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Elephants In The Room: West Ham, Leicester and Man Utd

By James Yorke | September 21, 2015 | Main


We've rapidly reached the six game mark in the 2015-16 Premier League season and slowly but surely some storylines are taking shape.  Of course, if you are a regular reader of the content here on Stats Bomb you will be well aware of the duality of league storylines. Some exist on the surface powered by results and the table and are hammered repeatedly by the wider media. Others, and largely the ones we are interested in, bubble lightly beneath the surface, visible to those who look a little closer for a sharper perspective.  These are fundamental truths and there is no secret surrounding them, so let's delve in amongst the murk and see what we can pull out.

The Elephant In The Room 1: Leicester

Leicester are having a great time. Unbeaten in six games, goals aplenty and one of the league's early stars in Riyad Mahrez.  How good would it be if he could pull a Bale or Suarez and carry his team to previously unimagined heights? To pitch hard for a European slot, to maintain the run and bring overdue footballing glories back to the East Midlands?

They are clawing back and overturning deficits like a latter year Ferguson team and clearly have a ton of energy and pace but there are aspects of their numbers that are shining like a beacon and suggest that their coin isn't going to keep coming down heads.  They rank second in the league for all shot conversion (16%) and second in the league for goals per shot on target (45%); when league averages are 9.5% and 28%, we can see these numbers are clearly in orbit.  On the flip side, they are ranking fourth in the "against" side of these metrics, which shows that they have struggled to control the opposition, hence the deficits, and hence the obvious conclusion that if you turn your games into basketball style Ossie Ardiles-managed shoot-outs, eventually the coin will start to land on tails.

There has been a little debate recently around measuring of team talent, and over how long can you measure a team before you can be confident of their true quality.  With football a game of limited fixtures in comparison to the more metric attuned North American sports, i'm firmly of the opinion that sample sizes limit the efficiency of rating teams in the short term, and linked to this, we can see that Leicester's positive run throughout the majority of 2015 has been powered in part by high conversion rates.

Specifically over the last 19 games of last season they posted a 40% goals to shots on target rate and 12% all shot conversion.  In that period their defence was posting par numbers, and their safety was secured.  But it suggests that even 25 games can disguise a team's quality, unless you choose  to believe that Leicester are of the class to challenge for Europe, and if we find the league table disguising the truth over this length of games, it's far from a stretch to understand that whole seasons can pass with similar results.  But, in Leicester's favour: so far this season their shot numbers are pretty solid, and certainly nowhere near a level that should see them struggle long term.

Mercifully, Claudio Ranieri is far too grizzled to fall for any hype around his team and was quoted last week playing down expectations:

“We want to achieve the 40 points- to maintain Premier League is our goal. That is important for us"


The Elephant In The Room 2: West Ham

West Ham are having a great time. Four wins in six games, goals aplenty and one of the league's early stars in Dimitri Payet.  How good would it be if he could pull a Bale or Suarez and carry his team to previously unimagined heights? To pitch hard for a European slot, to maintain the run and bring overdue footballing glories back to East London?

In their current favour they sit third and lead the league alongside Leicester for goals scored with thirteen.  They have also picked up three extremely hard to predict away wins and have ridden happily through a tough schedule.  However, where we can suggest that parts of Leicester's form are positive and potentially sustainable, like their shot rates, West Ham's underlying numbers provide a delightful early storyline that points in only one direction: massive potential reversion.  So extreme is their skew that it can be approached from multiple angles.

The wider analytics community is already on this.  Steve McCarthy's expected goals model places West Ham 18th, Paul Riley's subtly different expected goals model also places them 18th.

Objectivefooty has picked this up too:


Humble old counting shot metrics place them down towards the bottom: 18th and 17th in shots For and Against, 13th and 15th in the on target equivalents. So how on earth are they doing so well?

The thirteen goals are a product of a mere twenty-two shots on target- 59%, which give or take is double the league average and a full 14% ahead of Leicester, who as we discovered moments ago are running extremely hot.  West Ham are transcending heat with a rate this high.  But there are aspects of their games that have contributed to this strange efficiency:

"What like?"

"In their last three games, all of which they won, West Ham have taken the lead inside ten minutes and in these games and the victory against Arsenal they have added to the score to make it 2-0."

"Okay, that seems unlikely, but not entirely remarkable..."

"How about this then? In their four wins, West Ham have scored with their first shot on target."

"Right... that's interesting and sounds like a kind of thing that won't repeat."

"For sure, it won't, it isn't a skill. And you know what else? In each of those games, they also scored with their second shot on target."

"Wow, Bilic for Prime Minister, right? I mean there may be a vacancy..."

What we find then is West Ham have spent more time this season at 2-0 than any other scoreline. They have spent 299 minutes leading, a full 76 minutes more than anyone else.  With such regular and solid leads, it is arguable that they have been shelling for long periods of time, but this positive skew hasn't stopped at their rate of scoring, the opposition are taking a ton of shots but only converting them at 7%, and the overall save percentage is a high 78%.  It's flowing right for West Ham at both ends. The problem being that these metrics have been shown not to sustain.  West Ham's underlying metrics have powered a freak run, will definitely decline and this is likely to be as good as it gets for them.

The Elephant in the Room 3: Man Utd

It was widely reported that Man Utd had converted their last six shots on target having scored three from three against both Liverpool and Southampton, but also over the course of their last three games against Southampton, they have scored five from five too (2,0,3). Southampton haven't made a save from a Utd shot since late 2013-14, which is ludicrous.

Man Utd's three goals from ten shots also spoiled my mini stat that none of last season's top seven had been converting their shots at a significantly above average rate, normally a necessary benchmark for a title challenger.  Man Utd now stand at ~13%, Man City ~10%, Chelsea ~9%, Southampton ~7%, Liverpool and Tottenham around the 4 to 5% mark with Arsenal having almost entirely forgotten how to score.

In contrast Utd are the only one of these teams outside the top seven for shots created.  Once more, Louis van Gaal's extreme hallmarks of efficient shooting, opposition restriction and possession football seem to be borne out in the early numbers, and it remains to be seen if seemingly getting the rub is a function of his methods, or there's more going on there. However, his style is consistent and much like last season has so far been working effectively in the age old metric of "points gathering".

For now Southampton continue to project like a solid team; only Man City have conceded fewer shots on target (11) than their 13, it's just eight of them have been converted. I would have few fears that they will eventually stabilise and perform similarly to last season.

Obligatory Tottenham Narrow Victory

If we ignore the goalkeeping heroics of Hugo Lloris and the helping hand of the woodwork, on the numbers, this looked like another solid performance from Tottenham and certainly not one they deserved to take anything less than three points from.  Last season's first choice central midfield of Mason and Bentaleb was absent and a central midfield of Eric Dier and Dele Alli was far more effective than you might think.  Dier now looks a first pick starter which is some transformation from centre back, and Alli has impressed when picked with his energy, confidence and unflappability.  Throw in the relentless energy of Son, Lamela back in favour and the dearly needed return of Eriksen, if only from the bench and suddenly Tottenham look a team with options and reliable players.

Early numbers like them too.  Currently out-shooting the opposition by an average of five shots per game, a high save percentage (79%) is countered by a similarly self-limiting conversion rate (5%, SoT conversion 15%). Tit for tat there, but future successes may well be reliant on these metrics moving in parallel, something that could well be tested by next week's visit of Man City.


Thanks for reading

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Article by James Yorke