Reflecting on the last 12 months in football it is tempting to conclude that 2017 was the year of the xG. Expected goals has become football’s very own Brexit moment, revealing a divide – between the “proper football men” and the geeks – that has festered beneath the surface for decades but is now an open wound on Sky Sports panels and social media forums, cutting a line through the middle to create a neat division based on class, education, and age.
This might sound a tad melodramatic, but the tension between these two factions is the manifestation of 25 years of seismic change in the way football is consumed in England. The Murdoch millions didn’t just warp the shape of the game, it created a new kind of middle-class armchair fan who, through no fault of their own, has come to symbolise rising ticket prices and the sport’s waning relationship with its working-class roots. xG – the most techie hipster of words – evokes sneering elites, and with it a sense they have lost their game to the world of corporate jargon and hegemonic stasis. Like Brexit, the debate surrounding statistics in football comes complete with echo chambers, incredulity, and an awful lot of projection. In this context, Jeff Stelling’s seething rage on Soccer Saturday isn’t that bizarre at all.
At the epicentre of the debate sit Burnley, who are either the traditionalist’s dream – a heroic rabble of proper football men – or a statistical anomaly who, if you crunch the numbers, will soon regress to the mean. It is easy to see why either conclusion could evoke anger (to believe the former is to be anti-intellectual, the latter the epitome of murdering to dissect), but while the argument plays out between the two extremes the truth lies somewhere in the grey area. Only dogmatists would wholly reject the introduction of statistics. Only dogmatists would believe statistical analysis can replace or supersede the experience and feel of watching a match.
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All of which is a roundabout way of saying Burnley are a brilliant side whose remarkable league position owes nothing to luck and everything to Sean Dyche’s outstanding tactical coaching… but also that statistical analysis can be enlightening, so long as the data is interpreted correctly.
Various pundits believe Burnley’s xG numbers indicate good fortune given the club have scored five more goals than “expected” and conceded ten fewer. But rather than prove Burnley are lucky, these numbers merely exemplify some of the hidden flaws of this fashionable new metric. A team’s xG at the end of a match represents the sum of xG for each individual shot and therefore does not necessarily indicate overall chance quality. For example, if Burnley’s opponents finished the match on 2.0 xG, this could mean they simply had 20 shots of a 0.1 xG score (20 x 0.1 = 2.0), or in other words 20 long-range, low-chance shots. This is also true of the overall xG league table; Burnley’s 21.96 xGA (expected goals against) is just a summation of dozens of low-scoring shots they have conceded.
And, of course, it is no fluke that Burnley mainly concede long-range shots and/or shots that don’t reach the goal. Analysis conducted by statsbomb.com in February this year produced dozens of in-depth statistics to reflect Burnley’s superb defensive organisation. To give just one example, Dyche’s side were streets ahead of the rest of the competition for number of defenders between the ball and the goal when shots were taken, with certain metrics showing them to be four times more successful than any other club.
Things have only got better since then, not least because Dyche has began implementing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football during the 2017/18 campaign – a transition that culminated in their spectacular 24-pass winning goal against Everton in October. The Burnley manager has given greater creative freedom to his players and begun encouraging a shorter passing game, using his unusual defensive-position coaching skills to create wonderful pass-and-move patterns in the opposition half. Such technically proficient football is much harder to capture in statistics (much to the pleasure of the proper football men) and there is no reason why it needs to be. Just as Burnley’s defensive resilience is purely visual – you don’t need stats to see those heroic tackles, flying blocks, and brave headers – so too is the emerging beauty of their attack.
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Dyche would certainly tell you his side’s form is anything but an accident. His attention to detail, from measuring the length of away pitches to studying the minutia of the opposition’s flaws, is unrivalled in the division. His players are gushing in their praise of his methods, and so when Burnley score their only half-chance of the match we can safely assume it isn’t fortune – it’s meticulously executed opportunism.
In the same way science is often seen as magic to the untrained eye, some details are so small they take on the illusion of luck. Burnley defend and attack with pin-point precision, duping the xG model and baffling the stats geeks in the process – while also fooling the “proper football men” who still assume plucky little Burnley are purely a defensive team.
Although statistics can help inform opinion, football will always be best analysed by watching; its variables are too complex and rhythms too swayed by psychological factors for it to be any other way. In the case of Burnley, as with any aspect of the game, whether you prefer to study the statistics or go with your gut really isn’t important. All that matters is how closely you pay attention.