Strength on the ball
Currently, the club sit third in the league in terms of goals scored from open play with 39 goals. Only Barnsley and surprisingly Doncaster better us, though only one goal prevents us from joining those two in joint first while Luton sit one behind us with 38 goals.
Three further statistics also clearly illustrate the strength our squad can have on the ball. While some have criticised our lack of touches inside the box, no team has scored more goals from inside the box than our 42. Obviously these goals count as much as any other, but this is one area we have clear distance between us and our rivals - Barnsley are our nearest rivals with 37 - and perhaps puts paid to the notion held earlier in the season among detractors that we were getting by on wondergoals and statistically anomalous thunderbolts from McGeady and Maguire.
We also lead the league for both average duration of goal scoring attacks and number of passes in goal scoring attacks, stats that quite strongly correlates with league position and show a team’s ability to influence possession in a meaningful way.
That for both these figures Luton are 2nd, Barnsley 3rd, and Portsmouth 5th highlights the strong footballing ability at the top of the league and that you can quite clearly be successful in the third tier without resorting to long ball route-one football.
One stat that will maybe surprise some fans is that Sunderland have conceded less goals from open play than any other side in League One with only 13 goals!
We’ve definitely looked shaky at times, but Flanagan and Baldwin have proved themselves masters of last-ditch tackles and blocks, and we have all seen enough from Jon McLaughlin to say we’ve got a goalkeeper that is head-and-shoulders above his competitors in the league—let’s just hope it stays that way.
Slow in possession - and it’s harming us
However, while our quality clearly shows in open play, when you drill down into the open play stats there are some worrying figures too that suggest it’s all a bit sterile and slow in possession, reinforcing an impression that’s been increasingly prevalent as our form has dipped somewhat.
We have the 4th best average possession in the League, our 55% marginally behind Luton, Barnsley, and bizarrely Rochdale in joint 1st by only 1%. We can quite clearly keep the ball as well as any other team, but it’s what we do with this possession that poses some cause for concern.
Sunderland have the absolute worst average number of “entries” in possession per game in the league - a measure of the amount of times times we cross into the opponent’s half, final third, and box in possession.
We only average 128 entries per game, while the league average is 137, and Portsmouth and Barnsley are joint 1st with 144. League leaders Luton may be 17th for this stat, but they’re still significantly ahead of us with 135. Some may say that we dominate games to an extent that we won’t make as many “entries” due to spending much of the game in the opponent’s half, but the total possession stats and following figures don’t support that view.
We’re also second bottom for attacks per game in the league with 96 - ahead of only Fleetwood with 93 - and of these 96 attacks only 11% actually end in shots.
As you’d expect our promotion rivals are ahead of us here, with Pompey leading the league with an average of 108 attacks per game, Barnsley 3rd with 107, though Luton are once again surprisingly low in the table at 15th with 102. The margins are slim here, but there’s a clear trend developing that suggests we’re lagging behind the top teams in the League when it comes to putting pressure on our opponents and using possession to hurt them.
This theme is made even clearer when we drill down into how our attacks are composed and end. Although we’ve scored more goals from inside the box than any other team, we’re 19th in the league for passes into the box per game with only 32, with 13 of these being successful on average.
Again, we’re behind our closest rivals for that second automatic promotion spot with Portsmouth and Barnsley joint 4th. We’re also 19th for goal-scoring chances created per game with 4.3, and it should be some cause for concern that once again we’re far behind our rivals here; Barnsley and Luton are joint top with 6, and Portsmouth joint 2nd with 5.
This is something Jack Ross has to address and improve if we’re hoping to turn our form around, and a stat that people should remember before writing Charlie Wyke off for his lack of goals.
It’s true that passes and possession don’t win games on their own, and you do have to buy a ticket if you want to win, but things don’t look much better in terms of shots.
Sunderland are currently 16th in League One for average shots per game with 11.8, and only 4.3 average shots on target.
And while it’s as tiring for me to write it as it is to read it, AGAIN Barnsley top the pack with 17.4 average shots and 6 on target, Luton are 5th with 14 and 6.1, and Portsmouth 6th with 14.9 and 5.3.
We still are towards the top for goals from open play, but this is clearly influenced by our early-season form and consistent scoring of at least one goal in games.
For me personally, my previous impression that we’ve been slow, ponderous, predictable and too indirect in possession has been thoroughly supported by looking at these stats. We have to play with more intensity, purpose, and quality or I cannot see how we’ll gain ground on our competitors.
Set pieces - definite room for improvement
Unfortunately but not surprisingly the stats also reveal us to be quite possibly the worst team in League One when it comes to set pieces.
We’re second bottom of the league for set pieces converted to goals with 9, with 3 of these goals being penalties. Only Wimbledon have converted less set pieces with 6, but none of them penalties, matching our non-penalty figure. Despite Barnsley sitting in 19th for this stat, they’ve still scored nearly twice as many as ourselves with 11, and Portsmouth’s 14, and Luton’s 20 further shows we’re missing out on these chances to score goals - especially when you factor in the fact that we’re the most fouled team in League One!
Sunderland aren’t much better when it comes to defending set pieces. We sit at 13th for goals conceded from set pieces with 13, though 3 of these were penalties in fairness.
It’s safe to say we’ve got little chance of matching Luton’s defence of set pieces no matter how much we improve however, as they’ve only conceded one non-penalty goal from a set piece all season!
Is this Jack Ross failing in a core, and very achievable, duty of a manager? I’d say not.
Rather, it seems to me a natural consequence of the clear lack of height and physicality throughout the team that has plagued us for years now. One key stat supports this, that is that we’re also second bottom in the league for aerial challenge win-rate per game with only 45%. In terms of raw numbers rather than percentages we’re right at the bottom when it comes to winning aerial duels with an average of only 30 won per game, the next highest being strugglers Bradford and Scunthorpe with 36.
If we’re not capable of winning balls in open play, what chance have we from set pieces?
This isn’t an article designed to attack the lads or the manager, or undermine any positivity around our league position, but it’s clear when you look at the numbers that the uneasy feeling a lot of fans have at the moment isn’t just natural Mackem misery rearing its head.
The squad is full of talent but we need more of a clear plan going forward, and more intensity and productivity.
In my opinion, as discussed in Roker Roundtable, we’ve become far too tame and predictable in possession and it shows. Hopefully the likes of Leadbitter, Morgan and the returning Honeyman can help us freshen things up and create more chances for Will Grigg to finish.
One thing is for certain, no team in League One has had as good a January transfer window as us. Things can only get better.
All stats courtesy of InStat.