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The Stat Man: An update on the league’s ‘underlying data’ - what does it say about Sunderland?

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The Stat Man is back to talk about League One’s ‘underlying data’ and what it suggests about Sunderland’s performance this season under both Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson. It’s another fascinating read!

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

Back when I started writing for Roker Report, and had no idea how well a ‘nerdy stats’ article would be received by the Sunderland-supporting public, I introduced some alternative league tables that provide insight on aspects of performance of every team in League One, without ‘points’ coming into play.

Over time, the approach of using alternative tables developed into the production of attacking and defensive plots that encapsulated the available information and visualised it in what is hopefully an easy to digest way. Then, in my more recent articles, I have become increasingly abstract as I reduced the number of dimensions yet further into single plots and numbers with increasingly tenuous connections to real world concepts.

As much as I enjoy reducing a ton of information to a single plot or table for efficient digestion, some of the fine detail is lost. So for today, I want to update you on the alternative league tables I started with back in September.

I suspect those alternative league tables more or less represent the “underlying data” that was considered when Jack Ross was relieved of his duties in October. It’s certainly worth seeing how the same data looks now with 13 games of the season left to play.

I’ve broken the tables into three sections covering possession, attacking and defending. In each, the whole of Sunderland’s season is highlighted in black, while the period during which Ross was in charge is green and for Parkinson I have used red.


Possession

Possession, in itself, isn’t all that important. At least not in League One. What you do with it, though, is of vital importance.

Looking at the leftmost table, we can see that, under Jack Ross, Sunderland tended to have just under 51% of possession on average. Since Phil Parkinson’s arrival that number has increased to 54.5%. And for the season overall (games managed by both men) the result is 52.8%. As I implied above, though, this is not all that important or interesting.

It is worth giving Wycombe a mention, however. Throughout this season, they have occupied bottom spot in this table. They just aren’t interested in having the ball and prefer to play for set pieces. It’s such a strange way to approach the game, but you have to give some credit to Gareth Ainsworth. I don’t think they will finish this season in the play off positions, but he’s getting results way in excess of what most would expect of them with this weird setup.

The middle table is ‘possession effectiveness’. As its title suggests, it is a measure of how effective a team is in possession in terms of chance creation. Some examples worth highlighting are Peterborough, who tend to have 50% of possession and create lots of chances so occupy top spot as a result. Then in fourth place are Wycombe who, as we already discussed, have very little possession, yet, from that small amount of possession, create a disproportionately high number of chances.

At the other end of the scale are Rochdale. They are a ‘possession team’. Unfortunately for them, however, they create little with that possession and hence have the lowest score for possession effectiveness. We should not look down our noses too much at Rochdale though. Under the guidance of Phil Parkinson, Sunderland are only a little better. We are, I’m afraid, relatively ineffective in possession when it comes to creating chances.

Now let’s discuss the good news. The table on the right gives a score for how many chances each team gives away to their opposition considering their possession. Only Gillingham and Fleetwood are better than Sunderland over the whole season and only Fleetwood can better Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland. This is the first of a few bits of positive evidence, regarding our formidable defence, that we’ll discuss shortly.

Now let’s move on to the attacking side of the game.


Attacking

The table on the left provides attacking effectiveness. You can think of this as being the average number of shots on target per game. If you know me, you will know that I bang on a lot about the importance of shots on target for promotion chasing teams. And the fact that all three 2019/20 versions of Sunderland sit in the bottom half of this table is a concern for me and has been all season.

As a rule of thumb, automatically promoted teams average five or more shots on target per game. Sunderland’s scores of 3.64, 3.58 and 3.55 all fall well short of that. It’s no accident that top four in this table are four of the main challengers for automatic promotion this season (along with us of course).

In the middle, we have a table titled ‘attacking quality’. This is the proportion of shots on target that result in a goal. An average League One side will score from 33% of their shots on target. So the fact Ross’ Sunderland were scoring from 40% was very good. Sadly, under Parkinson, this has dropped a little to 36.6% resulting in an overall average for the season of just under 38%. This still relatively high score is one of the reasons we’re near the top of the league despite not creating enough.

The ultimate measure of how well your attack is doing is of course the number of goals they score. This data is given in the rightmost table. With a result of 1.355 goals per game and 12th place in the table, I’m afraid Sunderland’s attack is decidedly average. If only we could fix that...


Defending

If there has been one defining characteristic of Sunderland in recent weeks, it has been their formidable defence. How good are they though? Let’s see.

Sunderland, over the season as a whole, do not actually have the best defence in the league in terms of preventing the opposition from getting shots on target. Coventry and Fleetwood are both better. But if I look at Parkinson’s time in isolation, only Fleetwood are better. Giving away so few shots on target to the opposition is certainly a big piece of the promotion winning jigsaw.

If it’s so important, then why aren’t Fleetwood doing as well as Sunderland? The answer can be found in the centre table. Over the season as a whole, and particularly under the management of Phil Parkinson, we have the best goalkeeping in the league. Big Jon (with some help from Lee Burge) has kept out 73% of shots on target over the whole season - and a very impressive 79% since Parky arrived. Fleetwood, on the other hand, concede from 42% of accurate shots. The smart money would be on a low scoring victory when we play them next weekend.

Finally, the rightmost table gives the number of goals conceded per game. I’m not sure what more there is to add. Parkinson’s 0.6 goals per game is staggeringly good. And if I were to only look at the period from Boxing Day until now, the number is 0.42 per game. That’s just ridiculous!

Lastly, I just want to round off with two plots that give much of the information discussed above in a graphical format. This time I’m leaving out the separation of Ross and Parkinson though.


Attacking Plot

Ideally, Sunderland’s datapoint would be well away from the red relegation ellipse and we’d be keeping Rotherham and Peterborough company at the top right. But unfortunately our lack of chance creation means that is well out of our reach now.


Defensive Plot

In contrast to the attacking plot, check out the best defensive team in League One.

Maybe, just maybe, our exceptional defence will provide a path along which we can grind our way nervously to promotion.