Have We Got Better Since New Year?

Credit Graham Burrell

It didn’t take long for the euphoria of having a decent transfer window to wear off.

One minute fans were praising the capture of John Marquis and applauding the decision to add multiple strikers to our ranks, the next it’s business as usual as Michael is getting pelters from the stands. It matters little to people that our xG against Doncaster was almost three, and that without their penalty there’s would have been less than 0.1. All that matters is we didn’t score, and as we walked out of the ground, I heard the following comment: nothing has changed since before Christmas, we’re still crap.

I took umbrage with that comment and vowed to check to see if it was actually right. Has anything changed since the transfer window opened? Or are we still stumbling blindly down an alley that lead to Barrow away next season? I decided to compare the stats from the first 22 league games, and the last nine, to see if there’s been an improvement. I’ve also compared the stats to those full season total from seasons gone by, and successful teams last season. Finally, I’ve thrown in some numbers from MK Dons last season, a ‘passing without purpose’ side, to see if we really are like them.

The problem I know I’ll have is this; I can look at shooting stats, xG, passing numbers, all sorts, but I’ll get the age-old reply of ‘only one stat that matters’ (tell that to Brentford, by the way). So, let’s start with the only stats that matter shall we? There’s not one that matters, there are three; points, goals scored and goals conceded.

Credit Graham Burrell

Points Per Game

Before New Year: 1 (22 played, 22 points)

After New Year: 1.44 (9 played, 13 points)

If the only stat that matters, that truly matters, is points then we’re going well. In the 22 games before Christmas, we collected just 22 points; over the course of a season that would have been 46. There’s no escaping that had that continued, had we truly not improved, that’s relegation material. 46 points would have seen you relegated in every season bar two since the turn of the century. However, since the transfer window our points per game has improved, to 1.44, which over the course of a season is 66 points. That’s not quite play-off form, but it is borderline top ten form. So, no matter what your opinion, the only stat that matters tells us we’ve gone from relegation form to lower top half form since the window. The struggle is assimilating the two I think; some people see us still down where we are, seemingly struggling to pull away and assume we’re just the same as we were before the turn of the year. We’re not.

Goals Per Game

Before New Year: 1.09 (22 played, 24 goals)

After New Year: 1.33 (9 played, 12 goals)

Scoring goals was a real problem before Christmas, we know that. In 22 games from August to December, we bagged just 24 goals, but remember, five of those came against Cambridge! One game meant we averaged more than a single goal per game, but without that, we’d have been less than a goal a game. After the transfer window? 1.33 goals per game, or around 61 over the course of a season. In 2018/19, as League Two title winners, we only scored 73. Yes, we’re still a little shy of the goals we need, there’s no disputing that after the Doncaster defeat, but again we’re better than we were before the window. By the way; Liam Cullen (1), Morgan Whittaker (2) and John Marquis (3) haven’t done badly in helping turn our fortunes around, have they?

Credit Graham Burrell

Goals Conceded Per Game

Before New Year: 1.4 (22 played, 31 goals)

After New Year: 1.11 (9 played, 10 goals)

Whilst we’re only talking about a small margin here, we are conceding fewer than before New Year. We’ve kept a clean sheet (Oxford) and when we have conceded, it’s only been one (usually), as with Plymouth, Morecambe and Doncaster. Before the New Year, one was enough to beat us, but with a few goals in our side, it’s not anymore. Of course, we need to concede fewer, but last season we conceded 50 in 46 games, an average of 1.08 over the season. That’s not all that different to our post-New Year total.

Shots / On Target

Before New Year: 11.86 / 4.23 – 35.07%

After New Year: 11.22 / 4.44 – 42.37%

The other criticism I have heard recently, which I disagree with massively, is that we’re just as weak going forward as we were before Christmas. Apparently, we’re a boring side and don’t create enough; I even saw that in relation to the season ticket announcement yesterday. Someone said they wouldn’t renew because of the boring football. Well, since Christmas our shots numbers have barely changed; 11.86 per game compared to 11.26, so we are taking fewer, albeit by less than one per game. The accuracy has improved though, from 35% to 42%. What’s really interesting is we took fewer shots over the 46 games of last season (10.84 per game) and we were less accurate than we have been since New Year (39.8%). Also, this notion we’ve got ‘more boring’ is moot as well; when we won League Two in 2018/19, we took 11.57 shots per game, more or less the same as now, at 38% accuracy.

By the way, last year’s Champions, Hull City, had 12.09 shots per game at just 34.9% accuracy. Not that much different to us, right?

Credit Graham Burrell

Passes / Accurate

Before New Year: 446 / 360 – 80.37%

After New Year: 412 / 324 – 77.95%

Let’s move on to passing, shall we? Our approach is described as boring (again, only by some, probably a vocal minority), and it’s something I don’t personally agree with, but I wanted to see firstly if there’s been a shift since the New Year additions, and then how we stacked up to more ‘exciting’ years. Since New Year, we’ve made fewer passes than we did in late 2021; averaging 34 passes fewer per game. You could say ‘yeah, but we played Wycombe recently and the ball barely got a grass stain on it’, but we’d played them before New Year (and Gillingham), so it doesn’t count! We’ve got slightly less accurate since New Year though, which isn’t a major worry, but could be a symptom of a new set of players getting to know each other.

Do we play more passes than we did last season? Ys, but the difference is negligible. We averaged 405 passes per game in 2020/21, with 79.3% accuracy, so there’s actually little difference between our numbers from a season people think was exciting, and one from a season that’s been deemed (by some), as boring. Of course, we pass the ball far more than we did when we won League Two (320 passes, just 73.8% accurate), and when we won the National League (285 passes per game, 69.6% accuracy).

As for last season’s promoted side, Peterborough United, they played 428 passes per game, with an 81.7% pass rate. That’s not far from us. However, we get labelled as the new MK Dons (again, by some), passing without a purpose. That’s harsh; they played 532 passes per game, 121 more than we’ve averaged since Christmas.

Forward Passes / Accurate

Before New Year: 163/112 – 72.2%

After New Year: 146 / 96 – 65%

I know, making a load of passes is all well and good, but if they’re backwards and sideways there’s little point. Well, since New Year, we have seemingly cut down on the number of forward passes we make, from 163 to 146 per game. The accuracy has gone down as well, which suggests that despite creating more, we’re taking a little less time to do it. I think that’s because we’ve played at least two teams who like to play longer (Morecambe and Wycombe), and we saw much less of the ball at MK Dons and Sunderland. Remember, the game sample before New Year did have more ‘run of the mill’ games, which might account for a bit of the drop. As for the accuracy, I’ve addressed that in the other bit, but I wonder if it’ll rise again as players get an understanding.

Credit Graham Burrell

Back Passes / Accurate

Before New Year: 67/62 – 93%

After New Year: 59 / 55 – 93%

We might be playing fewer forward passes, but we also play fewer back passes as well, which I’m sure will, surprise fans. On average, we played eight fewer passes back now than before New Year, although it could be an outcome of those games skewing the numbers a little. It’ll be interesting to see if this sample changes over the next few weeks, with teams who let us have a bit more possession. By the way, last season MK Dons played 92 back passes per game, so again comparisons drawn between us and them (which I have done at times) are not accurate. Hull (55) and Peterborough (63) played similar amounts of backwards balls to us. The reason I keep drawing other teams stats in is to demonstrate that the style of football, the one that draws the sighs from the crowd and I often hear lamented as we leave the ground, is not the problem at all.

Sideways Passes (Lateral) / Accurate

Before New Year: 174 / 152 – 87%

After New Year: 154/131 – 84%

How many times have you groaned when instead of using a player on the overlap, we’ve gone back in field and across the 18-yard box. It happens plenty, and if anything, the sideways pass has been more of a bugbear for supporters than anything for a while. I recall a chap in front of me always moaning that Alex Woodyard played sideways balls, so it’s not new to have a bit of a whine at this. Since New Year, we’ve played 154 per game, instead of 174 before the window opened. We’re playing fewer, and bar a single pass, the accuracy is about the same.

There’s zero doubt we play more than previous seasons; in 202/21 we averaged 140, in 2018/19 just 95 and in 2016/17 just 83. Mind you, Hull played 127 per game last season, Peterborough 150 and MK Dons 195. I can’t imagine the anger our fans would express if we did actually played like MK did last season, can you?

xG

Before New Year: 1.19 

After New Year: 1.70

I had to get it in somewhere! The fact is this; we’re creating better chances in better positions now than we were before New Year. Things have changed, it is here for you to see demonstrated by a stat that’s not a real stat, but an interpretation of actions delivered in stat form. That’s maybe the best way to put xG to you, but whatever you think of it, the number still shows a trend towards creating better chances in front of goal. The fact our xG is 1.70 since New Year, and our goals per game are 1.33 suggests a little more ruthlessness is required. Still.

Credit Graham Burrell

Touches in Box

Before New Year: 16.6

After New Year: 20.9

Boring? Lincoln City? Not according to touches in the box. Okay, we’re not always making the most of them but all season we’re more than MK were last season (14.2), and since Christmas more than last season’s League One winners Hull City (18.72), runners up Peterborough (16.5), and play-off winners Blackpool (18.02). In fact, the whole season average in League One sees Rotherham top the table with 19.03. So, since New Year, we’re actually entering the box more, on average, than any other team has managed throughout the whole season,

Conclusion

I’ll let you draw your own conclusion. If you’ve got to this point and think ‘that’s crap, I know what I see every week’, I suggest you’re looking, but you’re not actually seeing (Ash will like that). Look, I know we’re not the finished article, I know we’ve got work to do, we could be more clinical etc, but these stats prove that there has been progress and that to a degree, the perception that we’re boring, pass for passing sake and all of that is actually one that isn’t entirely fair. Still, football fans will have an opinion, one they’re entitled to, all I want to do is help colour in some of the blanks that might otherwise be filled in by social media perception.

All stats are for Football League or National League games only, and do not include any cup fixtures. All stats from Wyscout.