Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Saturday, February 19, 2022

A numbers game...

We're all nothing if not hypocrites. 

I have, in the past, made statements along the lines of "the people who look at football through the prism of data are souless death bringers." Whilst I kind of stand by that, it's really 'orrible outside and I've got a few hours to kill so I'm going to slip into something cosy and cuddle up to a spreadsheet or two. 

Clearly numbers don't tell you the whole story of a football team but there's some interesting stuff to be gleaned. I've paid particular attention to where our player or team stats sit against the rest of the league. 

(All stats are taken from before the Cardiff City game and sourced from the 'WhoScored' database.) 

Inside my head... 

How do we play? 

This is a hard question to answer. We've been different things in different games. We've variously been guilty of what tactics experts might call 'fannying about at the back,' playing two little lads up front, trying one up front and loads of exciting technical players behind them and 'knocking it to a big man and hoping for the best.' 

The stats below offer an insight into who and what we are most often, but it's clear that we've tried a variety of approaches as the season has progressed. 

What we can say for sure is that we're relatively balanced with most attacks coming down either flank and their being very little difference between the left/right flank (39/38%) - We do forge a low number of attacks centrally, but there's only a few percentage points difference between us and Fulham in that respect. In essence, everyone attacks more in wide areas. 

What are we good at? (and not good at) 

Many of our team metrics are relatively mediocre - for example: 

- Our passing accuracy is a relatively low 71% (way down on the divisional leaders 85.5%)
- We have only achieved the 18th highest amount of shots per game and the 19th most possession.

In short, we don't have the ball as much as most teams and when we do have it, there are plenty better at using it than us. The fact we are 21st in the division for key passes tells a story

Where we do excel is perhaps a little surprising.

- If we look at the kind of passes we play, we play more long balls than many sides. We've got the 7th best record for accurate long balls per game.
- We've also got the 8th best record at winning aerial challenges

This runs slightly counter to the received wisdom that we are 'a footballing side first and foremost.' as evidently, we're a side that do well when we're direct. 

How do we score? (or not) 

- Whilst we're generally good in the air, very few of our goals (just 4 from 34) are headers, which is quite a low ratio. Cardiff have managed an astonishing 18 or 38 in the air and even teams like Fulham are knocking in about 1 in 4 of their goals with their heads.  

- We've already seen we don't create as many shots as other teams, but actually, we're relatively accurate in comparison to some others. West Brom have scored an identical amount of goals but are averaging over 5 shots per game more than us. That's around 150 more attempts on goal for the same outcome. Some sides are slightly more clinical (or shoot less wildy) than we do, but our shots to goals ratio is not a noticeable issue in the data. 

- The metric we're right at the bottom for is scoring goals from distance. We are the lowest performing Championship from outside of the box with just a single goal compared to Stoke's 11. The crowd's cries of 'shoooooot' are pretty well justified as we're 23rd in terms of shots taken from outside the box, a figure which supports the idea that we don't possess many midfielders with an attacking intent. 

How do we set up our goals? 

- We are very poor at crossing from open play. For a team that has played (mostly) with a midfield 4, it's surprising to see us 21st in the division with an average of only 3 accurate crosses per game. Even taking into account the fact we don't have possession as much as other teams, this is a low number, almost half the amount achieved by Cardiff (the most frequent accurate crossers in the league) 

- Surprisingly the data shows that we're not that bad at corners and set pieces. For both metrics, we're 12 in the division, a stat that doesn't seem to tally with the widely held view that we're a bit rubbish at both. We've also got the lowest number of inaccurate corners in the division! Perhaps we're hardwired to remember our own teams poor set pieces more than the opponents and that second number is somewhat distorted by the fact we get less corners overall than most sides. 

- Where we've clearly changed from last season is how we run with the ball. We've attempted the 4th highest number of dribbles per game and achieved the 7th highest number of successful dribbles per game

What about defending? 

- We get a lot of tackles in. Our average of 15.2 per game is the 8th best in the division. It also has to be said that whilst teams like Blackburn and Middlesbrough tackle a lot, tackling is not a guarantee of success. Fulham have the 3rd worst record in the division. If you have the ball a lot, you don't need to tackle as much. 

- We are surprisingly not so good at intercepting the ball. Much has been made of our pressing game, but we sit 19th for that metric. 

- Our offside trap is effective as you'd expect for a team that do sometimes try and play with a high line and we have the 7th best record for catching the other side offside. 

- We concede a lot of shots (the 7th most in the division) but we excel at blocking them (the 4th most blocks per game.) We're quite good at cutting out passes (9th) but pretty woeful at blocking crosses (21st.) 

- Everyone concedes most goals from open play, but our defending of set pieces is comparably poor. We've scored 15% of our goals this was but conceded 24% of them. There wasn't a comparative table available but the 5 teams I cross referenced all had better records at dealing with set plays (though, of course, a percentage isn't a total!) 

What can individual player stats tell us? 

By looking at where we excel, we can gain an insight into how we play as a team. Here is a collection of notable facts about individual players. 

- Dan Grimshaw is the most likely play in any of the top two divisions to hit a long pass. That's quite remarkable when you reflect on the seeming obsession earlier in the year with playing out from the back and the former City man's upbringing in the total football environment of Guardiola. 

- Gary Madine is the leading striker in the air in the top two divisions, winning 6.6. aerial challenges per game. Marvin Ekpiteta comes next at 36th in the division, which shows us how much of our relative aerial strength is down to one player. Surprisingly the slight frame of James Husband is 38th in the division, testament to the sheer effort he puts in, often against players bigger than him. 

The two stats above combine to show that we're increasingly direct and willing to go back to front in one move. That makes sense given we have less possession and aren't as good at passing as many teams. 

- Another area we excel is dribbling. Not surprisingly Josh Bowler attempts the most in the division per game and has the second best record (behind Dembele) in terms of success. Keshi Anderson also excels here, turning in the 9th best record for successful dribbles per game. 

Having two players capable of carrying the ball thus is the main way we've changed our play from last season where no one excelled in this respect. Now we've definitely got one of the most skilled line ups in the league in terms of individual players who can carry the ball. 

- Keshi Anderson also makes the top 10 for key passes per game. We might not pass as accurately as many, but with Keshi in the side, we can make passes count. Beyond Keshi though, we struggle and Josh Bowler in 65th place in the division is the next most likely player to hit a key pass. 

- Our most accurate passer (23rd best in the division) is Richard Keogh. No one else bar the departed Ryan Wintle and the occasional Start Soney Carey gets above 80%. Interestingly, our poorest performer in terms of passing is Shayne Lavery, which perhaps offers an insight into why he's not quite gelled with either Madine or Yates up front yet. 

- Where Lavery does lead the way is in shots per game. He's the 37th most likely player to shoot in the Championship and the most likely in our squad. 

- Whilst we're talking of strikers, the perception that Yates gets caught offside a lot is accurate. He's the 3rd most likely player to be offside in the division, getting caught twice as often as Madine and more than 3 times more than Lavery (per game) 

- Kenny Dougall is a highly impressive tackler, winning the 9th most successful challenges per game in the league. Kevin Stewart slightly outranks Dougall, but doesn't qualify for the table as he's barely played and next in line are Rhys James and again, Keshi Anderson, which shows what an all round player the latter is. 

- Another stat that will surprise no one is that Marvin Ekpiteta excels at blocks, being the 3rd most likely player in the division to get in front of a shot. Keogh is an impressive 11th which is testament to how our defenders will put their bodies on the line. Marvin (5th) and Keogh (15th) are also excellent at getting clearances away

- James Husband is our most likely player to make an interception (21st most per game) and also the least dribbled past left back in the division. Jordan Gabriel isn't far behind that, as the third least dribbled past right back in the division. 

- Our most likely player to foul the opposition is, to no one's surprise, Callum Connolly (the 13th highest number of fouls per game.) Our most fouled player is Keshi Anderson who has drawn the 8th highest total of fouls per game in the league. 

- We've mentioned the lack of crosses above. Luke Garbutt is 8th in the division in terms of crosses per game which shows how little the rest of the team do it. The next best is surprisingly Dujon Sterling who is 73rd and averaging a mere .5 crosses per match. 

- Finally, one random stat I enjoyed is the fact that in 30 games of professional football this year, Josh Bowler has one header to his name. Which is a beautiful thing. 

What does all this mean? 

There's no real conclusion to be made from these numbers. They're just interesting insights into how sometimes our perceptions are accurate and other times they're not. What we palpably lack (and we all know it) is a really quality ball player in midfield and that's borne out in the numbers. The loss of Grant Ward is a blow in that respect as he put up the best passing numbers last season in terms of accuracy. 

Clearly, judging by Critchley's obsession with signing Cameron Brannagan, he concurs. 

Brannagan is considerably more accurate than any of our midfielders this season (and more accurate than anyone in central midfield last year when we were in the same league as well) He's also far more likely than any of our central midfielder to play a key pass or score a goal (also true when compared with last season) and shoots with a greater regularity than anyone in our squad, including even Shayne Lavery. 

The lack of crosses and a lack of a real force in midfield make it hard to envisage us scoring freely. Whilst we play with inverted wingers (most of the time) we're not going to be skimming lots of quality across the box and we're also going to struggle to pull strings from deep because of the sort of players (Sonny Carey aside) we largely have as midfield options. 

We've clearly got a remarkably good centre back pairing and some solid full backs. In Bowler and Anderson we have terrific players and Keshi in particular is a remarkably well rounded footballer. If we can keep both of those players and add in some quality attacking instinct in central midfield then we might see more goals. It's easy to suggest the strikers should be 'doing better' but we've done ok in terms of turning chances into goals - it's just we don't create that many chances in comparison to quite a few other sides. 

What is clear is that some of our players haven't just stepped up to this level, they've excelled at it. Whilst Keshi stands out, it's surprising how often our players appear at the top of certain metrics and how we've lived with just about everyone in the division in at least one game. As above, we've got a good base to work from and most of our players will have added value to themselves in the transfer market which is a mundane way to look at it, but there are very few of our squad who seem truly out of their depth in the Championship. 

At the end of the day, what will be will be, but we've got the best long kicker and the best aerial duel winner in top level English football. In other words...

If all else fails, twat it at Gaz. 


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