Ipswich are good, Portsmouth may not be bad, and other early League One storylines
League One Early Storylines
This is an unusual iteration of a League One season, a bit of a one-off. We have only 23 teams rather than 24 with Bury unable to avoid expulsion, whilst Bolton survived expulsion but couldn’t avoid a points deduction - they still remain on negative points ten games in. There’s more than one pre-season title favourite that are “dumpster fire” rather than “on fire” and a few fervent underdogs have been happy to replace them in the promotion pack.
We’ll touch on pretty much all of those. Welcome to League One Storylines.
A caveat – any data used in this article has had fixtures against Bolton stripped out of it due to their fielding of youth team players in the opening weeks of the season. Sorry Wycombe, Coventry, Tranmere, Ipswich, Gillingham, and Rotherham fans but we do not condone the bullying of children here at StatsBomb and will not allow you to reap the padded shot numbers due to that.
Ipswich rev their engines
You probably won’t be used to hearing of Tractor Boys being the quickest out of the blocks unless you’re a fan of Hungarian Tractor Drag Racing but nevertheless that’s where we find ourselves with Ipswich, outright leaders through 11 games and with an 8-3-0 return giving them a four point and game-in-hand lead on second place already.
Paul Lambert has them operating a tight tractor ship and for a team that’s conceded just five goals and kept seven clean sheets in 11 games, the old clichéd ‘miserly defence’ is a deserved anointment.
We’d be doing them a disservice if we were to just use expected goals when looking under the hood of this well-oiled piece of farming machinery. Their current goal difference (again, excluding their 5-0 thumping of Bolton’s kids) comes in at +11, whilst their expected goal difference, based on the quality of chances they’ve been creating and conceding, comes in at +2.50, with the overperformance shared out both between their forwards finishing well and their defence conceding below the rate expected.
Their underlying numbers may not be as strong as their results but it’s important to note that they’ve been in the lead in games for a longer time than anyone else in League One so far, spending ~55% of their matches in front. With the team ahead for such a long time, it’s definitely fair to assume they’ve been more focused on defending their lead and their opponents more focused on seeking an equaliser, which could easily be applying a skew to Ipswich’s numbers.
With that in mind, you might expect their opponents to have been raining shots on the Tractor Boys’ goal. That's not the case though. Ipswich have conceded just 9.50 shots per game, a figure that ranks third best in the league, and the best examples of their stinginess have come in games against potential promotion rivals in Sunderland and Fleetwood. In what are undoubtedly two of the tougher fixtures Ipswich will face this season, they conceded a total of nine shots combined and just one of those hit the target, with the single shot on target across the two games being Sunderland’s equaliser, unfortunately for Ipswich.
To conclude, Ipswich are good, particularly defensively. Good luck to the rest of League One breaking down that down.
Same old at Sunderland
Speaking of Sunderland, what they’d do to be in Ipswich’s position having failed to make an instant return to the Championship last season. With promotion very much still the aim this time around, the Black Cats have again found themselves struggling to impose themselves on the division.
A return of 5-4-2 for 19 points from their 11 fixtures this season may not sound too bad, but the same old issues within the side haven’t been addressed and patience with manager Jack Ross finally ran out. He was sacked last week.
Those same old issues? The absence of any creative or incisive patterns of play in the attacking third. Their build-up was slow and predictable to defend against, consistently playing with the handbrake on. The side generated just 10.50 shots per game, ranking them in the bottom four against their league rivals, and that just isn’t good enough for a promotion contender. Last season’s protestations that teams would come and sit deep against Sunderland were less true this time around and the Black Cats were arguably their own worst enemies in this aspect anyway, refusing to transition quickly when the opposition defence was unsettled and left gaps to play through. To date Sunderland have created a league-lowest four(!) shots on the counter attack, a metric which they were also bottom of last season too.
If you’re not going to counter attack as a team, perhaps you might try other ways to unsettle the opposition and create decent opportunities for your side – winning the ball high up the pitch and looking to get shots off before the opponent could set themselves again maybe? Not Sunderland, they’re bottom for High Press shots too (shots generated within 5 seconds of a defensive action in the opposition half).
Whilst the attack was failing, a rock solid defence wasn’t bailing them out either with the team yet to keep a clean sheet this campaign. There’s plenty to improve on for the next incumbent of the Sunderland hot seat.
Drilling into Wycombe’s fine start
Here we have ourselves the proverbial surprise package. Operating on one of the tightest budgets in League One, to see the Chairboys dethroning much bigger playing budgets to sit in second place in mid-October has brought a few observers and plenty of fans to the edge of their seat.
Having steered Wycombe on an upward trajectory for consecutive seasons now, it should be of no surprise that interest is beginning to be tabled in manager Gareth Ainsworth (including from Sunderland).
The main question to ask about this Wycombe side is a straightforward one: can they keep it going?
*pulls out giant drawing pin and takes aim at Wycombe-shaped bubble*
In a word, no. At least not in their current state. Strip out the game vs Bolton’s youth team and the fact their goalscoring numbers are bumped further by having the most penalties in the league and the most opposition own goals scored for them and Wycombe start to look somewhat more ordinary - which, lest we forget, would still represent an overachievement on their resources.
When lacking the resources to acquire individual quality it helps to be a well-coached unit and in that regard they most certainly are, possessing a varied attacking threat. They’re capable of going long and direct to man-mountain Adebayo Akinfenwa or countering at pace down the wings, whilst also creating regularly and frequently at set plays.
Finishing in the play-offs would be a highly commendable achievement for Ainsworth’s men. It’s just we shouldn’t expect that of them just yet.
How do you explain a start like Portsmouth’s?
Speak to fans of the South Coast club and you’d do well to find one pleased with how things are going so far. With the pre-season title favourites in 16th place, manager Kenny Jackett is bearing the brunt of the blame after getting off to a slow start. Losing Matt Clarke and Jamal Lowe in the summer was undoubtedly a blow but the feeling was they’d been replaced adequately enough to make an improvement on last season’s play-off finish. Right now, they’re not even in the top half.
There’s a few oddities to unpack when going deeper into where they’ve struggled because looking solely at their underlying numbers would suggest that there’s very little wrong with the process in place. Their expected goal difference, based on the quality of chances they’ve created and conceded, is +0.73 per game, a league-high, but their actual goal difference diverges greatly: -0.33 goals per game once penalties have been stripped out.
We’ll start at the back and the first conclusion we can draw is that defensively they’re solid enough and there’s little wrong with the process in that regard. Portsmouth give away the fewest shots in the league (9.00 per game) and the quality of those shots is also the lowest in the league (0.06 xG/shot). If Portsmouth aren’t giving much away in terms of goalscoring chances, then their issue comes down to the fact that their opposition aren’t having to do much to score, an issue that is no more apparent than when looking at the shots they’ve conceded when in winning positions. Looking squarely at the shot map, it’s fair to say they’ve suffered a bit as their opponents have just finished their chances to equalise at an above-average rate.
It’s not only when Pompey are ahead that their opponents have been finishing their chances well though. Burton Albion turned up at Fratton Park in mid-September and promptly scored their first two shots of the game, one of which was heavily deflected, to put Portsmouth 2-0 down and on the back foot six minutes in. Likewise Shrewsbury on the opening day turned what was a very robust defensive performance from Portsmouth (they conceded 3 shots all game) into an uninspiring defeat thanks to a 30 yard Ryan Giles rocket.
That’s not to say the story is solely one of hard luck. Arguments that Jackett is too wedded to his sit-deep-and-counter system that can leave them inflexible at times and unable to adapt to the game situation they find themselves in are definitely fair. If the opposition aren’t going to be drawn out, as will often be the case particularly in Pompey’s home games, then they tend to struggle to create enough and the amount of rotation that’s been made in the shape and personnel of Pompey’s frontline this season suggests that Jackett isn’t exactly pleased with what he’s seeing either.
It’s true to say that there isn’t too much wrong with what Portsmouth are doing so far, but it’s also true that certain things do need tuning up if they’re to push on towards the top end. Being a full 14 points behind Ipswich likely means the title is already beyond their reach but Pompey could achieve their promotion aims yet with the aid of a few tweaks to the system. Jackett remaining in charge long enough to implement them though will depend on a pretty immediate uptick in short term results.