Sunderland have played two games since I last posted something and many of the other League One sides have played three times. So it’s high time we took another dive into the numbers to uncover some information not available in the league table.
Along the way, we’ll ponder on the subject of goal scoring, which appears to be our one remaining weakness.
It’s going pretty well, isn’t it?
Sunderland sit fifth in the League One table on 14 points from six games. Given past experiences in this league, I hesitate to type this, but if we won our game in hand, we’d be second. That would be significant because, in the 88 games we’ve played since arriving in League One, Sunderland have found themselves in the automatic promotion places at the final whistle just six times - and never in top spot.
Over two years later, I think we can all agree that such an underwhelming showing is not what we were hoping for on that sunny afternoon in May 2018, as we soundly defeated Premier League bound Wolves and looked forward to the new dawn.
This season has started well enough, however, to plant a few seeds of the most toxic of fruit for Sunderland fans - hope.
It is indeed going well, but how much better could it be?
Let’s dive into the numbers.
Vs Swindon Town
Parky took his merry band of defensive geniuses on the long trip to Wiltshire on Saturday and came back with a solid 2-0 win thanks to a goal from Charlie Wyke, and a penalty put away by Chris Maguire.
Below are the performance wheels for the two sides.
While Sunderland were able to get two goals and keep a clean sheet, it was not their best offensive performance of the season. However, they did get five shots on target, and if you’re a long term reader of my articles, you will know that five is what I consider to be the minimum required of a serous automatic promotion contender.
Swindon weren’t great, but they were able to offer more threat than Sunderland’s previous opponent - Charlton - who managed zero shots on target and the lowest xG I think I’d seen for a Sunderland opponent - 0.06. The Wiltshire side managed nine shots and although only one was on target, their xG was a more respectable 0.58.
Vs Crewe Alexandra
If the performance against Charlton was ‘dominant’ and the performance against Swindon was ‘solid’, I’m not sure which adjective to use for how things played out against Crewe.
With pretty much just the exception of goals and smart passing (which we know Sunderland don’t do), the offensive performance was overwhelming. Something that is further supported by the near clean sweep of attributes in the defensive half of Crewe’s wheel.
And on the defensive side for Sunderland, we see another excellent showing, again further supported by the absence of offensive ‘spokes’ for Crewe.
The shots and shots on target data from the game show that Sunderland had 19 attempts, six of which were on target. This makes me happy - promotion numbers.
I mentioned previously that Charlton Athletic secured the lowest xG I think I’ve seen for a Sunderland opponent with 0.06. They can thank Crewe for taking that record away from them with just 0.02. This is astonishingly low and stands as a testament to the great shape Phil Parkinson has us in defensively. Especially when you take into account the fact the two of the three first choice centre backs didn’t start, and one of the starters was Luke O’Nien!
For all the dominance, however, only one goal was scored. And it was an own goal. This is a subject I will return to later.
League One as a whole
Below are the performance wheels for every League One side for the season to date.
When we last looked at this, Portsmouth were doing well and improving. Unfortunately for them (and maybe fortunately for us) their performances levels appear to have waned in their last three games though.
Blackpool and MK Dons are having an awful season so far and their performance wheels suggest they should be doing much better. There is probably something interesting going on at those two clubs that I should look at.
Also showing healthy performances are Hull City, Lincoln City and Peterborough. You won’t need me to tell you though, that the healthiest wheel on show is that of Sunderland. We’ll have a closer look at that shortly.
The season is still young and the influence of random events hasn’t had time to fully smooth out. Consequently, there are sides in false positions all through the league table. Likewise, the performance wheels on display above will evolve as more games are played. Then as time passes, the league table will begin to align more with performances, as you would expect.
With that in mind, the table that follows shows the ranking of performances adjusted for the difficulty of the opponents faced.
While MK Dons and Blackpool present a puzzle, you have to be pleased with what the table says about Sunderland.
Below is a closer look at our season performance wheel.
You won’t be surprised to see that Sunderland very nearly have a full set of automatic promotion attributes bagged on the defensive side of the wheel. A result of the remarkable performances we’ve been seeing this season. On the offensive side, however, we are lacking, particularly - and worryingly - in goals.
Why is that?
Creation versus finishing
Sunderland have scored seven goals in six league games this season. Not great, but good enough to have us within in touching distance of the top two with a game in hand. So is there even an issue?
Of our seven goals, two were penalties, one was an own goal, and another resulted from a defensive calamity. Yes there is an element of ‘you’ve got to have the ball in the right places and apply pressure to get those lucky breaks’. But even if I discount the fact Wyke’s goal against Swindon was handed to him on a plate, having just four open play goals from Sunderland players isn’t great.
I had a quick check back through the records for successful promotion sides and their goals per game numbers. The lowest I could find was 1.25, and that was a big outlier. Typically, automatically promoted sides are averaging 1.70 to 2.05 goals per game.
This season so far, Sunderland have averaged 1.17.
That may not be a problem with a defence as good as ours. After all, we have conceded just 0.17 goals per game. I discussed the subject of ‘how many goals are enough’ a couple of weeks ago in this article. Using the same measure I explained there, the rankings look like this.
What’s not to like? Sunderland are streets ahead.
As brilliant as the start to the season has been, with only a single goal conceded from a penalty in six games, I have serious doubts that can continue indefinitely. There is a fine line between 1-0 and 1-1 and my concern is that we will see more of the latter against better opposition and as rival coaching teams and analysts begin to unlock our secrets.
Clearly two goals would be better than one. I can’t see too many sides scoring more than once against us this season.
xG as a concept has its critics, but it is a useful guide to how many goals a side should be scoring whatever those critics might think. Below I present a table ranking the sides in League One from best to worst for ‘xG Quotient’, which is a simple metric that accounts for both ‘xG For’ and ‘xG Against’.
Yet another table that has Sunderland sitting at the top. What this means is that we create a combination of ‘more’ and ‘better’ chances than the rest of the league, while also reducing the frequency and quality of the opposition’s chances.
But... we struggle to score.
As previously mentioned, we average a mere 1.17 goals per game. The ‘xG For’ column above shows roughly how many goals we should be scoring - 1.82 per game!
This tells us we are creating enough chances, that are of a high enough quality, to storm our way to automatic promotion.
Finally, I want to show you the same table, this time sorted by ‘xG Conv’ (a measure of the proportion of expected goals that are turned into actual goals).
What this shows is that Sunderland are the worst side in League One for turning quality goal scoring chances into goals. In other words, the finishing is woefully poor.
For the sake of the automatic promotion, there must be more quality up front.