Delving deeper: Attempting to analyse League Two
Deeper down in the Football League, writes Aaron Smith from The Washbag, there are no Opta stats or endless TV analysis of every minutiae covering completed passes, interceptions, animated shot graphics and tactical analysis to name but a few. Unless a full 90 minute video of all games was available to analyse, and even then the time to waste, we’ve only really got our eyes and the Press Association to rely on.
Unfortunately the statistics the PA provide for the BBC and the Football League are basic to say the least. How much can you garner at first glance from ‘possession’, ‘attempts on target’, ‘attempts off target’, ‘corners’ and ‘fouls’? These don’t tell the full story of the match or build a picture as the season develops. Importantly… they do little to feed my insatiable hunger for stats.
With this in mind, at TheWashbag.com we’ve delved behind the League Two table, the goals for and against column in an attempt to get more out of these limited statistics.
Each team in League Two is ranked according to their defensive and attacking efficiency. The PA stats enable five key measurements to rank the defence 1 to 24 – shots against per game, % shots against on target, % shots saved, corners conceded per game and possession conceded. Another five measures are used to assess the attack – shots per game, % shots on target, % shots scored, corners won per game and possession won. Statistics are held, and a ranking 1-24 given, for both a team’s home and away performances, which more accurately represent efficiency.
As a Swindon Town supporter it doesn’t seem correct that we lead the way as the most efficient defensive outfit – by our measure – albeit one that’s actually conceded the second fewest goals.
Town have a combined home and away defensive score of 60, a 12-point lead over second best Shrewsbury. An impressive change in fortunes considering what we’ve witnessed with lapses and errors aplenty in recent years. The stats back up what I’ve watched. Paolo Di Canio has moulded his troops into a solid, well-rehearsed and miserly defensive force, rarely allowing opponents enough time to find space for a shot, let alone get one on target. Until the arrival of Palace loanee Wes Foderingham, our goalkeeper’s save rate was treading water, nearly sinking along with Plymouth. However, five successive clean sheets indicated our previous rankings were right in identifying a new ‘keeper would be the shot in the arm we needed.
The top six defensively ranked sides – Swindon (60 points), Shrewsbury (72), Crawley (79), Oxford (85), Cheltenham (86) and Southend (89) – all mirror their high League position, although one quirk is Morecambe.
Currently they’ve conceded the joint third fewest goals, yet by our assessment the Shrimpers find themselves a lowly 11th – a full 68 points worse off than Swindon. The rankings reveal that Morecambe are at, or below, average in four of the five defensive measures, except their percentage of shots saved. Barry Roche has saved 83% of shots faced, the highest in League Two, highlighting how reliant Morecambe appear to be on the former Forest ‘keeper as the last line of an otherwise average defence.
Of the best placed sides in the League Two table, Burton Albion – who are currently 8th with 22 goals conceded – are ranked 21st with a disappointing score of 162. The Brewers are within touching distance of worst-ranked Plymouth and Hereford who tie with a score of 174. Are Burton punching above their weight in League Two and will their defensive frailties be exposed as the season progresses?
The full story
In attack, the top grouping in these rankings generally reflects the goals scored column.
The strong efficiency rankings of Southend (68 points), Gillingham (72), Crawley (85), Port Vale (89), Morecambe (104) and Rotherham (106) reflect their League performances with plenty of goals — over 30 apiece. Fellow promotion-chasers Oxford United (90) and Shrewsbury (98) have scored less — 26 and 23 respectively – yet they remain efficient in attack which shows in their current league position.
With only 20 goals to their name, it’s a surprise to see Barnet (108) and Northampton (111) above average and within the top ten attacking sides. The rankings indicate both sides perform at, or just above, average in four of the five attacking assessments. With disappointing League positions, both sides are let down heavily elsewhere on the pitch, or in the dugout, depending on your point of view…
Given Paolo’s pedigree, shouldn’t Town be equally exceptional in attack? The answer is no. Swindon are nowhere near as strong in attack as in defence. A ranking of 12th and score of 112 is some 52 points behind our defensive score.
There are two factors at play here. Firstly, the transition of a team to play ‘beautiful football’ in a largely ‘robust’ and ‘industrial’ division hindered our early form, particularly on our travels. Despite dominant possession, those first six away games yielded 4 goals, 3 of which came away at Crawley, which understandably hit the strike rate and percentage of shots on target.
Secondly, Di Canio has yet to find his perfect striker. This is despite signing 823 forwards since May. It seems obvious as he’s been banging on about the need since the moment that he first arrived. This fully justifies Paolo’s seemingly everlasting search for that powerful front man who’s not only capable of putting himself about, but someone who will score a few goals.
It’s no shock to see Plymouth (195), Bradford (194), Accrington (180) and Hereford (175) propping up the attacking rankings. Their lack of punch in front of goal has shown so far this campaign, especially against Swindon, apart from a superb Bulls comback in a 3-3 draw.
Of those sides with a significantly better home attacking efficiency, Macclesfield are a score of 26 better off at Moss Rose. Interestingly this is despite picking up more points per game on their travels, so there’s something here that the rankings don’t quite pick up.
Port Vale have the biggest attacking swing in favour of playing away from Vale Park, with a division high score of 26 secured on their travels compared to 63 at home. This is not to suggest that Vale are poor at home as they’ve been exceptional in accurate and clinical finishing, it’s more that away from home they been consistently good across all five measures.
The full story
Overall, the combined rankings echo the League Two table. Southend United are ranked 1st with 157 points, Crawley 2nd with 164 points, Shrewsbury are one place higher than their League position on 170 points and Swindon just trailing behind in 4th with 172 points.
Morecambe, Burton Albion and AFC Wimbledon are the main fallers compared to their actual results.
The Lancashire Shrimpers look soundly mid-table in the rankings with a position of 10th and score of 232. Burton plunge from their actual play-off chasing position to a 17th ranking on 285 points. The Dons also drop to an overall efficiency ranking of 20th, indicating their good start on their return to the Football League was built upon the back of continuing their promotion form which already seems on the wane.
Rising above their league table position of 15th, Aldershot’s ranking of 7th and score of 200 suggests their league position may not reflect effort or efficency on the pitch. Having not watched the Shots so far this season, it’s difficult to comment on why they aren’t pushing for the play-Offs.
Northampton and Barnet are middle ranking in our overall combined assessment, well above their results on the pitch. I’m sure this will be little comfort to Gary Johnson as he searches for his next job.
Let’s turn to ranking the defensive and attacking performances of hosts. The County Ground, Broadfield, Whaddon Road, Greenhous Meadow, Roots Hall, Priestfield and the three-sided Kassam are becoming fortresses in League Two. These home sides have allowed their opponents just six away team victories in 58 games and this is reflected in our assessment as these are six of the top seven hosts by efficiency.
Looking at those teams who you wouldn’t welcome as hosts, Port Vale, Southend, Oxford, Gillingham, Morecambe and Shrewsbury are the sides that the rankings indicate. However, this time only 3 – Southend, Morecambe and Port Vale – are within the top six away performers according to actual league form.
The full story
Of course, statistics alone only tell part of the story. You wouldn’t expect League Two managers sitting with their laptop in the dugout, frenetically reviewing these rankings after going a goal behind to counter their opponents’ weaknesses. But as we can’t get to all 12 games every weekend and because the Football League Show is useless at analysing League Two, these statistics appear to reveal more about our division and how clubs perform against each other.
There is certainly plenty of evidence here to suggest the rankings based on statistics do broadly predict current league form to date. Also, they describe the relative strengths and weaknesses of what I’ve witnessed. However, that has only been a snapshot of the 408 matches to date in League Two so wider feedback and interpretation will be essential.
The real test moving forward is how useful, if at all, these rankings are in indicating trends and final league position as the season progresses.
In the end, I’d admit in the back of my mind there’s always someone shouting “lies, damned lies and statistics”…