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The Stat Man: Sunderland’s huge striker problem, and why it is time for a change

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What does the data tell us? That the time has come to abandon the failed Wyke experiment and give Kyle Lafferty his chance in the team if we’re serious about achieving automatic promotion.

Coventry City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

In the summer of 2018, Lyle Taylor very nearly signed for Sunderland. I am convinced that, had that deal not fallen through (some say over a hotel bill), we would now be playing in the Championship. But fall through it did, and the recruitment team were forced to set their sights elsewhere.

The result was the signing of 25-year-old Charlie Wyke on a permanent deal from Bradford City. On the surface, this seemed like a solid bit of business, the lad had a goal scoring record of one every 2.4 games with Carlisle between 2015 and 2017 and one every 2.5 games with Bradford. As the fans adjusted to life in the third tier, his signing seemed like the right thing to do. Someone strong and dependable who’ll bring in a goal every two or three games. Good “at this level”.

Nineteen months later, the fans have seen a relatively poor return from the man who, you may recall, was touted as a marquee signing in that summer of 2018.

Also in that time, the fans have seen the departure of Josh Maja, who looked set to break some League One scoring records; the arrival of a nailed on top quality striker in Will Grigg; and a parade of loan signings.

It’s been an eventful nineteen months up front at Sunderland resulting in a long list of strikers wearing the read and white stripes - Charlie Wyke, Josh Maja, Jerome Sinclair, Will Grigg, Marc McNulty and Kazaiah Sterling.

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

Everyone, including the Sunderland recruitment team, could be forgiven for assuming there were goals coming from those players. The reality is, however, that only one of them delivered a suitable return. In almost two seasons, the combined efforts of Wyke, Sinclair, Grigg, McNulty and Sterling have delivered a total of 17 league goals.

That’s 17 goals in 80 league games from five strikers.

On the other hand, before his departure to Bordeaux, Maja played 24 league games of the 2018/19 campaign and in that time he scored 15 goals.

All the other strikers combined - in almost two seasons - have scored two more goals than Maja did in half a season. That is a very big problem. Huge in fact. And we haven’t come remotely close to solving it.

Of those listed, only Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke remain at the club. Grigg (the most expensive third tier signing ever) has been largely out of the picture since Wyke returned from his latest injury and Phil Parkinson dropped him from the squad. At that time, fans were hopeful that, after the perpetually disastrous return from Grigg, this time, Wyke would deliver the goods. The one goal in two or three return needed by every promotion chasing side might actually come.

Alas, there was no transformation in form. In swapping Grigg for Wyke, we simply went from one non-goal scoring striker to another. The drought has continued.

Over recent weeks, the message seemed to change regarding Wyke’s role in the team. Justification for his continued selection shifted from expectation that he would score goals, to expectation that he would be the target man. His role was to win the challenges, hold the ball, and provide service for his partner forwards, Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire. And yes, hopefully still chip in with some goals.

Sunderland’s omnipresent goal scoring problems and these altered expectations of Wyke prompted me to do a deep dive into the data from League One strikers to see:

  1. How our two main strikers measure up against the rest of the league.
  2. How well Wyke is doing as a non-goal scoring target man.

Put on your thick, black-rimmed glasses - we’re going full data-nerd on this one.

There will be some debate over whether a forward player is a striker or not. The data behind this article is courtesy of the nice people at InStat and it is their determination of whether a player is a striker or not that I have gone with.

Oxford United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Round of 16 Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Goals

We might as well start with goals. After all, that’s supposedly the fundamental requirement of a striker. I provide here a scatter plot of shots at goal and shots on target for every striker used in League One this season.

This, and every scatter plot that follows, shows a crowded picture, so in order to make things a little easier for you, I have highlighted our two main strikers (Grigg and Wyke) in red and also included the now departed McNulty (green) and, just for the hell of it, Boyce (burgundy) who we might have signed in January.

What you see is shots along the x-axis and shots on target on the y-axis. To explain as simply as I can, if a datapoint is toward the top-right of the plot, that’s a very busy striker who is having lots of shots at goal every game and is accurate with most of those shots. A datapoint toward the bottom-left represents a striker who isn’t really delivering much in the way of shots, accurate or otherwise.

We can only look on jealously at Peterborough and Rotherham who have Ivan Toney and Freddie Ladapo positioned perfectly at the top right. Then at the other end there is Eddie Brown of Bolton Wanderers. And Sunderland fans will not be at all surprised to see James Vaughan (now thankfully of Tranmere) keeping Brown company.

Most importantly from our point of view, we see first that Grigg is unfortunately occupying a position at the bottom left. Meaning that he is more James Vaughan than Ivan Toney. Wyke fairs a little better, in a position about a third of the way up. Then there is McNulty, keeping the likes of Dembele and Nuttall company. And finally, there is the one that got away - Boyce, who enjoys a place in the same quarter of the plot as Norwood, Ladapo and Toney.

At this point, I want to introduce to you to a notion that I will continue to use for the rest of this article - for each attribute of a striker’s game they can be considered as one of ‘poor’, ‘mediocre’, ‘good’ and ‘elite’.

Using our shooting plot to illustrate, I interpret what is shown as follows:

  1. Vaughan, Brown, Jade-Jones are rated ‘poor’ for shooting.
  2. Wyke and McNulty lie comfortably in the most dense part of the data, thus indicating that they are ‘mediocre’ shooters.
  3. Cummings, Clarke-Harris, Evans and Boyce (the one that got away), are ‘good’ at shooting.
  4. Norwood, Toney and Ladapo are the ‘elite’.

Being elite at some aspect of the game is not only important in that it separates you from the pack in a scatter plot. It is an essential quality of a player that creates problems for opposition defenders.

League One defences can handle the poor and the mediocre easily. It’s ‘meat and potatoes’ for them to stifle the shooting game of the group up to and including, say, Mandron. The next group (which includes Boyce and Clarke-Harris) is more difficult for them to deal with. The poorer League One sides might struggle against them but the better defences will keep them quiet. Then finally there are the elite. Any League One defence will need to be on top of their game to keep those lads quiet. Ladapo, Norwood and Toney are a handful for League One defenders.

A top League One striker needs to have something in his game at which he is elite. We have looked so far at shooting only, and three players showed themselves to be in that category - Ladapo, Norwood and Toney. They go on the list of strikers who have something elite about their game.

Getting back to the main thrust now; the information contained in the shooting scatter plot can by reduced to a single dimension to provide a ranking for every striker. The results of this make the data a little easier to interpret and are as follows:

We see confirmation that our elite group of Norwood, Ladapo and Toney lead the way. The Boyce lad looks decent too. Unfortunately for Sunderland, however, Wyke and Grigg rank 51st and 66th respectively.

Next we examine finishing - how well does each striker do with getting the shot on target and putting it beyond the keeper?

I’m afraid Grigg is in the poor category while Wyke and McNulty are firmly in mediocre territory. Boyce is somewhere on the borderline of ‘mediocre’ and ‘good’ and Taylor, Ladapo, Toney and Forss stand out as elite.

In table format, the rankings for finishing are as follows:

Neither Wyke nor Grigg make it inside the top 50 for either shooting or finishing. If there is an ‘elite’ attribute in their games, it’s not their ability to stick the ball in the onion bag. Or even to cause problems in front of the goal.

Getting out of League One is hard enough as it is. Trying to do it without a striker who scores goals is just making it way more difficult than it needs to be.


Target Men

The fact the preceding charts and tables revealed that our strikers don’t score goals will come as a surprise to no-one, including Phil Parkinson. The way Sunderland set up, however, means that we don’t necessarily need them to score. It won’t have escaped your notice that most of our goals come from Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire. Both are excellent on their day but neither is an out and out striker.

As I alluded to previously, we seem to have come to accept that Charlie Wyke isn’t going to score goals and his role has morphed into being that of a target man feeding Gooch and Maguire, who have been asked to ‘be nines in and around the box’.

With these altered expectations of Wyke in mind, I’ll next examine aspects of the game you might hope a line-leading target man could excel at; starting with key passing.

A key pass is one which leads indirectly to a goal scoring opportunity. I think it’s fair to suggest a target man should provide a good number of such passes to his attacking colleagues.

Some strikers who are elite at this are Akinfenwa, Roberts of Gillingham and Vassell at Rotherham. Boyce ranks well too - not far off elite status.

Wyke is at the bottom end of mediocre, along with McNulty. Grigg, on the other hand, is on the edge of the poor category.

The tabular rankings for key passes are as follows:

If we want to find an aspect of Wyke’s game at which he is a problem-causing elite, we’re going to need to continue looking.

How about assists? You’d expect a line-leading target man with not just one but two ‘number nines’ feeding off him to get plenty of assists?

The one true elite here is Siriki Dembélé at Peterborough. I haven’t looked directly at the data, so this is an assumption on my part, but I imagine he has had a big part to play in Ivan Toney’s success this season.

McNulty gets a special mention because, for the first time, we see a Sunderland player with a very good result. He may not have played a whole lot but he certainly seemed to have a knack for an assist. But Grigg and Wyke again disappoint.

Now the rankings.

Wyke is the 54th best assist provider among League One strikers. Still no luck in finding the essential elite aspect of his game.

Next up, it’s passes into the box.

You want the support player to your number nine to provide some intelligent balls into the box. Mitchell Pinnock at Wimbledon and Josh Parker at Wycombe are both elite at this. Unfortunately for us, once again, neither of our strikers rank well. In fact, Wyke is at the bottom end of mediocre and Grigg is, once again, poor.

Staying in ‘target man’ territory but taking a slight change in direction, I will now examine challenges. If there’s one thing you want from a big, strong, line-leading target man, it’s the ability to commit to, and win, challenges in attacking areas.

First I’ll discuss all types of challenges (in attacking areas) before the all important aerial challenges in isolation.

The elite are Mandron, Akinfenwa and Akinde. Mandron, who many of you will be familiar with, is the top performer. Who would have predicted that our paths would cross again in league games when he was released on a free to go to Eastleigh in 2016?

Grigg and Boyce are in the mediocre pack and I am pleased to observe that Wyke is on the borderline of mediocre and good. Clearly, however, challenging for the ball wasn’t McNulty’s game!

Now the rankings.

The top 15 for Charlie Wyke - a good result, but not elite.

How does he score for aerial challenges?

Again, Mikael Mandron leads the field. And again, Charlie Wyke does quite well, occupying a position towards the top end of mediocre - damned by faint praise.

For all types of challenges in attacking areas, and aerial challenges in particular, Charlie Wyke does fairly well. But is ‘fairly well’ good enough when you’re a striker who doesn’t score goals? There are, after all, fifteen strikers better than him in the air and he is certainly not ‘elite’.

The referee’s whistle provides a soundtrack to every day at the office for the average target man. They are regularly either giving away free kicks or gaining them. You obviously want your target man to minimise the former and maximise the latter. How do the strikers stack up in that respect?

This time, a datapoint being towards the top-left is ideal. Strikers like Dembele, for example, are gaining a lot of free kicks whilst giving few away. On the other hand, a datapoint at the bottom-right is bad. Akinfenwa is one of the main bad boys but our man Charlie Wyke isn’t too far behind. McNulty and Grigg neither gain, nor give away, many free kicks.

The ranking is a little less obvious visually in the plot this time, so here it is in tabular form.

Dembele can add the fact he is elite at gaining free kicks for Peterborough to his elite status as an ‘assister’. He’s a dangerous player.

Wyke often has two markers and he gets some very rough treatment with little protection from the referees. More often than not, even though he is being fouled himself, the free kick will be given against him. This is reflected in his position in 59th. It’s a bruising and unjust life as a target man in League One.

There are other attributes expected of a line-leading target man, not least of which is the ability to hold while waiting for support or spotting the run and playing the perfect lay off or through ball. However, I have reached the limit of the data I have available and that I feel comfortable applying as a measure of ‘target man effectiveness’.

But there is more data available and I want to use that in a final section to measure each striker’s ‘general footballing effectiveness’.


General Footballing Effectiveness

Here I examine aspects of the game that are vital to being a good footballer but are not necessarily directly a part of the make up of a ‘number nine’ or a target man. The areas covered are general passing (not important passes or assists), tackling, dribbling and finally, interceptions and picking up loose balls.

The elite are Akins, Mandron and Cox. Boyce is good and Wyke, McNulty and Grigg are all mediocre passers of the ball.

Here are the same results in table format.

We see that Wyke and Grigg are ranked 36th and 57th respectively among their League One striking peers for passing.

While not traditionally something you expect a striker to be doing a lot of, tackling is a useful skill to have, especially if you can retain the ball afterwards. Boyce is good at tackling. Akinfenwa certainly isn’t! And it’s not really Grigg or Wyke’s game either. Roberts, on the other hand, is tackling elite, as is confirmed in the table below.

Everyone loves a good dribble, especially that man Dembele.

Outstanding again from the Peterborough forward. To the surprise of no-one, however, Wyke and Grigg are both at the bottom end of mediocre.

Being a nuisance is a good thing as a player. Putting yourself about, intercepting passes and picking up loose balls is handy for the team. You’re breaking up attacking play or converting a free ball into possession which may lead to a chance. Who is good at that?

Using a scatter plot generally suggests there is a relationship to be observed between the variable on the x-axis and that on the y-axis. In this case, such a relationship is loose at best. I use a scatter plot here just as a handy way to present a large amount of data in a small space. With that said, however, I could argue that the closer to the top-right of the plot a datapoint is, the ‘busier’ or, the ‘more of a nuisance’, the striker.

Pinnock certainly stays busy. As do Cox, Akins and Andrew.

The less said about Wyke and Grigg, the better.


Pulling it all together

As previously mentioned, for a striker to be a truly effective ‘problem-causer’, he needs to have something ‘elite’ in his game. Something that sets him apart from the pack. Something that gives League One defenders a big problem to deal with. Without that, you have ‘meat and potato’ defenders doing ‘meat and potato’ defending against ‘meat and potato’ strikers.

I have listed below those strikers who have something about them that is elite (in no particular order) together with the attributes of their games that are elite:

  1. Toney - shooting, finishing.
  2. Ladapo - shooting, finishing.
  3. Norwood - shooting.
  4. Taylor - finishing.
  5. Gnanduillet - finishing.
  6. Roberts - key passing, tackling.
  7. Vassell - key passing.
  8. Akinfenwa - key passing, challenging, aerial challenging.
  9. Dembele - assisting, gaining free kicks, dribbling.
  10. Pinnock - passing into the box, interceptions and picking up loose balls.
  11. Parker - passing into the box.
  12. Mandron - challenging, aerial challenging, general passing.
  13. Akinde - challenging, aerial challenging.
  14. Cook - aerial challenging.
  15. Akins - general passing.
  16. Cox - general passing, interceptions and picking up loose balls.

That’s a list of sixteen League One strikers who have one or more aspects to their game that causes serious problems for all League One defences - not just the poor ones. Most notable for Sunderland fans is that neither Grigg nor Wyke appear in the list. Dealing with them is pretty run of the mill stuff. And that is abundantly clear from their very poor goal and assist returns.

Regarding Wyke in particular, if we accepted a few weeks ago that he doesn’t score goals, then we had every right to expect him to be better than mediocre as a target man. He isn’t. He has failed.

So what next?

Sunderland need to be promoted this season and last Sunday’s defeat away to Coventry has multiplied the pressure on a side who have struggled to create in front of goal for well over a year. Teams do not achieve automatic promotion with strikers who, not only do not score goals, but also have nothing ‘elite’ about their game to cause problems for opposition defenders.

Kyle Lafferty may or may not possess one of the elite attributes, but if we’re serious about wanting automatic promotion, we must give him his chance now.

The time has come to abandon the failed Wyke experiment.

PS - Keep your eyes on Mandron on Saturday. The data says he is an exceptional target man who will cause us a lot of problems.