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The Stat Man: How has the promotion run-in changed after the last week of League One action?

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The volatile movements of the teams atop the League One summit make for some interesting reading once you crunch the figures - but after a rather disappointing week, how does that leave us Sunderland fans feeling?

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

Most agreed the two games in the last week were huge for Sunderland’s season - pivotal in fact. Do well, and we were likely to ride a wave of momentum all the way to automatic promotion.

So it was written in the stars that we would do the Sunderland thing and make a complete mess of it. Even the smiliest of ‘happy clappers’ would agree that we cocked it up badly. At the end of what could have been a week that provided the springboard for automatic promotion, we’re all feeling far more deflated than elated.

Now we must move on and look ahead to the remaining weeks of the season with an altered perspective. The momentum and much of the good feeling might be gone, but does there remain reason to be hopeful? Let’s find out.


It was another week of mixed results for the main automatic promotion contenders. Portsmouth picked up six points, Coventry four, Rotherham two, while Peterborough and Sunderland picked up a point each.

Let’s start our analysis of the data with our regular look at the season and the league as a whole.

Adding a single round of games to this plot doesn’t make an obvious difference. As the pool of data increases, the influence one can expect from the addition of a little more data diminishes. But I like to include this because it gives you a flavour of the season as a whole.

Next we’ll have a closer look at the bottom left of the plot so the picture of the business end is a little clearer.

Remembering that this plot covers the season as a whole (and when you consider how awful results were from October to the end of December) it’s easy to understand why Sunderland lag a little behind the better teams.

It’s also interesting to see Wycombe coming back into the picture and Oxford getting right back in among the leaders.

As informative as the entire season plots are, what we really want to know is what run of form the teams are having in the here and now. This is where the ten-game performance plots become useful. Firstly, here is the ten-game form for the whole league.

It was a poor week for us and this reflected in the fact Sunderland are no longer the closest side to the bottom left corner of the plot. In such a competitive promotion race, one poor result would have perhaps been tolerable, but there is no getting away from the fact that two bad results in a week has been damaging.

Here is a closer look, including the change in positions since we last conducted this exercise prior to the Fleetwood game.

The arrows show the change in position from prior to last Tuesday’s games. A move down or left is good, but a move up or right is bad.

This week’s big winners were Portsmouth with their two solid wins. The biggest loser was Sunderland, as is reflected by their arrow indicating a big move up and right. Interestingly, Oxford have now made a reappearance as a contender having fully recovered from the awful run they were on earlier in the year.

By reducing the plot to a single dimension of data that gives the ‘distance’ of each team’s datapoint from the bottom left corner, it’s possible to generate a performance league table that ranks the sides from best to worst based on their last ten games.

Having topped the ranking a week ago, two poor performances and results have seen us drop to third in the ten-game performance table - just ahead of Coventry.

Until this week, I felt confident that the favourites in the chase for the two automatic promotion spots were Sunderland, Peterborough, Rotherham, Coventry and Portsmouth. I’m now tempted to add Oxford United and Fleetwood to the mix and I will review the situation going forward. If they continue to look like contenders after the weekend, I will certainly add them to the list for consideration.

With that said, let’s update the run ins for the current automatic promotion favourites. Just as I did previously, each team’s remaining opposition have been combined to a single datapoint and plotted on the overall performance chart.

Changes in this plot happen in several ways:

  1. Sides get ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ games out of the way (for example, we played two of our harder games in the past week).
  2. The remaining opponents for each promotion chasing side have changes in form.
  3. The promotion chasing sides have their own fluctuations in form.

Consequently, due to this complexity, the positions of the datapoints for the sides and their remaining opponents constantly drift. That’s what keeps this measure of the run in interesting.

Looking at the opponents’ datapoints in isolation, it’s clear that Peterborough have the easiest run, in absolute terms. Then come Sunderland, followed by Rotherham then Coventry. Finally, Portsmouth have the hardest set of opponents. But this isn’t the full picture.

The difficulty of a run in is also determined by how well the promotion chasing side is performing (see the table above), hence it is relative rather than absolute. So ‘run in difficulty’ is determined by calculating the ‘distance’ between a team and its opponents on the performance plot. I know it seems abstract, but trust me on this.

The results are as follows.

Taking into account performances and results in the past week, the data now says Peterborough have the easiest run in, where previously it was Sunderland. So even though we have played two of our most difficult remaining opponents, the poor performances and results have cost us more than just dropped points. Our remaining opponents got easier, but our formed dipped by an almost equal amount.

The values in the change column give a measure of the change in run in difficulty from a week ago. Positive values indicate that the run in got easier, and negative values mean it got harder. For Sunderland and Rotherham, the difficulty of the run in stayed roughly the same. While for Coventry, Portsmouth and Peterborough, it got easier. Very much easier in the case of Peterborough.

Despite the poor week just gone, the fight is definitely still not over. Sunderland are certainly capable of winning most of their remaining games and making a final push. However, Coventry, Rotherham and Portsmouth all have more points on the board currently. We could still go up automatically, but it will require no further cock-ups and a slip-up or two above us.

Squeaky bum time isn’t over just yet.