STEVE EVANS’ Peterborough United are top of League One yet still face scepticism from shot data analysts. Are they are a ruthless winning machine, or have they simply been lucky? Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) investigates.
One To Watch – Peterborough United: lucky or ruthless?
Peterborough United have had a wonderful start to their 2018-19 campaign.
They are in first place, two points clear of Portsmouth, four clear of the play-off spots and are the only team in the entire EFL who are yet to fail to win on more than one occasion.
With 19 points from seven games, they have already achieved a return that only six League One teams managed throughout the previous campaign and we're yet to reach mid-September.
For that, Steve Evans, Paul Raynor and the team deserves immense credit.
They have a knack of getting the ball forward quickly into good areas with quality, thanks to some excellent deliveries from Siriki Dembele and Jason Naismith among others.
Over the last two seasons, let’s not forget, Grant McCann faced criticism for implementing a style of football which looked at times sideways and non-committal, while the team would be punished for the most basic of defensive errors.
Those problems no longer exist – so surely neutrals can have nothing but good things to say about this hugely impressive start?
There is, in fact, another school of thought: it is not to in any way downgrade Posh’s recent form, but rather to assess what needs to change for them to maintain their promotion bid.
Is the data sustainable?
Expected Goals (xG) is a metric used to help understand the quality of chances a team is both creating for themselves and allowing their opponents.
Firstly, Peterborough’s xG ‘For’ total reads 1.61 – the fourth-highest in League One – but that is reduced to 0.9 – the fifth-highest – when looking at open play chances.
Approximately 44% of their goal threat therefore, comes from set pieces – a very hefty chunk.
Of course, being efficient from dead ball scenarios is a good thing. However, a few of those goals have arisen from either the opposition failing to undertake the most basic of marking duties, or penalty-box pinball in which the ball falls at the feet of the right man.
Part of that can be attributed to their efficient pressing and dogged determination but, just in case opponents wisen up at set plays, they could perhaps do with increasing their chance creation rate in open play.
If they do, then they certainly have the wherewithal to capitalise…
Although xG is a very valuable tool and represents progress from the raw shots and shots on target data, the one thing it perhaps doesn’t yet reflect is the quality of finishes a team’s strikers can produce.
For example, Shrewsbury average 1.17 xG overall; which is only 0.41 lower than Posh’s return (see above).
In terms of actual goals, Salop are averaging 0.71 per game while Evans’ side are on 2.71 – that’s a gap of two full goals, too big to completely ignore, even at this early stage.
Whilst we can expect the gap to narrow somewhat, (especially once Lee Angol is back for Shrewsbury) it would be unwise to suggest that Lenell John-Lewis and Aaron Amadi-Holloway, however willing, offer the same level of firepower as proven goalscorers like Matt Godden, Jason Cummings and Ivan Toney.
Eight of Godden’s 12 efforts have been on target and, effectively, all six of his league goals have been either headers or one-touch finishes, which is a sign of a striker playing with confidence.
While some of the chances presented to him have been perhaps partially fortuitous, there’s not many strikers in this division who can take them with the same ruthlessness that he has and that is something to be applauded.
Where xG does highlight a potential weakness in Peterborough is the timid nature of their defensive setup.
The PE2 outfit allow on average 1.73 xG against them – the third-most in the division – and 1.01 in open play – the sixth-most.
When opposing teams get on the front foot, we often see midfielders Mark O’Hara and Alex Woodyard – or Jamie Walker now he has signed on loan from Wigan – drop off to allow the opposition to build attacks and get shots away.
This nearly cost them in the fortuitous 1-1 draw against Doncaster, where on two occasions the ball rolled narrowly away from John Marquis in the kind of circumstances in which it had sometimes fallen favourably for Godden.
It nearly cost them in the 3-2 win against Southend, who had 10 shots on target, one of which being an unchallenged effort from the edge of the 18-yard box.
The reason they have conceded seven goals – rather than the 12 that xG suggests they arguably could have done – is partly down to the last-ditch work of centre-back Ryan Tafazolli, ever-present in all competitions, and partly the performances of Aaron Chapman.
The goalkeeper, who won the League Two Golden Glove at Accrington in 2017-18, has made 36 saves so far this season, more than any stopper in the division.
Is this the same as having a reliable goalscorer in Matt Godden? Not quite.
While a striker has the authority to place and power his shot as he likes, a goalkeeper is reacting to a situation out of his control and there are many cases in which the quality of shot is too high to realistically expect him to save.
While Chapman is undoubtedly an asset to Peterborough, therefore, he cannot be relied upon every week.
The sustainability of Peterborough’s form will divide data-devotees and purists; no right or wrong answer will be revealed until we get much further on into the season.
Most should agree that their goalscoring form will drop naturally – it’s unrealistic to expect any team to keep scoring three goals per game, even that brilliant Manchester City side didn’t manage it last season.
However, the fact they have three clinical goalscorers in their squad suggests that they will have one of the top six attacks in the division between now and May.
They need to become more proactive defensively though, because no team with promotion ambitions can afford to depend on their goalkeeper and poor opposition finishing every week.
For that reason, a continuation of current trends suggests they will be involved in a lot of high-scoring games this season – where that will take them, who knows?
Goals should be expected.
Article published on 11th September