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The Stat Man: Sunderland’s striker problem - how many goals could Wyke score for other teams?

Who is truly the best striker in League One? And, how many goals would Sunderland striker Charlie Wyke have at this point if he played for all the other teams in the division? The Stat Man investigates...

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

I recently published an article on Sunderland’s striker problem. In it, I examined a range of aspects of performance of each forward in League One and described how Sunderland’s main strikers, Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke, compared against their peers.

The conclusion I reached was that the time had come for Kyle Lafferty to be given his chance to start. Entirely coincidentally I’m sure, Lafferty started the next game due to Wyke carrying an injury. And although I wasn’t expecting goals from the big man, he produced a very welcome brace in the home draw to Fleetwood. I had almost forgotten what it was like to see a striker score goals.

Goals are what matters. They win games. They win points. And if you score enough of them often enough, they eventually win promotions. But strikers don’t operate in isolation. Their success depends on the team around them as well as their own ability. My previous article looked only at striker performance. This time I want to look deeper and examine the combined considerations of striker and team performance.

The best striker in League One this season is Ivan Toney, right?

A look at the goal scoring table below certainly seems to confirm this.

But what if we take into account the amount of time played? Just the absolute number of goals scored doesn’t incorporate the amount of time on the pitch available to the player.

Here are the number of goals scored for every 90 minutes (not every game) spent on the field.

Some names remain, but there are new names in the list and those that remained have changed order. Ivan Toney loses his place at the top to Marcus Forss (more on him later) and Matt Taylor (Oxford) and Offrande Zanzala (Accrington) make an appearance.

I could continue to produce tables like this in which I rank players by their shots on target and their finishing, but that would be repeating some of what I showed you here. What we’re really interested in this time is how a striker performs in his environment.

What better place to begin examining a player’s ‘environment’ than looking at the league position of the club he plays for. I know it makes painful viewing for Sunderland fans currently, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to show you the top of League One.

I’m used to Sunderland being the club with an abundance of games in hand to make a mess of, but on this occasion it’s every other team that have games in hand on us. We need to correct for that by obtaining the points per game table.

If you can stand to look at it for long enough, you will see that Coventry are sitting pretty with a clear lead at the top. Only Covid-19 can stop them now. On the other hand, Sunderland are a disappointing 8th with a points per game figure of 1.64. Interestingly, no team this season is hitting the benchmark 2.00 points per game average generally expected of an automatically promoted team.

The main point, however, is that Coventry are the best side in League One and Sunderland are the 8th best. One can infer from this that Matt Godden has a better environment than Charlie Wyke in which to thrive.

I’m in the fortunate position of having access to some pretty good data from InStat that enables me to create the articles I provide here on Roker Report. Included in the data are some 250 attributes of performance of each League One side. That provides 5,750 individual inputs that update after every match played.

It’s possible to get a rough impression of how a side performs based on their points per game, but it’s not until you get into the nitty gritty of the 250 attributes that you begin to see the real picture.

I try to entertain and inform with my articles. I keep them at a high level because I appreciate there is limited tolerance for talk of singular value decomposition, eigenvectors, principal component analysis and the like. The majority of the time I also leave out discussion of variance (I’ve seen comments about this and those people are correct).

With the need to do some ‘techie stuff’ to 5,750 datapoints and my need to keep some information to myself for reasons that might become clear in the future, I’m going to ask you to forgive me for ‘arm waving’ my way from the points per game table to the next bit...


What If...

Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg could be forgiven for thinking I gave them a rough ride in my previous article. After all, as I already alluded to, striker performance is a product of, not only the performance of the striker himself, but also of the team in which he plays.

It would be very interesting to learn how many goals Charlie Wyke might have scored had he been playing for, say, Coventry. How well might he have done if his environment was as conducive to goal scoring as that of Matt Godden?

Well I can tell you that if he had played every minute of every game for Coventry this season, he might have scored nine goals so far. For Rotherham, he might have scored 11 goals. For Bolton, only five.

Here is a table showing how many goals Wyke might have scored for each League One club had he played every minute of every game for them.

So, to those critics who say Wyke would contribute more with better service in a better system, there is your vindication. There are six clubs for whom he would score more goals.

If we can estimate how many goals our striker might score for other clubs, we can also estimate how many goals their strikers might score for us. Using Matt Godden as the example again, had he played every minute of every Sunderland game, he might have scored 19 goals so far. Liam Boyce might have scored 14 times.

What about the other strikers? Let’s see.

It’s no surprise to see Ivan Toney near the top but it’s informative to learn that he would have scored fewer goals for Sunderland than he has for Peterborough. Further evidence - as if it were needed - that would don’t create enough. And what a signing Armand Gnanduillet would have been last summer. His 23 goals could have seen us sitting pretty at the top of League One.

It won’t have escaped your notice that there is a striking outlier. The data and the algorithm predict that Marcus Forss might have scored 32 times for Sunderland so far this season. Something went wrong, surely?

No. Forss is 20. He’s a Brentford player who spent the first half of the season on loan at AFC Wimbledon. He played 18 league games for them and score 11 goals in that time. That’s 11 goals in 18 games for a 20 year old striker in a poor team.

He’s back at Brentford now as a fringe player, and he’s certainly someone the data clearly suggests we should try to get on loan - if we’re still in this awful league - next season.

How did Brentford unearth such a gem? They operate a data driven recruitment system which will see them safely to the Premier League soon.

As for Wyke, there are 48 League One strikers who might have scored more goals in this Sunderland side.