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Reader’s Corner: What does the data tell us about Sunderland’s chances of promotion?

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RR reader George Prince looks deep into the numbers and data to see if it can tell us whether or not Sunderland are all set for promotion out of League One!

The Hangover

On Saturday evening - after Sunderland got one over Joey Barton earlier in the day - my mind, like many Mackems recently, turned to just how will the League One table finish up.

Using my B grade in GCSE Maths, as well as a few minor things I’ve picked up along the way since, I went about figuring out the best way to calculate just how things may pan out. The preferred way would be to incorporate home & away form, but this has probably been diminished somewhat this season with no crowds at the grounds. The easy way could have been each team's points per game, but that doesn’t best reflect how a team has played recently - after all, Sunderland points per game is an ordinary 1.86, compared to 2.66 in our last 10 games... damn you, Parkinson! The best way in my mind is to incorporate recent form in predicting how the league positions will finish up.

Therefore, I devised a rough theory in my mind, whereby we will use each team's points per game as a baseline. Using each team's points per game in their last 6 games to capture recent form, we can come up with an adjusted points per game number which multiplied by the number each team has games remaining to play, gives us an estimated points total.

Bristol Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

First though, let’s take a look at the current picture with the league table as it is - I’ve taken into account other teams below us in the play-off picture just to gain a better understanding of how it’ll all play out. I’ve decided to include the current top 11 teams. So, with the aforementioned top 3 breakaway followed by the 8 teams below us just separated by 7 points, it’s all fairly tight!

One of the disadvantages compared to the Premier League when trying to judge where we are in the table compared to our competitors, is ‘games played’ by all teams in League One can vary by a larger range.

Case in point, Hull in 1st have played 38 games and Blackpool & Doncaster have 3 games in hand with 35 played. Let’s even things up a bit and get each team's points per game. As you can see below, we still have our top 3 and bottom 8 split with Hull, Peterborough and Lee Johnson’s men just separated by 0.02, albeit in favour for us to get promoted automatically.

So, it’s #CansForKyril on the 8th May, I hear you say?

Not so fast!

Now let’s start to take a look at each team's current form from their last 6 games and it’s these figures that things start to get interesting.

As you can see, Sunderland are on another level compared to everyone else, with 2.66 points per game with Hull to their credit keeping us for company in the over 2.00 club. Blackpool & Charlton are in great form as well picking up 12 points from their last 6 games with Gillingham, Lincoln & Oxford not a million miles away behind them.

At the bottom there are Portsmouth, Doncaster & Ipswich who are bringing up the rear in terms of recent form from the promotion-chasing teams, but what about Peterborough? Intriguingly, their form is pretty underwhelming at just over a point per game in the last 6 games even including their 7-0 thrashing of Accrington at the weekend!

So, Hull and Sunderland have a one-way ticket to the land of the Sky Bet Championship?

Again, not so fast!

Now to the more complicated stuff - how can we best factor in a team's recent form so that we can estimate each team's points per game tally come the end of the season, using recent form? I figured that for all teams there’s roughly 20% of league games still left to play. Combining recent form along with points per game so far, the positive difference between these two values along with each team's percentage of remaining league games will form the foundations of our estimate.

From here, we’ll rejig the numbers a bit and multiply these two values together, which gives us a figure, we’ll then add/subtract from each teams points per game total based on if current form is greater or less than, and voila, we have a new adjusted points per game total.

Confused? Alright, let’s look at a few examples below.

Let’s look at Sunderland for starters, the positive difference between points per game and recent form points per game is 0.80 (2.66 - 1.86). We have 10 games left, which accounts for 21.7% of league games remaining.

If we convert this value into decimal format (0.217), we’ll multiply these two figures (0.80 x 0.217) and we get a figure of 0.1736. With our recent form better than our points per game we can then add this our points per game.

From this model, Sunderland’s new adjusted points per game number is now a promotion smelling 2.03, lovely stuff. What this means then from this calculation is that Sunderland are on track to pick up 20.3 points from their final 10 league games. Below I’ve tried to illustrate how our recent form coupled with the percentage of remaining games has positively adjusted our points per game total.

Red filled-in circle is Sunderland’s current points per game and the red outlined circle is Sunderland’s new adjusted points per game total

I’ll show another example of the negative effects of recent form could have an effect on the points per game figure. Portsmouth - before new manger Danny Cowley came in - were in terrible form (cheers Kenny!) and their recent form is still feeling the effects of that having only picked up 6 points in their last 6 games.

With 1.00 points per game a good bit below their current points per game total we’ll do the same process and calculations again to get Portsmouth’s new adjusted points per game total. Their new adjusted points per game total is now 1.48 - that’s 0.13 below their current points per game total, and I’ve tried to illustrate that again down below.

Blue filled-in circle is Portsmouth’s current points per game and the blue outlined circle is Portsmouth’s new adjusted points per game total

Let’s see how we compare to everyone else. Well, the good news is we now have a sizeable lead compared to Hull & Peterborough who have an adjusted points per game value of 1.93 & 1.72 respectively. Blackpool would also see their total match Peterborough’s with everyone else’s totals falling roughly into the 1.40-1.60 adjusted points per game range with poor old Ipswich looking at 1.38.

“We’re gonna win league!”

Well again, not so fast!

We’ve done the hard part in working out everyone’s adjusted points per game total, so let’s multiply those values with how many games each team has left. To build in somewhat of a handicap for Sunderland, for every team we will only round down any figures that are below x.25 and any figures above x.25 then we will round up apart from Sunderland. Once we get each team's estimated remaining points total we simply add it to what each team has so far and we have our estimated league finishing positions.

The good news keeps rolling in as Sunderland will be estimated to finish 1st on 87 points but as you can see it is oh so tight with Hull estimated to finish on 86 points and Peterborough estimated to finish third on 85 points.

The race for the other 3 play-off positions isn’t quite as tight with Lincoln, Blackpool and one of Portsmouth or Doncaster getting the final play-off place.

So Kyril can start organising the open bus parade?

While it does look good for Sunderland it is just far too tight to call as you can see and there are three issues at hand that could potentially affect us.

Firstly, is the run-in and each teams remaining fixtures.

Very simply, we will get the average league position of remaining fixtures for each team. Also, with the recent 6 game form being a prominent factor in these findings so far, we will also gather the average league position in the form table of remaining fixtures.

As you can see below, Sunderland technically has the toughest run-in both according to the actual and form table. It is not all doom and gloom though, as the figures in comparison for Hull and Peterborough are fairly similar, so we’re not at a massive disadvantage but hardly ideal. However, one way of looking at it is that we know we still have Hull, Peterborough and Blackpool twice still to play, if we can win some, most or even all of those games, that goes a massive way in finishing in the top 2 positions.

Another area of concern is just one number from the above image, it’s Peterborough’s recent form and their below-par 7 points in their last 6 games.

I think we can all genuinely expect for that figure to probably rise again up closer to 2.00 and potentially over it as well, after all, they have just thrashed Accrington 7-0.

Let’s bump Peterborough’s points per game from their last 6 games up to 2.00 and see what effect that has on their finishing points total. As you can see below it’s actually very little just 1 extra point. That’s in part due to there only being 9 games remaining and there being a low positive difference between their points per game and points per game from their last 6 games figures.

Of course, if Peterborough go on a similar run to ourselves or Hull then they’ll likely match or even eclipse Sunderland’s estimated total of 87 points, but the same of course can be said for us or Hull. One to look out for to see if Peterborough can recover their form for the run-in over the next few weeks.

The final area of concern is really out of the hands of everyone and that is the form figure can fluctuate by a sizeable number over the next 6 weeks until the end of the season.

As we have just seen up above, a change in form by winning or losing an extra game or two by any team can have a notable effect on the final positions. With things so tight between Hull, Peterborough and Sunderland, that could make all the difference. The only thing we can be certain about is that this is likely to go down to the wire.

To end on a much more positive note, as we’ve seen through these findings and what has transpired over the last month or so, the gap is closing all the time and momentum is continuing to build in our favour with games in hand.

With the unbeaten record that we have and the injury situation clearing, everything is pointing towards Sunderland gaining automatic promotion.

To quote the gaffer, we are sharks in the water circling around our prey ready to strike. Let’s hope for a massive 6 points this Easter weekend from Lee Johnson’s men and Max Power demanding that the f*cking tunes get played.

Ha’way the Lads!