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The Stat Man: Sunderland manager Phil Parkinson doesn’t *actually* eat babies

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“The calibre of player the owner is prepared to fund remains to be seen. How the remainder of Sunderland’s season plays out will depend more on that than whether Phil Parkinson is replaced” writes Roker Report’s resident stat-man Steve Tiltman.

Sunderland v Blackpool - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Last week I had a look at the underlying data that led to Jack Ross getting the boot and also examined how the trend looked since Phil Parkinson came in. As I laid out my analysis, I commented that, ‘when examining underlying trends, there is room for interpretation’. This week I’m going to take a look at the difference between Sunderland under Ross and Sunderland under Parkinson without the uncertainty that subjective interpretation brings.

If you’ve endured some of my posts in the past, you will know that I like to look beyond the League One table to judge how teams are performing. I find that gives me insight that is unavailable when considering only league position, points and maybe goal difference.

Generally, I view only the 23 League One teams in these tables, but this time I look at the other 22 teams plus the actual Sunderland (Ross and Parkinson combined), Sunderland (Ross) and Sunderland (Parkinson). This gives me 25 teams including three Sunderlands - as if one wasn’t enough for a lifetime of misery and disappointment.

Let’s delve into how the reigns of the two managers compare and find a winner for each of four aspects of the game.


Possession and Possession Effectiveness

In the Premier League, possession is important but in League One it really isn’t. The ability of a team to turn the possession they have into chance is vital. I call that ‘possession effectiveness’.

Take a look below at Wycombe. Bottom of the possession table and second in the possession effectiveness table. And most importantly, currently six points clear at the top of League One. Credit where it’s due. That’s impressive.

But we’re not here to discuss Wycombe or any other team aside from the three Sunderlands. Looking first at the possession table, you can see that over the whole season, Sunderland have had an average of 53% possession. Interestingly, though, this table reveals that Parkinson seems to set up in a way to retain possession more than Ross did (55% compared to 51%). That’s not to say anything particularly useful or exciting happens with that additional 4% of possession, especially not if it’s a result of excessive passing between the back line.

What is more important, as I already mentioned, is the ability to turn possession into goal scoring chances (possession effectiveness). Here we can see a significant drop in chance creation in the Parkinson era despite the increase in possession. We’re keeping the ball more but doing less with it attacking wise. Having only two teams worse than Parkinson’s Sunderland for this aspect of the game is grim, especially when you consider that those two teams are Bolton and MK Dons.

So who wins for turning possession into chances? This prize goes to Jack Ross.


Attacking Effectiveness and Attacking Quality

Attacking effectiveness is just the average number of shots on target per game and attacking quality is the proportion of those shots on target that result in goals. Keep in mind that teams that gain automatic promotion from League One tend to get five or more shots on target per game.

Sunderland were well short being a team able to get five or more shots on target per game while Jack Ross was in charge. Only 3.64 shots on target per game won’t get you anywhere near automatic promotion unless you have Robert Lewandowski up front. The last thing Sunderland needed when Parkinson stepped into the role was for the chance creation to reduce, but that’s what they got. Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland average a mere 3.38 shots on target per game. To put that into context, only League One goal machines Lincoln, Southend, MK Dons and Bolton create less.

Something Sunderland have survived on since their arrival in League One is finishing quality. The likes of Maja, McGeady and Maguire were regularly available to bury chances that lesser players might have hit straight into the keeper’s hands. This means we usually had an attacking quality score varying between 0.40 and 0.50. That is excellent but not sustainable. The League One average is about 0.33 and, if you look at the teams averaging about that in the table, you’ll see the names of Wycombe and Ipswich - the league’s current top two. Under Parkinson, Sunderland have come back to the pack for attacking quality and sit right on the league average of 0.33. If that is how things are to remain until the end of the season, we can expect to score 1.12 goals per game on average. You need about 2.00 for automatic promotion.

The performance for neither manager here is good enough, but the prize for attacking effectiveness and attacking quality also goes to Jack Ross.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Defensive Effectiveness and Goalkeeper Quality

Defensive effectiveness is just the average number of shots on target per game to the opposition. Goalkeeper quality is the proportion of opposition shots on target that the keeper saves.

Jack Ross’ Sunderland gave away an average of 3.55 shots on target per game to the opposition. Not bad. Not promotion worthy, but not bad. Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland, however, give away only 3.25. This may not seem like a particularly impressive improvement, but consider that only Wycombe, Fleetwood, Coventry and Ipswich perform better in this respect.

The improvement in goalkeeper quality is even more impressive. Under Jack Ross - due mainly to his loyalty to Jon McLaughlin that stretched too far into the season - Sunderland scored a mere 0.64. Parkinson immediately dropped McLaughlin upon his arrival and replaced him with Lee Burge. Consequently, the goalkeeper quality for Parkinson became a more impressive 0.73. McLaughlin has since been restored to the starting line-up and time will tell whether the improvement can be maintained. It’s worth keeping in mind that teams which get automatically promoted tend to have goalkeeper quality scores of about 0.75, not 0.64.

This time it’s a resounding victory for Phil Parkinson.

Sunderland v Blackpool - Sky Bet League One Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Goals For and Against

Wycombe and Ipswich both have exceptionally mean defences. Consequently, they can get away with scoring a relatively low average goals per game of 1.50 and 1.53 respectively. On the other hand, Peterborough score a lot of goals but concede too many for a team challenging for promotion.

Under Jack Ross, Sunderland averaged 1.45 goals for and 1.27 against. Neither are particularly good. It’s fine scoring only 1.45 per game as long as you have a good defence (look at the Wycombe example). It’s also fine to concede 1.27 goals per game as long as you’re scoring plenty (look at Peterborough). But when goals for and against are both ‘meh’, then you’re not going to be getting automatic promotion.

Under Phil Parkinson, something remarkable has happened. The defence is undoubtedly in promotion form and the attack is in relegation form. Only Wycombe and Ipswich have better defensive records but, conversely, we can’t hit a barn door with a shovel.

Ross wins on ‘goals for’ and Parkinson wins on ‘goals against’, so I’m calling this one a draw.


Attacking and Defensive Effectiveness Plots

Much of the information contained in the preceding tables can be conveyed visually through attacking and defensive effectiveness plots. Each contain both a green promotion ellipse and a red relegation ellipse that represent where a datapoint needs to be located for a team to achieve either of those outcomes.

The datapoint above that is marked with Sunderland (Ross) represents what Sunderland achieved attacking wise before the arrival of Phil Parkinson. The datapoint marked with just Sunderland represents the season so far as a whole. And of course the Sunderland (Parkinson) datapoint demonstrates what the new manager has achieved in his time at the helm. It doesn’t make for happy viewing for Phil (or Stewart Donald, who is apparently the founding and only member of the Phil Parkinson fan club). He has taken a Sunderland side that was performing in an unspectacular manner attacking wise under Ross, and turned them into relegation contenders.

But before we grab the torches and pitchforks, let’s first consider how things look in defence.

In this respect, Phil Parkinson has taken Ross’ ‘solid yet unspectacular’ defence and turned them into serious promotion contenders.

Credit where it’s due - well done Phil!


What Next?

Whatever the intricacies, I think we can all agree that what ultimately matters is points on the board. If points per game is all that is considered, then the fall from 1.73 for Ross to 1.00 for Parkinson is horrifying. After all, 1.10 is the bare minimum to avoid relegation in a normal League One season!

But without digging slightly deeper into the data, it’s hard to be objective and see anything beyond social media hysteria. The defensive numbers say Parkinson is doing well - the attacking numbers say the opposite. The results say ‘sack him now’.

The manager is no mug, despite some of the frankly infuriating things he has been saying (or not saying) lately. He’s been in the game a long time and he will know what he needs in January.

Rightly or wrongly, Stewart Donald seems set on sticking with his man. And at this stage of the season, with one game to go until the window opens, I’m afraid there is nobody better placed to know what the squad needs than Parkinson - like it or not.

I anticipate most of our January transfer business will be geared towards enabling the midfield to push the average shots on target per game over the magic five mark. Just signing another striker won’t do that.

The calibre of player the owner is prepared to fund remains to be seen. How the remainder of the season plays out will depend more on that than whether Phil Parkinson is replaced.