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The Stat Man: Are Sunderland *really* on track for promotion?! We assess the data

With a rare midweek without a game, Phil Butler assesses the data in his attempt to work out whether or not Sunderland are on track for promotion out of League One.

Will we be seeing scenes like these in May?
| Photo by Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Back in July, after it had been confirmed that Sunderland had failed to gain promotion from League One for the second time, I took a look at the previous seven seasons to see what was then Phil Parkinson’s side needed to do in order to achieve promotion.

A brief conclusion from Sunderlands first two attempts to get back into the Championship was that Jack Ross’ side scored enough goals but conceded too many, whilst Phil Parkinson’s side had a promotion-level defence but didn’t score enough.

With just eleven games to go, I’m going to look at how Sunderland have performed so far this season, under both Parkinson, Johnson and overall, to see if we’re finally headed for the Championship at the third time of asking.


Attacking

Instead of going straight into the metric which matters the most, points, I’m going to start by looking at the underlying data, to assess the chances are of both Sunderland and our promotion rivals maintaining the pace required to get out of the third tier.

Starting with the most basic attacking metric, Goals Scored, there’s no set number required to achieve promotion but the average promoted side scores 74 goals over the course of the season which comes out as roughly 1.6 Goals Scored per Game (GS/G).

If we compare this target with Sunderland’s record we see that overall we fall below the average line, whilst both Hull and Peterborough sit above it. As things stand, our two main rivals have the advantage over the men in Red and White.

However, under Lee Johnson, we have outscored both of our rivals with 1.7 GS/G during his time in charge. A rate that is better than at least one promoted side in six of the last seven seasons, a dramatic turn around from the 1.31 GS/G under Parky this season - only Burton of the recently promoted sides scored at a lower rate.

Although goals, whether scored or conceded, are the ultimate indicator of a side’s success, looking at the number of chances created is a good way of seeing whether or not a side’s goalscoring rate is likely to continue.

Using Shots on Target as an imperfect rough indicator of ‘decent chances created’ gives Sunderland cause for optimism. The low position of Hull City on the graph showing Shots on Target per Game (SoTF/G) indicates that they could be overachieving by scoring a large number of goals from a low number of shots.

The second graph, showing Shots on Target per Goal (SoT/Gl), shows exactly what I mean by this. Notice Sunderland’s low position during the season with Josh Maja in the team. Like Hull this year, we scored a large number of goals compared with our number of chances and eventually, this record caught up with us and we began to score less and ultimately fell away at the end of the season.

This season, Sunderland are scoring around average for chances created (SoTF/G) and their SoT/Gl is also around average and similar to last season - indicating that our Goals Scored number should be sustainable. This is also interesting in regards to Charlie Wyke’s form, he’s not on a hot-streak of finishing but is simply getting more chances than in his previous seasons at the club.


Defending

NOTE: For Defensive Graphs, we want to be near the bottom.

Much like goals scored there’s no set requirement for the number of goals you can concede and still get promoted, something which makes sense considering teams who score more tend to let more in at the other end.

In truth, Sunderland have never been a million miles away from a promotion team on this front. The first season in League One under Jack Ross saw us concede the most Goals per Game (GA/G), but even then the graph below shows us level with Sheffield United’s title-winning side of 2016/17 and relatively close to the average number of goals conceded by promoted sides.

Our defensive record last season was promotion worthy, and although it is slightly worse this year we’re still comfortably on the right side of both the average for promoted sides and fare better than Hull and Peterborough. Furthermore, our defensive record has actually improved further under the new manager.

Looking at Shots on Target Conceded per Game (SoTA/G) to give an indication of whether or not this record is sustainable shows how Jack Ross’ side was probably lucky to concede as few goals are it did a couple of seasons ago, whilst this season we’re performing well on both goals and shots on target conceded.

The only minor negative is Hull City who, although slightly overachieving on goals scored per Shots on Target, seem to be slightly underachieving defensively and conceded fewer SoTA/G than Sunderland despite conceding more Goals per Game. If these two metrics level out over the next eleven games, it's unlikely to damage the Tigers’ form.

Although goals conceded is important, a far better defensive indicator of results is clean sheets. Since most teams near the top of the league score in every game, a clean sheet often means three points.

This explains Sunderland’s poor year under Jack Ross, despite not having a bad defensive record in terms of goals conceded we didn’t keep enough clean sheets and were forced to settle for repeated one-all draws throughout the season.

Similarly, despite a better defensive record last season, we still failed to keep enough clean sheets to get the points required to finish in the top two.

This season, however, has been the complete opposite and we lead the division for Games per Clean Sheet (G/CS) and are level with Hull getting a clean sheet just less than every other game.

This puts us behind only Wigan (2017/18) and Wolves (2013/14) when compared with recently promoted sides, and this is a record which has improved even further under Johnson despite being strong under the previous manager.

The defensive record, both in terms of goals conceded and clean sheets, also shows the possibility of Peterborough being the team to drop out of the top two. If we discount Rotherham who were fortunate to be promoted on PPG last season, Peterborough are only just on course for the 17 clean sheets which is the fewest number to be kept by a promotion-winning side. If the goals dry up for Posh, it’s easy to see wins turning into draws.


Points

Much like the well-known mantra that a haul of 40 points guarantees survival in the Premier League, the target for Sunderland since dropping down to League One has been the 90 point mark (marked by the horizontal line on the graph below at 1.95 Points per Game [PPG]).

Based on the last seven seasons, it is true that ninety points guarantees promotion as Preston (89 points in 2014/15) and Charlton (88 points in 2018/19) have been the sides most unfortunate to miss out on the top two places. Unsurprisingly, both sides won the playoffs and were promoted regardless.

The average points total of second-placed teams in recent seasons is 89, so the target of 90 points seems to be a genuine requirement for teams looking to get out of this division.

So, how are Sunderland getting on? Well, overall we have achieved 1.83 PPG which makes us set to achieve 84 points by the end of the season. Whichever way you look at it, this total won’t see us finish inside the top two as history suggests at least one of Peterborough or Hull will eventually hit 90 points, and we sit third in both the actual and the PPG table as things stand.

Since Lee Johnson took over, we’ve achieved a PPG of 1.9, a significant improvement from the 1.77 PPG under the previous manager. This may not be the form needed to guarantee promotion but would put us at the top of the table if we had started the campaign on such a run.

Despite the improvement under Johnson, if we continue at a rate of 1.9 PPG over the next eleven games we will pick up 21 more points, meaning a final total of 85 points which is likely to see us finish third, behind both Posh and Hull, albeit by a very small margin if both sides’ current PPG continues.

If we want to hit the all-important 90 points, we need 26 points in 11 games at a rate of 2.36 PPG meaning we need eight wins and can afford just one defeat between now and the end of the campaign. Our poor start has meant that we have very little margin for error for the run-in

However, taking this season in isolation there’s a chance that 90 points, or even less, could win the title rather than result in a second-place finish.

As things stand Peterborough are set to win the league with just 87 points, meaning we could be on for a repeat of the low-scoring 2015/16 season in which Burton went up in second with just 85 points, the exact total we are set for should our form under Johnson continue.

With Hull set to finish second on 86 points, we may need to make a slight improvement to 2 PPG over the next eleven matches, but with the 1.9 PPG so far under Johnson including the teething period before a covid-enforced break, there’s no reason why we can’t make up the two-or-three points required to finish above at least one of our rivals and enjoy watching the Play-Offs knowing that our job has already been done.

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