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The Stat Man: Sunderland are barely on course to make the play-offs - and here’s why!

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“Putting it plainly, no team in the last ten years has been automatically promoted from League One performing in the way Sunderland have done so far this season” writes RR’s resident stat man Steve Tiltman.

Sheffield United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

Let’s start this week by examining what difference the last round of League One games made to our alternative league tables. First a look at the attacking aspects.

Sunderland saw an improvement in their ability to turn possession into dangerous attacks as they moved to a score of 1.99 from the previous 1.91. There was also an improvement in the number of shots on target (shown here as ‘attacking effectiveness’) from 3.45 following the Bolton debacle, to 3.70. The trends here are encouraging but we remain a long way behind the leaders.

Less pleasing is the recent descent from first in the ‘attacking quality’ table, to third. From a high score of 0.55, Sunderland have dropped to 0.43 and, as a consequence, have fallen behind both the on-fire Oxford United and Barton’s Fleetwood Town. We saw similar last season with Sunderland scoring over 0.50 for attacking quality then gradually falling away as the season went on. It is concerning to see a similar pattern developing; however, this can change quickly in the coming games. We don’t get a lot of shots on target (hence we are 17th in the attacking effectiveness table) so we must maintain an exceptionally high attacking quality if we want to challenge for promotion.

Next let’s get an update on the defensive aspects of our game.

I didn’t introduce the leftmost table last week because I was in two minds about its usefulness. It provides a measure of a team’s ability to prevent their opposition turning possession into dangerous attacks. While Sunderland maintained their 8th place in this table, the score became slightly worse as it went from 1.96 to 1.99. This was as a consequence of allowing MK Dons to get an above average shots on target total of 5 last weekend. For the same reason, ‘defensive effectiveness’ worsened from 3.45 to 3.60.

There was a slight improvement in goalkeeper quality from 0.65 to 0.67. Whilst any progress is pleasing, it remains a concern that McLaughlin’s performance this season ranks 12th of 23. All while Ipswich seem to have an ice cream van parked in their goal.

There is a lot of detail to be gleaned and discussed from these tables. I could bang on for ages. But the main takeaway for those with limited time or tolerance, is that automatic promotion chasing teams need to be in the top two of two of these tables, or in the top six of at least four of them.

An alternative (and swankier) way of viewing most of what is in my tables, is by looking at scatter plots of attacking and defensive effectiveness.

It’s going to be a feature of this season that Bolton are a huge outlier. Their performance, in most respects, is beyond anything that could normally be expected. Consequently, the plots need to be stretched beyond where they would generally reach to accommodate them. Thanks Bolton.

The datapoint for each team represents their shots on target versus goals scored. It’s an informative visual measure of how a team is doing compared to others in pursuit of their respective goals. Usually those goals are either promotion or the avoidance of relegation. The black arrows represent the recent trend for each team. An up arrow is a sign of improvement and a down arrow means things are getting worse (and vice versa in the upcoming defensive version).

We find Sunderland in the green area with an improving trend, which is good, however, the best performers are to be found at the top right in the ‘effective and exciting’ corner.

We are doing OK. Not great, just OK. Oh to be Ipswich though.

Oxford are on fire now and this is fuelling their position above and to the right of Sunderland. Maybe they’re a decent outside bet for promotion? Nah… more on this later.

Thanks again Bolton.

Many have commented that Sunderland are looking better in defence lately. I think that’s largely true. There have been plenty of ‘stupid’ goals given away through calamities of one sort of another, but the defence, in general, has done well. Our position in the defensive effectiveness plot supports this notion. And it’s also pleasing to see a trend arrow pointing down and a little to the left. Heading in the direction of the ‘chilled out fans’ zone where we’d all love to be.

Coventry, Ipswich, Wycombe, Peterborough and Fleetwood look good. They also looked good in the attacking effectiveness plot. Oxford don’t look quite as good defensively as they are in attack though.

Sunderland look pretty good in defence and pretty good in attack too.

Pretty good... But is pretty good going to be good enough? Are we going to get promoted automatically?

Of course it’s impossible to answer that question with any certainty at this stage of the season. But it’s fun to try if you’re a nerd like me.


Automatic Promotion?

There are several ways to try to answer to this question and I will look at a few more in the coming weeks. On this occasion, I’m taking the approach of looking at what it takes to be promoted or relegated from League One.

I went back over the last ten full League One seasons and obtained data on every team that was promoted and relegated in that time. With that data, I calculated ellipses that encircled and described the data and plotted them on my attacking and defensive effectiveness charts. Thus demonstrating where teams who want to be promoted, or avoid relegation, need to be performance wise.

Once again, Bolton mess up my plot! Clearly, Bolton’s current performance is way worse than anything else seen in the past ten years. They have been so poor in attack that they occupy a position well beyond the expected performance of a relegated team - represented by the red ellipse.

Except for Bolton, when a team is ‘beyond’ an ellipse (for example Southend to the left of the relegation ellipse above), they are highly likely to settle back into the ellipse as the season continues.

The green ellipse represents the performance of every team promoted from League One in the last ten seasons. There is plenty here for Ipswich, Peterborough, Coventry, and several others, to smile about. Oxford have an excellent vertical position but not so good on the horizontal. This suggests their achievements so far are unsustainable and, consequently, I expect them to come back to the pack over time unless they improve their shots on target per game. Hence my earlier dismissal of their automatic promotion chances.

It gives me no pleasure to point out that Sunderland are even further to the left of the promotion ellipse than Oxford. Our vertical position is healthy. Our horizontal position is not. If this was the situation at the end of the season and Sunderland did indeed get promoted automatically, it would be done with far fewer shots on target per game than any other promoted team in the last ten seasons. There is work for Jack Ross to do here. Maybe through a big improvement in shots on target, or perhaps by getting strikers that actually score goals.

How about the defensive picture?

When viewing this plot in combination with the attacking version, Ipswich and Wycombe look very good. Peterborough looked strong for attacking effectiveness but concede too many goals to be in contention defensively. Likewise, Oxford looked great in attack (albeit unsustainably so) but struggle at the back too. So much so, in fact, that they’re edging into the relegation ellipse.

As with Southend in the attacking plot, Ipswich and Coventry are ‘beyond’ the promotion ellipse (below and to the left respectively) and are highly likely to settle within it as time passes.

What about Sunderland? Unfortunately, we do not occupy a position in the promotion ellipse of either the attacking or defensive plot.

Putting it plainly, no team in the last ten years has been automatically promoted from League One performing in the way Sunderland have done so far this season.

My prediction, based on what we have learned above, is that it’s the play offs at best unless something changes.

Sorry. Maybe next week’s prediction method will paint a rosier picture!