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ANALYTICS: Fitness levels key as Sunderland ignite the League One promotion race with momentum

Statistics show that Sunderland are easily the fittest side in League One, and when the promotion race goes down to the wire, it’ll likely be a deciding factor in pushing us over the line.

Lynden Gooch’s last-gasp winner on the opening day set the precedent for late Sunderland goals from the outset.
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In Sunderland’s opening eight games of the season, the Lads went behind early on five occasions and, in each, managed to turn the scoreline around and gain eleven points from a losing position - still the highest in the League to date and higher than we achieved in both 2016//17 and 2017/18 combined.

Although it was a worrying trend - which now appears to have been properly addressed - the players deserve immense credit for their mental stature and ability to turn it around amidst dire circumstances. Since then we have only conceded first on one occasion, in our only loss of the season away at Burton Albion.

One of the vital factors in Sunderland being able to turn this around has been our superior fitness levels. Ross and his team have focused heavily on increasing the physical fitness of players who were already at Sunderland, and in the transfer window also brought in players who themselves fit this mould.

Just last season Lee Cattermole looked finished. His ability is still unquestionable, but years of injuries, a long career which began very early and numerous injury-lightening injections over the years seemed to have taken their toll as he evidently struggled with the intensity of the Championship.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

This led many supporters - myself included - to worry over his ability to cut it in League One, where the game is arguably more physically-taxing. However, he has reveled in the opportunity to lead the club back to the second tier.

Arguably one of our most standout performers and certainly the best central midfielder, Catts looks rejuvenated both mentally and physically - and he has even transformed his game into a more box-to-box role, having scored more goals (3) and completing more tackles (34) and interceptions (38) than any other midfielder in the squad this season.

Some have remarked that he has “finally found his level”, but in fact, the credit must lie with the backroom staff and hours of hard work put in at the Academy of Light.

Adam Matthews typified Sunderland’s new approach in a rare interview:

He [Ross] wants us to train like we play, so shorter times but with more intensity, and it shows on the pitch. We look a lot fitter than last season. At the end of games we always look like the team that’s going to score.

Well, Matthews has a point.

The team as a whole has an xG (expected goals) for of 14.51 and 15.78 against in the first 75 minutes of matches (a 48% ratio). However, in the last 15 minutes, the xG for is at 3.82 and 2.69 against (59% ratio).

When the opposition clearly tire, we strike. Of the 27 goals scored this season, 14 have been scored in the second half (51%), including 7 in the last 15 minutes (26%). The latter is staggering, as a full quarter of goals scored this season have came in just the last 16% of each individual game.

This can be broken down even further, by analysing xG in segments over the course of a 90 minute period.

Sunderland xG per game (for/against) by 15 minute segments:

0-15 minutes: 0.27-0.45;

15-30 minutes: 0.12-0.17;

30-45 minutes: 0.17-0.22;

45-60 minutes: 0.26-0.40;

60-75 minutes: 0.25-0.33;

75-90 minutes: 0.32-0.22.

Although these numbers may appear low to those uninitiated with xG modelling, it is in fact incredibly high. Naturally, the higher the former number and lower the latter, the better. Overall, we have an xG of 1.39 per 90 minutes from “clear cut” chances, and have scored more “unexpected goals” than anyone else in the division.

An “unexpected goal” is when mathematically a player is considerably more likely to miss than hit the target and score, for example Chris Maguire’s screamer away at Burton, and nearly all of Josh Maja’s quickfire pot-shots from the edge of the box (see Rochdale, Peterborough and Charlton for examples).

To offer a comparison, Raheem Sterling has been in stellar goal scoring form for Man City this season, with four goals and two assists in just seven starts - yet his own xG is “only” 0.49.

Luke O’Nien is finding form, and got his first goal of the season on Saturday. He deserved his moment after some great extra work this season, as shown above.
Sunderland AFC

Breaking the game down into 15 minute segments essentially shows that on average this season we have been second-best for 65 minutes before taking the opposition to the sword thanks to our superior fitness levels.

Of course this is not always the case, and analytics of this kind are merely useful indicators and entirely useless on their own. We have basically bulldozed three sides off the park by half-time already this season (Scunthorpe, Gillingham and Rochdale) and haven’t even went behind at all in six games now.

Nevertheless, these statistics do importantly prove the meticulous work behind the scenes by the backroom staff, particularly Conditioning Coach Mike Clegg, Physiotherapist Peter Brand and Head of Sport Science Scott Ainsley among others.

Make no mistake that come the end of the season, those long and hard miles in early August will make all the difference.

*All statistics recorded before the Doncaster match.