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‘What do the stats say?’ - Joey Barton’s jibes at Sunderland’s style are well wide of the mark

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Joey Barton argued that his side played “much better football” than Sunderland, and that Phil Parkinson’s team play “punt football”. Here are the stats that highlight the plethora of inaccuracies in those statements.

Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

You’d rather come and pay to watch us than pay to watch them, we play much better football.

Those were the words of Joey Barton in the wake of Tuesday evening’s draw with Sunderland thanks to a last-gasp Max Power equaliser.

The Fleetwood manager then went onto note that:

They’re playing punt football - two big lads up there in [Kyle] Lafferty and [Charlie] Wyke, who they’ve paid more for than our total budget - and they’re just banging balls at them.”

We’ve got to take real pride that Sunderland AFC, three years ago in the Premier League, have just celebrated drawing with little old Fleetwood Town in their own stadium like it was a World Cup final victory.

But, truthfully, do Barton’s claims hold any kind of truth?

Sunderland v Fleetwood Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“We play much better football”

Barton could perhaps have made the argument that his side played a more effective brand of football due to the fact that despite only managing 38% possession of the ball in the first half, and then 42% in the second half, his side did manage more shots on target during the game with 4 attempts testing McLaughlin compared to Sunderland’s meagre effort of 2 shots on target.

Furthermore, with limited possession, Barton’s side did manage to complete 4 of their 7 attempted key passes, which is pretty impressive when you consider the fact that Sunderland managed 5 successful key passes from 9 attempts despite having the lion’s share of possession.

However, almost every other statistic measuring the two sides’ play suggests that Sunderland were a far superior team with the ball.

In terms of passing, Sunderland attempted 644 passes during their encounter with Fleetwood, and completed 517 of them for a completed percentage of 80%. Barton’s side managed to complete 264 of their attempted 366 passes for a completion rate of 72%.

I’ll discuss Barton’s “punt football” comments shortly, but Sunderland were just better than Fleetwood at moving the ball around the park, which was also the case when we drew with his side at the beginning of the year as Sunderland completed 404/504 passes (80%), versus Fleetwood's 213/306 (70%).

Again, Fleetwood could make the argument that they played the kind of game a visiting side should play against good opposition; however, they also didn’t play like a dominant home team in the reverse fixture, so to suggest they play “better football” is seemingly a myth.

Additionally, Sunderland also made more passes into the opponent’s penalty area with 20 successful attempts from 54 (37%). Fleetwood, however, managed 6 successes in 16 attempts (38%). Sunderland crossed the ball with more frequency with 7 successful crosses from 31 attempts (23%) versus Fleetwood’s 1 successful cross from 4 attempts (25%). You could argue that perhaps Fleetwood were more effective with the ball when analysing completion percentages, but to suggest that Fleetwood play better football is nonsensical.

The final and perhaps most damning statistic is the fact that with 62% of possession, Sunderland managed 174 passes into the opposition’s final third from 252 attempts (69%), but Barton’s men managed less than a third of that number with 54 successful passes into the final third from 108 tries (50%).

Simply put: Sunderland played the better football, not Fleetwood. If Joey Barton had praised his team for completing an effective away performance, then the claim would have some validity, but to suggest his side play “better football” just doesn’t hold true.

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

“They’re playing punt football”

There will be breadth in this section of discussion, but there’s a really simple statistic that completely cripples Barton’s claim.

In terms of long passes (passes over 40 metres) recorded during Tuesday evening’s game, Sunderland attempted 48, 30 of which were successful (68%). Amusingly, Fleetwood tried 57 long passes with 33 of them finding their intended target (58%).

So, in reality, Fleetwood actually played more punt football than Sunderland. In fact, if you boil down Sunderland’s longer passing as a percentage of overall passing (48/644), you’ll find that long passes make up around 7% of our play. Fleetwood, on the other hand were more than twice as likely to go long with around 16% of their passes measuring over 40 metres (57/366).

In total, Sunderland managed 115 attacks (crossing half-way with possession of the ball), with 15 of those attacks resulting in a shot (13%). Fleetwood managed 76 attacks with only 7 resulting in shots (9%). This number combined with the fact that Charlie Wyke only won 5 of his 12 aerial duels (42%), and Kyle Lafferty won 3 of 6 (50%) doesn’t lend any kind of credence to the claim that Sunderland play “punt football”.

Instead, as you can see from the frequent passing combinations map posted below, Sunderland look to be a cautious side that like to move the ball across the pitch in search of space out wide, where key players can look to make things happen.

In conclusion, as many fans likely suspected, Barton’s comments seem to be throwaway lines soured by his side’s inability to hold onto what would have been a huge win for Fleetwood.

Frequent passing combinations - Sunderland vs. Fleetwood (Feb 25th, 2020).
InStat