The business end of the League One season is now looming large on the horizon as teams prepare to negotiate for a position of relegation safety, mid-table comfort, a play off slot, or automatic promotion. Anxiety levels amongst fans are starting to climb as many begin to question whether their team is really capable of achieving what they had quietly hoped for earlier in the season and, with most teams having ~10 games remaining in their schedule (some having as few as 9, Rochdale still with 13), now would be a good time to take one final look at the performance data (collected and provided by Stratagem) to see what light we can cast across each team’s chances of achieving a successful finish to the season.
All the insights to be discussed below are anchored around the metric Expected Goals which, if you’re not acquainted with it, is explained pretty well in this article on BBC Sport. Expected Goals are a good indicator of team performance because, by and large, teams that create more, better chances more often than their opponents tend to finish higher in the table (conversely teams that concede more, better chances to their opponents than they are able to create themselves tend to finish lower in the table).
We’ll go through some bullet point analysis on every team but first, let’s look at the data in a visual format to build the foundations for what we’re going to dig into in more detail later in the piece. As we’ll be largely focusing on the form each team is showing coming into the final stages of the season, the data used to produce these is from 21st December – 11th March, with most teams having played 13-14 games in this time, which is also the run of games played since I last wrote about the state of play in League One (link). Clear? Let’s dine.
Expected Goal Difference:
Here we can see every teams Expected Goal Difference per Game, displayed as the coloured bars, reflecting how well each team have played based on the quality of chances they’ve created and conceded over the time frame mentioned. The Black Diamonds show their Actual Goal Difference per game over that time, with some teams having clearly under or over performed. We’ll refer back to these in good time so have a quick glance, we’ll come back later.
Expected Goals Created vs Expected Goals Conceded:
Looking left to right, teams towards the left haven’t been creating too much in attack, with teams to the right creating plenty.
Looking top to bottom, teams towards the top have been performing poorly defensively, with teams towards the bottom performing more solidly at the back.
Chances Created per Game vs Average Quality of Chance created.
The further to the right a team is, the higher quality of chance they create on average. The further to the left a team is, the lower quality of chance they tend to create on average.
A team placed high in the graph tends to create a lot of chances per game, with teams towards the bottom of the graph generally creating few chances per game.
Chances Conceded per Game vs Average Quality of Chance conceded
Teams further to the right concede chances of high quality on average. Teams towards the left tend to concede poorer chances on average.
Teams at the top concede a larger number of chances per game. Teams towards the bottom concede fewer chances per game.
Now we’ve got that out the way, let’s get stuck in to what these can tell us about each team, their performances, and what this may mean for the remainder of their respective seasons. We’ll approach this purely by the order of the table at the time of writing, starting at the top.
Perhaps not the best place to start, as there isn’t anything particularly insightful to say about them that you won’t already know – they’re a good team, playing good football, and rightly in the title conversation. Performance-wise, they’ve been part of an elite group of 3 over the period we’re covering with Wigan and Rotherham, and have been in unwavering form for a long time now. They’ve only lost 1 in 26, failing to score in only 2 of those games and scoring at least two goals in 20 of those games. It’s pretty unstoppable form which has seem them rise to the top of the table, made more impressive given they were 6th on 1st November, 12 points behind Shrewsbury and 11 behind Wigan.
Now it gets more interesting. What the data above doesn’t show when averaged out is that Wigan have been on a slight downward trend of performances for a while now, but particularly since beating Oxford 7-0 on December 23rd – a game that is included in this dataset. The Expected Goals scores for that game (3.72 – 0.52) have buffed their averages slightly and, if we were to take that game out, would paint a less pretty picture. They were highlighted in the last League One article (just days before they thumped Oxford, ironically) as a team whose performances weren’t reaching the same dominant levels they’d set earlier in the season and it’ll be interesting now to see whether they can claw the points back in the games in hand they have on Blackburn, as well as pick up more points than them over the remainder of the season. Unless performances improve, I wouldn’t be betting on that happening.
The absolute masters of getting the most out of their performances – something they’ve been doing all season long. Since week 1, they’ve been earmarked as a team somewhere between 3rd – 8th in the data at various points through the season and every time they’ve achieved form that has exceeded their performance levels. Once again their attack has put up frankly silly numbers, creating the fewest chances per game in the whole league across the period from 23rd December, but creating the highest average quality of chance in the league – by some margin. It passes the eye test; most of Shrewsbury’s goals tend to come from around the 6 yard box, and this ability to create a game-winning chance in almost every league game allows them to nick the all important one or two goals from the tight matches that could teeter either way and therefore keep pace with Blackburn and Wigan in the title race.
The data’s been quite keen on Rotherham all season long, even when they went 7 without winning through October and November, as they’ve consistently posted strong attacking numbers. That said, their form has been streaky all season long, typified by their latest effort of winning 7 in a row followed up by consecutive losses to bottom 4 sides. There’s plenty of positives about this team though and it seems their defence has tightened up compared to earlier in the season where they had similar attacking numbers (which have been around league best level all campaign) but shaky defensive numbers, conceding chances at the rate of a mid table side. However, through this period they’ve had the best performing defence from an Expected Goals perspective, conceding just 7 chances per game and generally of a below-average quality, so we’ll see to what extent that holds up and to what extent this impacts on their form heading into the play offs, which they look dead certs to be a part of now.
Another team pretty much nailed on for the play offs since the get go are Scunthorpe, though that notion hasn’t been under as much threat as it is now with them in the middle of a run of just 1 win in 11. Solely looking at results that would be concerning, but actually performances have been good and, having drawn 6 of those 11 games, it seems their problem has come from finishing teams off when they’ve been the better team. It’s pretty clear this run of form has come off the back of a weird run of conceding goals – Scunthorpe’s Expected Goals Conceded has been 15.69 through this period, when actually they’ve conceded 27. That’s a wild discrepancy which I can’t comment on the reasons for without consulting the video but I’d definitely argue some level of misfortune has hit them on this run and actually they’re pretty fine. Should canter into the play offs without much trouble.
A very interesting team to keep an eye on going forward now with the sacking of Grant McCann and the hiring of Steve Evans. They’ve broadly been play-off-contending quality all season, with a pretty average defence masked over by good attacking output headed up by Jack Marriott. Now Evans is in charge, if he can improve performances, even just by tightening the defence slightly without maiming any of the attacking output, then they stand a good chance of making the top 6 and being a much more difficult opponent than they were under McCann. Their games have tended to be of a high pace, with lots of chances at both ends but mostly from sub-optimal locations, as reflected in the below-average chance quality both in attack and defence.
Enough’s been said about their remarkable run of results, but less about the remarkable turnaround in performances. For the first half of the season, Plymouth were consistently bottom 4 material, always having some of the worst defensive numbers in the league with pretty poor attacking numbers too – if I had more time I would absolutely try to look at what they’re doing differently because the defence has shored up (9th fewest Expected Goals conceded) and the attack is now looking much more potent (3rd most Expected Goals created). Interestingly, this looks to have been from a dramatic increase in the quality of chances they’re creating – the actual volume of chances they’re creating hasn’t changed much at all, but the quality of them has seen their average chance quality evolve from 0.11 to 0.14. Small on the surface, but on 11 chances a game that’s an increase on their Expected Goals created per game of roughly 0.33. The biggest improvement has been defensively though where they’ve reduced both quality and quantity of chances they’re conceding. This improvement has been the wave that has carried them all the way to the brink of the play offs and it looks like a shoot out between them and Peterborough for who claims the 6th spot.
A case of a team who have been good at times, but also bad at times, and not nearly consistently good more often than they are bad to give them a realistic chance at a top 6 finish. Their numbers over this period reflect their current position in the table but the only wins they’ve had in this run have been over teams in the relegation conversation. They’ve had their injury issues as well as losing Ricky Holmes in January so it’s understandable they might not hit the standards they’d consider their best but, with 5 of the top 7 to play, they need an improvement in overall performances or else it seems likely they’ll fall short of a play off spot.
Bristol Rovers (9th):
Having only lost 3/14, results had definitely improved on earlier in the season where they were the cliched “consistently inconsistent”, looking play off material one weekend, bottom half fodder the next. This improvement is largely down to a tightening up defensively which has seen them post the 6th best Expected Goals Conceded per Game, though their attacking output has reduced too. It’s a complete turnaround from earlier in the season where they were creating a lot of chances but also conceding them too and it’s fair to say this change of tact has paid off so far for Darrell Clarke. The question is though, will it be enough to pick up more points than Peterborough, Plymouth, and Charlton between now and the end of the season to reach the play offs?
I almost don’t want to say much about Bradford as they’ve suffered enough in recent months. Performances took a nose dive as did results and neither have really turned around yet under Simon Grayson, languishing as the 19th best performing team in this run. Their problems appear largely to be defensive ones, having the 4th worst defence through this period, so that would be a good place for Grayson to start, though the attack could do with a little work too. Can imagine most fans are just looking towards the season’s end by now knowing in the back of their minds that any promotion hopes are all but gone.
Another team, along with Plymouth, who were dead and buried before a remarkable run of form carried them to safety. Steve Lovell managed to eek their attack into league-average territory and has done a good job of padlocking the defence too with their effectiveness clear from the Defensive Volume vs Quality graph – Gillingham concede a lot of chances but are very good at keeping the quality of those chances poor and thus making it difficult for their opponents to score. They’re comfortably a mid-table outfit now but, referring to the Expected Goal Difference chart, contrast their form in this period with Fleetwood as they’ve supposedly been performing to similar levels but with dramatically different results in Actual Goal Difference.
They hit play off form going into Christmas but performances dropped off and are now looking very much a mid table team. Another quirky team like Shrewsbury – defensively Portsmouth are very good at preventing opponents from generating chances against them. It’s just that, when the opponents do create chances, they tend to be pretty good one’s and that’s something for Jackett to come up with a solution for over the summer as they look to enter the top 6 next time around. They’ve lost more games than anyone else in the top half this season making a play off finish highly unlikely.
Archetypal midtable team right now and that seems where they’re destined to finish, too good to be dragged into the relegation picture, too late and not good enough to mount a serious play off push. It’s way too early to draw any conclusions on the tenure of Chris Powell, but their numbers haven’t really changed under him at all; the defence has tightened but so has their attack. There isn’t really much more to add about their prospects this season, it’s all about building a foundation to grow on next season now.
For a team that finished 7th in League Two last season, Blackpool have adjusted well to the step up in class and haven’t really looked in danger of relegation at any stage through the season. Performances remain solid enough – slightly below average in attack, slightly above average in defence – and they should be comfortable in keeping their heads above water, with a 7 point head start over the relegation zone at the start of the run in. The antithesis to Shrewsbury’s attack, they’ve created the 3rd most chances, with the 2nd worst average chance quality through the period.
Looks to me like the sacking of Whitney came at the right time. Performances and form were always just good enough to avoid dropping into the relegation zone but their defence was starting to trend downwards (3rd highest Expected Goals Conceded) which simply isn’t good enough to sustain a positive run of form on. The new manager’s task is to simply tighten that up, try and keep more clean sheets, and they’ll be fine. Another positive is their form against teams below them in the table (P13, W8 D2 L3) with 5 games against teams in those positions to come. Their ability to beat teams worse off than they are should see them stay up.
Doncaster had solid numbers at the start of the season that benchmarked them as a top half team, but they haven’t maintained those standards more recently with a run of form reading P11 W1 D7 L3. Performances have been on the slide too with their previously solid defence starting to concede chances of a higher quality and they’ve actually had a run of good finishing through this run to carry them to more draws than may’ve been fair, scoring 21 goals off 13.75 Expected Goals. Systemically, something’s not quite working as well as it was at the start of the season and a finish in bottom half purgatory looks likely.
Another team who had the spotlight thrown on them earlier in the season. Under Pep Clotet, the team were profiling pretty badly as they consistently showed an inability to prevent opposition chances, but I gave Clotet the benefit of the doubt saying they might improve with more time to adjust to his methods given he was only months into the job. Performances declined even more and Clotet was sacked. Their problem has never been in attack, which has actually been half decent, but defensively they are extremely poor – having had the worst defence in this period by a long chalk (a trend that remains even when taking the Wigan result out). They’ve got to be careful, still having 5 of the current top 6 to play.
AFC Wimbledon (18th):
Similarly to Doncaster, AFC Wimbledon were a team that always profiled well by the numbers earlier in the season – generally keeping a solid defence, in particular – but never picked up the results their performances were saying they should’ve done which has left them in the relegation conversation all season. They were conceding goals at a rate above expected which prompted Neal Ardley to change shape from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 which hasn’t paid off, performance levels have decreased more in line with their position and they’ve started to concede a higher quality of chance where previously they were limiting the quality of chances created against them. Had Ardley stuck it out, might their luck have turned?
Oldham have been yo-yo-ing up and down all season, they seem perenially stuck either in a winless run or an unbeaten run. They started the season very poorly, but the appointment of Richie Wellens (with the help of top scorer Eoin Doyle) got them playing some very effective football particularly in attack which helped propel them up the league. That didn’t last though (coinciding with Doyle’s injury) and they dropped back into the relegation threatened territory. Currently on a 5 game unbeaten run (coninciding with Doyle’s return from injury), it would seem they have enough about them to stay up. Doyle’s goals will be absolutely vital to that though with a defence that seems to have a soft underbelly (3rd highest average chance quality conceded).
A curious case, Northampton, having profiled as one of the worst teams in the league since the very start and still profiled as the worst performing team over the latest period. They’ve particularly struggled in defence where their numbers have remained around 1.6 Expected Goals conceded per game for a long time but, they’ve only lost 2/10 so they must be doing something right as well as outperforming Expected Goals at both ends of the pitch, not by a massive amount but enough to swing results their way. The teams around them have significantly better goal differences which means those extra points are all the more important.
Fleetwood almost seemed to sleepwalk into the relegation places off that horror run of 6 losses in a row and it’s a little surprising to see them in this much trouble. They’ve never been close to looking like a bottom 4 team, looking more like a lower-mid table team, but they find themselves in this position having forgotten how to win games, their last win coming on January 13th. Contrary to Northampton who are somehow swinging results in their favour, Fleetwood’s results seem to consistently swing against them even if they’ve played as well as their opponents. Their problem is clearly defensive given they’ve conceded the joint 2nd most goals in the league, John Sheridan seemed like a shrewd appointment to combat this but they need to start being more ruthless in both boxes in games where they’re matching their opponents to pick up results, points, and places in the table back on their rivals.
MK Dons (22nd):
Dan Micciche was a brave appointment not least because of his lack of previous managerial experience but also because he seems to be a long term appointment looking to instil a playing philosophy into the team whilst in the midst of a relegation battle. The sentiment is admirable enough but performances have yet to turn, too often being 2nd best in chances created to their their opponents and, most harmfully, having played most of the teams around them during this poor run. Their failure to put in performances and pick up points against these teams have probably been the final nail in their relegation coffin, but a 3-2 win against Rotherham on Tuesday (the data of which isn’t included in this) does give them a glimmer of hope. Maybe things are about to turn but is it too little, too late?
By far the most interesting case to keep an eye on until the end of the season. They’re in a false position due to falling games behind (with 3 games in hand on most of their rivals) and also a run of poor away form. 9/13 games remaining are at home where they are a different beast, having conceded just 9 goals in 14 games and only having lost 3 of those 14. They’re 6 points adrift but *should* be absolutely fine and they’ll believe that now too having picked up 7 points in their last 3, all with clean sheets. The data puts them comfortably in mid table (even top half!) which is more down to their defence than their attack – the amount of chances and quality of chances they concede is in line with the likes of Shrewsbury, Blackburn, Wigan and Rotherham. Their attacking output could do with a slight bump to be absolutely sure of turning those 0-0’s into 1-0 wins which shouldn’t be an issue with so many games at home, the next two of which are crucial – at home to Wimbledon and then Fleetwood.
It’s not looking good for Bury who are 9 points from safety with 10 games to play. There are some positives to draw on recent performances though: they’re not playing like a relegation candidate at the moment, with the 12th best attacking output and 19th best defensive output, leading to a run of recent form of 2 losses in 9. Performances have improved, but need to continue to improve to put together a run of form that could drag them out of this. I also have concerns about what they’re attacking output is made up of, given they’re creating the most chances in the league at the moment but with the worst average quality of chance (as you can see at the top left of the Chance Volume vs Quality created graph), presumably meaning they’re taking a lot of shots from range. Shot quality has to improve or they’re just relying on sheer luck of several long rangers flying in to save them from relegation. In fairness it’d be a fun watch, but they need more than that.
Hopefully you’ll agree that there’s a few interesting trends within the league at the moment which will certainly be worth keeping an eye on as the season comes to a close. There’s still plenty to play for and it’s not unfair to say that results and far more important than performances at this crucial stage of the season.
On a side note, some of you may not know I also maintain a Shots Dashboard from the League One data as well, allowing you to look at all the chances your team has created through the season, the link to which I shall paste below. Have a play with it and see what you think. Any questions or comments or feedback, don’t hesitate to get it touch on here or Twitter (@olivermpw_). Otherwise, thanks for reading!
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.