this last month (we all remember the chances wasted at the Lane for instance, where we had 16 shots to their 9 (8 on target vs. their 4)). That could be okay; but with our ‘keepers not exactly stopping a lot of the (admittedly relatively few) chances for the opposition, it could spell trouble.

Giving statistics from Football365 (http://stats.football365.com/dom/ENG/teams/SheffieldWed.html) a brief glance, we’re extraordinary in the following categories:

Record in second half: 1st

When scoring the first goal: 2nd

When losing at half time: 3rd (no other team have secured as many points (8) from that position as us)

Playing against the top half: 3rd

Failing to score: Joint 1st (we’ve only gone without scoring once this season)

Another thing that jumps out is the amount of early goals we’ve conceded.

I thought it’d be interesting to contrast those figures to have we did in the season everyone’s hoping we (at least) emulate: 2004-05. The numbers then certainly told a different story to the current one (http://stats.football365.com/2005/ENG/teams/SheffieldWed.html).

Back then we leaked a lot of late goals through the season, and we weren’t particularly good at keeping leads or getting something out of tough positions – quite the opposite. What set us apart, despite that, was that we managed to get the first goal in 29 out of the 46 matches – more than any other team. The way we battled to a play-off position that season, not through a band of misunderstood geniuses flashing their skills at the briefest of intervals, but as a bunch of savvy scrappers, is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that we only lost once against a team in the bottom half in 2004-05.

Taking another leap, this time to the competitiveness of the Championship, League 1 and League 2, we can perhaps find the answer to another interesting question: Have these divisions become more competitive in recent years?

As mentioned in the introduction, I’ve been inspired to do this after reading two columns by Jonathan Wilson ((http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/oct/19/the-question-how-competitive-premier-league and http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/oct/25/premier-league-less-competitive-question) on the top European league and the Premier League, the latter over time. So have the rest of the Championship followed suit and become less competitive then? Before I present Wilson’s method to evaluate that, it’s probably wise to note some caveats in using that method on the Championship. Most apparant is how teams relegated could “drag” statistics with the ressources of the Premier League and thus its relegated teams booming exponentially compared to the those not having felt the Midas touch of the supposed Promised Land. Especially as there have been some signs of a class of “buffer teams” developing, forever stuck in the elevator between top and second tier in particular supported by the Premier League’s “parachute money”. But rather than seeing that as a data problem, it could perhaps – if true – be an indication that the trend towards less competitiveness in the Premier League Wilson demonstrated in his column is fast spilling over into the Championship (and maybe even beyond).

 

So how did Wilson come to his result? He used the gap in points won per match between, respectively, 1st and 2nd, 1st and 4th, 1st and last, and 4th and 4th last. As the spectacle of the play-offs is the cut-off point in the Football League, I’ve added the gap 6th and 4th last to those 4 meassures (even though the play-offs weren’t adopted until 1986-87).

Wilson’s focus was the change happening at the beginning of the 80s onwards; here I’d rather focus on before and after the introduction of the Premier League. In the first years of the Premiership (92-96), we actually see a decrease in the gap between 1st and last – the division got tighter, which is contrary to expectations. In this period, the gaps between 1st and 4th and 1st and 2nd also decreased slightly.

If we look at the change between the early years of the Premier League (92-96) and what we could call the consolidation of the Premier League (97-01), the data begin to conform more to expectations: There’s a sharp increase in the gap between 1st and last. Though less dramatically, gaps also increase between 4th and 4th last, 1st and 4th and 1st and 2nd. A gulf in the Championship seem like it’s in the making. And the gulf expands from 97-01 to 02-06: Championship champions seem to be running away from everyone but the runners-up – an indication of the formation of the “elevator class” ? If the line of data stopped there that seems an obvious conclusion.

But when we examine the change in gaps from 02-06 to the last time period (07-11), we again see a trend that runs contrary to our expectations: A dramatic DEcrease in the gap between 1st and last. That’s a remarkable result, because the Premier League began offering “parachute money” to its relegated teams from the 2006-07 season onwards (and the size of the package doubled the season after that, 2007-08), and you’d expect the gulf between those recently relegated, and those recently promoted to the Championship to be increasing, and quite significantly so. That the gap between 1st and 4th and, to a lesser extent, 1st and 2nd also decreases fits expectations of a new “elevator class” of teams better.

An attractive explanation to apologets of the self-regulatory mechanisms of capitalism might be that what we’re seeing is simply an illustration of financially failing clubs being punished. Clubs who have geared their investment and debt past breaking point in an attempt to either avoid relegation from the Premier League or an attempt to get promoted into it. Another way of looking at it could be that the risk-taking has spread all the way down the Championship, so that the financial gap between being a Championship club and a League 1 club has now become of such a magnitude that teams in the Championships gear their investment unsustainably just to avoid relegation from the Championship (and as Wednesdayites, we know only too well how hard that fall can be). A third way of looking at it might be that there’s a band of clubs in the Championship, who, through wise and considered investments in their club infrastructure, have managed to find a sustainable equilibrium as a Championship club.

If we compare the gaps of the Championship to the gaps of the Premier League, the gaps between the top clubs are of a similar size, but there’s much less of a gap in the Championship between 1st and last and between 4th and 4th last. It seems the home truth, that the Championship is more competitive than the Premier League – and increasingly so – actually has some real truth to it.

Peter
Owls Alive
TWITTER: @OwlsAlive or @ploehmann

 

 

 


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