The Matt Scrafton column: Blackpool faith in statistics now paying dividends

Like the vast majority of Premier League clubs, Blackpool are relying more and more heavily on statistical analysis to evaluate the team’s performances.

Friday, 6th November 2020, 12:30 pm

Northern Ireland call-up for Blackpool defender

The cynics will argue that these ‘metrics’ only tell you half a story and the only stat that matters is the scoreline at the end of a match.

But if the data is used to enhance your understanding and in the right context, then it can undoubtedly be a useful tool to analyse the team’s displays.

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Given owner Simon Sadler’s background in the financial world, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that data is playing a big role in the way Blackpool operate behind the scenes.

The Seasiders use the ‘expected goals’ (often abbreviated to ‘xG’) metric to analyse their performances.

A number of factors are taken into account when calculating xG. They include type of assist, whether it was a goal attempt with the head or foot, the angle and distance of the shot and whether it was a big chance.

If you see a chance described as having an xG rating of 0.35, that means a player would be expected to convert the chance 35 per cent of the time – or once in three. If a chance is described as 0.5 xG, it should be scored 50 per cent of the time and so on.

It’s only fair to point out that analysts should be very careful in using xG to explain past performances and even more careful in using it to analyse one-off displays.

As with any figures, there can be statistical anomalies and teams can genuinely perform better than expected.

As long as xG is used to analyse the team’s displays in the long-term, then it can be an incredibly useful indicator of future performances.

For those of you reading this column and thinking, ‘What the hell is he talking about? What is xG when it’s at home?’ here’s a basic explanation. The xG is a statistical measurement of the quality of goalscoring chances and the likelihood of them being scored.

The tool aims to measure how many goals a team is likely to score in a match taking into account the quality of chances created.

An xG measurement can be generated for both teams as a whole and individual players, giving an indication of how well they should be performing in front of goal.

With statistical analysis becoming an increasingly important aspect of football and, indeed, sport in general, clubs have been utilising measurements such as xG to assess their players.

It has also become a common point of discussion in sports media, with supporters also beginning to engage with the concept, while Premier League champions Liverpool have relied heavily on such data.

Thanks to xG, it is no longer sufficient to casually suggest a player should have done better with a chance – there is now data to back that argument up or to rebut it.

To illustrate the effectiveness of these metrics, The Gazette has been given access to data showing that after 10 games last season xG successfully picked out six of the sides to finish in the top eight and two of the three to be relegated.

At the 10-game mark this season, which was after the Burton Albion game last Saturday, xG data showed that Blackpool should really be in seventh place in the table when they were actually 16th. This ties in with Neil Critchley’s claims that Blackpool deserved far more points from their opening fixtures of the campaign.

Following Tuesday’s third win in four games, which elevated Critchley’s side into the top half, the Seasiders have hopefully turned a corner and their results will continue to reflect the data.

Pool, Oxford United and MK Dons are the three League One sides underperforming most compared to their expected goals.

The data suggests Sunderland ought to be top of the league, followed by Portsmouth, Hull City, Peterborough United, Oxford, MK Dons and then Blackpool.

The inclusion of MK Dons is an interesting piece of data and perhaps the most surprising. Is it an anomaly or, as Critchley suggested a couple of weeks ago, are Russell Martin’s side much better than their current 19th place would suggest?

According to xG, Fleetwood Town, Lincoln City, Doncaster Rovers and Ipswich Town are currently over-performing and should be lower down the table.

Wigan Athletic are deservedly bottom according to the data, while Gillingham, Burton Albion and Bristol Rovers should complete the bottom four.

After 10 games last season, xG had Blackpool in 19th place when they were actually sixth, again tying in with the view of many supporters at the time that Pool were overperforming in the early days of Simon Grayson’s second stint at Bloomfield Road. Blackpool’s form nosedived that winter and Grayson was sacked in February.

Remarkably, when you analyse the data of the final league table before the points-per-game method was used, Blackpool ought to have finished 14th, one spot ahead of Wycombe Wanderers, who were promoted to the Championship via the play-offs.

Rotherham United rightfully won the league, but according to the figures Peterborough should have joined them in the automatic promotion places, while Portsmouth, Fleetwood, Oxford and Doncaster should have contested the play-offs.