FootballPremier League

Duncan Alexander: “You can’t outrun xG, can you?”

September 17, 2021January 7th, 2022

CURMUDGEONS don’t like looking at league tables until late October because they fear seeing an unfashionable team “riding high” and making the ladder look uncool. Experts, though, do like studying league tables early on in the season because, like a stock 1960s TV character with x-ray vision, they can see through the simple “league position” ranking and see a whole additional level of truth. SCENARIO: You might have started August with negative thoughts about your team’s prospects in 2021-22 but a few games in that same team are in the upper echelons of the table and you’re cautiously optimistic. Obviously, deep down, you know that no football team can outrun their destiny, and yet… what if everything we know is wrong?

Sorry, everything we know is right. If you’re not creating chances then eventually the  league table of truth will creep up on you and make a judgement. It’s a concern for Tottenham supporters right now, that’s for sure. One week ago, Spurs were top of the Premier League with three wins from three but the xG warning light was blinking on and off because nine teams had created more expected goals than Tottenham. Nine points from nine was good, nine teams with a higher xG less so. Fast forward to now and Spurs are in the bottom three for xG this season, with only Leicester and Watford beneath them. Next up for Tottenham are Chelsea on Sunday, who have been reengineered into perhaps the greatest defensive football team in the world right now, so the odds on Spurs slipping even lower this weekend are pretty strong.



Which begs the question: have any teams outrun their expected goals numbers in recent seasons? The footballing equivalent of revising only one question for an exam and then magically seeing it there on the page in front of you. Well, if we go back to the 2017-18 season, which I like to recall as “the first one in which the media had access to xG”, we can pick out a few examples that might offer Tottenham fans some hope. Spurs to do a… Burnley?


Burnley 2017-18

Remember Burnley? Remember Burnley in 2017-18. Finishing in seventh place with 36 goals from 38 games. Pretty impressive. Pretty unsustainable too. Based on expected goals Burnley were 18th that season. That 11 place difference is the biggest differential in the last four Premier League seasons and was enough to get the Clarets into the Europa League qualifying stages, but fortunately they weren’t troubled with the effort of having to go into the group stage, that age old menace for Premier League managers.


Newcastle 2018-19

Burnley, funnily enough, reverted exactly to par in 2018-19, with the 15th best xG figure and 15th place in the league. The biggest overperformers this season were Newcastle instead, mustering the third lowest xG figure but finishing in 13th place. If 13th place is “better than expected” then you need to reassess your horizons, especially if you’re a club the size of Newcastle United. Their supporters deserve so much more than a five place xG boost but it is what it is.


Newcastle 2019-20/Sheffield United 2019-20

Both of these clubs have been managed by Steve Bruce, as have both of their arch-rivals. Let’s take Newcastle first, a club who emulated their league performance from the previous season by coming 13th, but this time posting the lowest xG figure in the entire league. It’s an achievement, of sorts.

Meanwhile Sheffield United had what a lot of experts called a “sort of Burnley 2017-18” by coming 9th despite rarely showing much goal threat. Their expected goals figure of 43.9 was the fourth lowest in the division. Of course, fourth lowest would have been an ideal league position the following season but instead the club recorded the lowest xG and matched that up by coming bottom. Second season syndrome they used to call it, in the pre-science era.


Crystal Palace 2020-21

A very strange season for all concerned at Selhurst Park. Yes, the pandemic had a big impact on the look and feel of football in general but at Crystal Palace there was also the knowledge that this would be the final season for manager Roy Hodgson and many of the players too. And while never in any serious danger of being dragged into the relegation battle, Palace rarely entertained, ending the season with the second lowest xG (no-one was going to be able to finish lower than Sheffield United) but in 14th place in the table. It was time for a change in south London and so far, as Tottenham found out last week, the Patrick Vieira era seems very different, in a good way.


So, what can Tottenham learn from the examples above? The answer is: not much for a club the size of Tottenham Hotspur. All the clubs mentioned are battlers or mid-table sides. You will rarely be able to make a concerted challenge for the top four if your xG output is not respectable, although it should be said that the only team to buck that trend in this period were Tottenham themselves in 2019-20 when they had the 12th best xG but came sixth. That was the All or Nothing season, the arrival of Mourinho season, a memorable one for a lot of reasons, not all of them welcome. As it stands this season could go a similar way unless Spurs find some attacking verve again. Doing so at home to their old friends from Chelsea would be a good place to start.


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