Just how good are Sunderland and what happens next? A detailed ten-game review of the Championship campaign so far and what the data suggests

Ten games into the Championship campaign comes the first real point to draw breath and reflect on Sunderland’s progress.

Hugely encouraging, in short. And here’s a couple of simple ways to underline it. The Black Cats are currently tracking at 1.5 points-per-game, which if replicated over the course of the campaign would produce a final tally of 69, enough to secure an eighth-place finish in each of the last three Championship seasons. The last time they played at this level, Sunderland reached the ten-game mark following a 5-2 defeat by Ipswich Town. They were second bottom and winless in eight.

Nor does this tell the whole story of what an impressive start it has been for Sunderland. They’ve played three of those games without their best striker, two without any striker at all, and have had to manage the upheaval of losing their inspirational head coach. They’ve played seven of the current top ten, are yet to lose by more than one goal and their three defeats all came against pre-season favourites for promotion. They have also, and this is easy to forget, lost their key defensive signing to a significant injury after an outstanding start. A significant number of the squad had never played at this level before.

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It’s a team that has shown it is more than capable of stepping up to the level. The key question, then, is to what extent these results are sustainable based on the performance level produced so far, and assessing the data beneath the first ten games paints a relatively encouraging picture.

Sunderland celebrate at Reading

An attacking focus paying off...

Earlier in the season and before his hasty departure for the bet365 Stadium, Alex Neil explained how his focus in setting Sunderland up had changed almost entirely post-promotion. After arriving on Wearside he focused on fixing a defensive structure that was unravelling at an alarming rate, reasoning that if he did that, the individual talent at his disposal in forward areas would find a way to win games.

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Against better players, better coaches and better prepared teams this season, he knew that wouldn’t be enough. So he focused far more on the final third, and reshaped his system to include both Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms. Even with those players absent due to injury, Tony Mowbray has continued in much the same vein.

Sunderland are currently averaging 1.3 expected goals-per-game according to Wyscout’s model, which places them 11th in the division at this early stage. For reference, their average xG across the first ten games of their four seasons in League One was 1.7. So while there has been a drop-off in their attacking threat, it is not a dramatic one and certainly not given the significant step up in opposition quality.

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Sunderland have had to contend with injury issues and a managerial change already this season

Some of the other key attacking statistics continue to build a picture of a side that is not quite amongst the very best in the division yet, but one that is more than holding their own. They are averaging 10.9 shots-per-game, which is the seventh best in the division. Their average of 13.26 touches inside the opposition box every 90 minutes puts them 14th. They are 11th for key passes, and 17th for deep completions.

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One statistical quirk from the first ten games is that Sunderland are yet to score from a set piece. It represents one clear area for future improvement but also offers a positive reflection of the quality of finishing and creativity on show. No team in the top four tiers has scored more from open play.

How it’s looking defensively…

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Defensively, Sunderland’s statistics are very much mid-table but that is to be expected given the front-foot approach they have adopted to try and get the points required to consolidate.

Their expected-goals against is 1.25 per game, which places them as having the 13th best defence in the division. They are conceding 11.8 shots per game, which is the 7th higher in the division. At this stage of their four seasons across League One, their average xGA at this stage of the season was 1.07. So while again there is a decline it is not a slight one, and the defensive statistics are in fact almost identical to this time last season.

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The overall picture...

Arguably the most impressive statistic from Sunderland’s start to the Championship campaign is their PPDA, which measures how many passes a team allows an opponent to play before attempting to intervene. Essentially it’s a measure of how aggressively a team presses. Sunderland’s PPDA is the 6th best in the division, which is a ringing endorsement of the way they have been able to impose their own style on games. They have produced strong results through the early stages of the campaign and done so their way.

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Wyscout’s model has Sunderland with 14 expected points this season, which would place them 10th. The margins at this stage of the campaign are very fine, though, and the actual table reflects this with just five points separating the final play-off spot from the final relegation place. It’s worth remembering too that different xG models in particular can offer a slightly different view. Supporters might also note that Sunderland’s actual points tally could easily be better. They outplayed Norwich City for large parts of that defeat (which is very much reflected in the data from the game), were undone against QPR by a late goalkeeper goal and had to face Sheffield United with ten men for much of the game.

So….. what happens next?

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At this early stage of the season the table can often be a touch distorted by some teams having an unusually bad run of form not really reflecting their performance level, or vice versa. Also worth considering is the capacity for teams currently struggling to dramatically improve via a change in the dugout. Looking at the data from the first ten games, West Brom and Middlesbrough are two sides who look to have been desperately unfortunate with their poor results, and who certainly have the individual talent to climb the table regardless of whether they stick with their current managerial set ups. The race for the top six will remain a daunting one right until the conclusion of the campaign.

For Sunderland, the data very much reflects the sense that while there will inevitably be bumps in the road along the way, this is a group of players who have shown that they should have nothing to fear from this division.

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To that end, whether they end up exceeding or slightly declining from their current upper mid-table level will depend on the obvious factors: To what extent they can avoid more key injuries in their squad, how their talented youngsters cope when the schedule becomes even more intense either side of the World Cup, and how the club fares generally in the January transfer window.

One other very notable statistic is that so far this season only Blackpool have a younger average age across their team. As Sunderland’s quartet of late summer signings get more minutes, their average is likely to only increase. It’s hugely exciting but last season also showed that it will inevitably mean some inconsistency in performance.

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Across the entirety of last season, which ultimately produced a fifth-placed finish, Sunderland averaged an xG of 1.5 and an XGA of 1.2. To be tracking relatively closely to these levels in the early stages of the season, and having experienced some significant upheaval in that time, is a superb return.

It reflects why there is such a feel-good atmosphere on Wearside, that despite a daunting step up this is a squad and a club seemingly on an upward trajectory.

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All stats courtesy of wyscout.com