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Having no fans in the SOL is harming Sunderland’s promotion chances - and the stats back it up

Not having Sunderland fans in the Stadium of Light is harming our ability to get promoted - something shown in the statistics. We’re headed for a play-off spot... without fans at games, what can Johnson do to improve our form?

Sunderland v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

After 25 games - and several ups and downs - we are going to look at where Sunderland really do lie, and see if the numbers are giving any indication of where we’re headed.

We should perhaps start with Phil Parkinson, then, and his record before his departure.

Parky’s Sunderland - Destined for the Play-Offs!

Played: 13 - Won: 6 - Drew: 5 - Lost: 2

Parky won 46% of the games he managed in 20/21, averaging 1.77 points per game (PPG). This record in itself is actually not so bad.

Based on the last five seasons of data, to get automatically promoted to the Championship you require a PPG of 1.98 on average (91 points in a 46 game season).

For further context, I have also included Sunderland in 18/19 and 19/20 (in grey) to show our general performance. There is a balance here, as each season has different windows for promotion. Sunderland under PP (Red) match Rotherham in 19/20, who are the worst team to achieve automatic promotion by PPG. And for many Sunderland fans, 19/20 season should always come with an asterisk beside it, due to the season being cut short.

What does this all mean though?

Well to put it simply, under Parkinson, Sunderland did not win enough games. The PPG benefits teams who win games more - something that we don’t do enough. We will explain that later. Overall though, Sunderland are a playoff-based football team based on results.

The graph above shows Sunderland in with the playoff winners from the previous five seasons (Blue). What’s interesting is that under Parkinson, Sunderland had the 2nd highest record against playoff winners. Our 18/19 campaign may count itself unlucky that the divisional strength was that good. In other years, Millwall and Barnsley have won the play-offs after sneaking into 6th place with a relatively below-par PPG.

So, the play-offs were generally where Sunderland belonged under the former gaffer.

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

Parky Stats

  • In 10/13 games (77%), Sunderland scored first, this is incredibly important as this was Sunderland’s biggest issue under Jack Ross (JR). Under JR, Sunderland scored first in a match 31/57 games (54%) which would put them on the back foot. This is one rare bit of praise I have to give PP as scoring first can be very important for a team mentality and confidence.
  • In the 10 games Sunderland scored first, Sunderland managed to win 6 draw 3 and lose 1. So, from a potential 30 points, 22 were earned (2.20 PPG). This is 73% conversion from winning positions.
  • In games Sunderland did not score first in under PP 3/13 (23%), Sunderland drew two (Bristol Rovers, Charlton) and lost one (Portsmouth) averaging 0.66 PPG.
  • Sunderland did suffer scoring issues however under PP. Sunderland are generally a team who find the back of the net in a ‘match’ but not frequently enough. In the 13 matches under PP, Sunderland scored more than one goal in five games (38%) meaning that 62% of the matches Sunderland had to keep a clean sheet avoid drawing or a defeat.
  • Sunderland had issues scoring under PP. In 13 games, Sunderland managed to score 2 or more goals in 5 games (38%). On the flip side, that means in the other 8, we score 1 in 7 (54%) of the matches and blank in the other.
  • Sunderland scored under PP - Two goals + in 5/13 matches; One Goal in 7/13 matches; Zero Goal in 1/13 matches.
  • For Sunderland to win where we score ONLY one goal, that means keeping a clean sheet in 54% of all league games. That equates to 25 clean sheets per season. Scoring isn’t a problem when PP was in charge, it was how many we scored in a football match.

Johnson’s Sunderland - Still Play-Off bound

Played: 10 - Won: 4 - Drew: 5 - Lost: 1

Lee Johnson has had a lot to contend with since joining Sunderland - a squad of questionable ability, fitness issues and COVID outbreaks have not helped, but stats do not discriminate, and take everything at face value.

If you go back to the Parkinson graph at the start of this piece, there is barely any difference, other than Parky actually has a better return, by just 0.07. That is hardly notable, though - all this shows is that the team is performing, in terms of results, the same as it did under the previous manager. But should we have more optimism?

So far in the 10 games under Lee Johnson, Sunderland have score 16 league goals (1.6 per game). Under Parkinson, that total is 1.3 per game. So, we are scoring more under the current boss, based on the 10 games played.

We also have retained possession better in those games, averaging 62% possession per game. There is a reason for that and without context sometimes, stats are incredibly biased. Sunderland have more possession due to the first goal factor. As covered previously, Sunderland scored first in 77% on the 13 games that Phil Parkinson managed. Under Johnson, that stat has lowered to around 60% (6 games).

Now, in those games where Sunderland score first, Sunderland have 59% possession. When we don’t score first, that stat rises by 6% to 65%. That shows you that having better possession can depend on the context of the game!

Retaining possession is something I wouldn’t recommend gloating about, as opposition teams are very happy to let Sunderland have the ball, as we don’t do enough with it.

Sunderland have scored first in 6/10 games underJohnson, and our PPG is 2.33. In the 4/10 games when we don’t score first, the games yield Sunderland 3 draws (Wimbledon, Hull, Northampton) and 1 defeat (Plymouth), giving Sunderland 0.75 PPG.

Under Lee Johnson, Sunderland are still a playoff form team based on PPG, and are still better than 19/20 Sunderland - although, I will admit that it feels like we have been worse at times. There has been little to no consistency with our performances and results, especially at home.

What does Johnson need to address?

Scoring goals at the Stadium of Light remains a huge issue - Sunderland under Johnson have averaged 1.20 goals per home game. And this was the case for Phil Parkinson too, averaging 1.17 goals per game at home this season.

When fans attended home games our numbers are a lot different.

Let’s look at this from when we entered the division in 2018.

Under Jack Ross, Sunderland scored 1.96 goals per home match - just shy of 2 per game. In 19/20, when Parkinson took over, those numbers dip slightly to 1.86 goals per home game.

That is not a huge concern.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak has meant that there can be no fans at the SOL, Sunderland have scored 14 goals in 13 league games - that is 1.08 goals per home game. It gets worse, as Sunderland have conceded 15 in those 13 league games, which leaves them on a negative goal difference as well.

Do fans make a difference? I’ll let you decide.

The table below summarises the numbers.

Home & Away Records

Overall, the away performances from Sunderland are actually pretty great, winning 6 and drawing 6. So, from 12 away matches, we’ve picked up 24 points. That is 2.00 PPG.

That is automatic promotion form on the road.

In League One, Sunderland rank 3rd on the road, a vast improvement to the last two seasons. It shows that like many teams up and down the country, no fans attending games is having an influence on teams’ form.

For Sunderland, we are yet to go behind away from home this season. We have never trailed at ANY point on the road. It sounds obvious, but it’s true - if you don’t go behind, you will never lose a game of football.

Sunderland’s away form is the sole reason why we are on the fringes of the play-offs.

However, at home the picture is very different.

Sunderland rank 15th at home. You do not get promoted by having that bad of a home record - other teams are making it work at home. Doncaster are 4th away from home and 2nd at home for PPG.

So, teams CAN make it work without fans - Sunderland haven’t found the solution.

We have seen many times - in particular in the first season under Jack Ross - that Sunderland struggle at home, and with the support of the fans we came back to win games. Without that influence, you can factually prove we are worse.

Lee Johnson however can’t bring back fans. So, what can he do?

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

What’s Next?

My recommendation is for Sunderland to watch Doncaster games home and away. They are extremely consistent at picking up points under Darren Moore, and average 2.09 PPG.

Earlier in the article, I advised 1.98 PPG (points per game) is the bar for automatic promotion. Doncaster's form is no fluke. They are scoring 1.92 Goals per game at home, which is as prolific as Sunderland WITH fans.

Peterborough are another team who are prolific at home, and are scoring goals - averaging 2.25 goals per home game - but they are the opposite to us. They are bad travellers, hence why I recommend Doncaster as a team to emulate. What we emulate, I’m not sure, but we should look around and see what works for some of our opponents, as home advantage has turned into home disadvantage for Sunderland in COVID times.

Lee Johnson certainly has some major work to do, but it all starts and ends with the home form and scoring more at home. Conceding is NOT an issue; away form is NOT an issue. Having a reliable goalscorer is NOT an issue.

The numbers do not lie - we are a play-off bound team as it stands, and after 13 home games with no fans, we still can’t find a way to win regularly.

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