A detailed verdict on Jack Ross and his Sunderland side ten games into the League One campaign
The ten-game mark is often identified as a good moment in the season to stop and reflect.
Long enough in the season to identify some trends, early enough to do something about them.
It’s also the point at which the league table generally starts to take on something of a settled look.
Though, as Jack Ross said with a wry smile after the MK Dons win, that’s not quite the case in League One, where just five points separate third and tenth. It looks as ferociously competitive this season as ever.
For Sunderland, it has been a decent start to the campaign but one with plenty of challenges, too.
The pressure to get into the top two is immense and has led to an often fierce reaction when performances and results have dipped.
Ross faced heavy criticism after the 1-1 draw with Bolton Wanderers, with some fans calling for change, before producing two good performances in a big week.
So how are they stacking up compared to last season?
We crunched the numbers from their first ten games and compared them to the first ten last season, to try and draw some conclusions as to where they stand, what they’re doing right and where they need to improve….
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY
This time last season, Sunderland had an identical league record.
Played ten, won five, drawn four, lost one.
They sat one place in the table better off, with Portsmouth, Peterborough United and Doncaster Rovers.
Only one of those sides would go on to sustain a significant challenge for the top two and even then, Portsmouth dipped considerably towards the end of the season.
Their stats initially look slightly worrying. Sunderland have scored four less goals than they had at this stage last year and have conceded two more.
Scratch a little further below the surface, though, and the numbers are more encouraging.
Particularly in defence, Sunderland are in far better shape than they were ten games into the last campaign.
In a sense, that is unsurprising.
Both Alim Ozturk and Glenn Loovens were struggling for form and fitness, Tom Flanagan suffered an injury shortly before the campaign started and Jack Baldwin took a while to settle.
Their expected goals [a metric designed to measure the likelihood of a shot resulting in a goal based on position on pitch etc] against for the first ten games was 14.3, an average of 1.43 a game. On average, they were conceding 12.3 shots on goal, 4.6 of those on target.
This season, the difference so far has been significant.
Although they are yet to keep a clean sheet in the league, the statistics suggest that opposition are finding it far more difficult to carve out good opportunities.
Their expected goals against tally for the first ten games of this season is down to 7.9, while they conceding on average 8.8 shots per game, 3.6 of those on target.
It’s the third best in the league when it comes to XG against, and the fourth when it comes to shots conceded.
It’s a significant improvement on last season.
Though their defence did improve as the campaign progressed, their XG against for the season was still 1.24, only the tenth best in the division.
At the other end of the pitch, the numbers clearly suggest there is work to be done.
Their XG is 1.39 per game, compared to 1.47 this time last year. Shots per game have dipped from 14.1 to 10.7, though shots on target have remained consistent.
Sunderland, of course, were never more clinical in front of goal than at the start of the last campaign.
They put three past Scunthorpe and four past Rochdale and Gillingham, the latter in a game when they scored some outstanding goals from distance.
Josh Maja started the season in sparkling form and it reflected the difficult transition after his departure that Sunderland’s XG over the season eventually dipped to 1.35, lower than their current tally.
That put them seventh in the table, while they are currently fifth.
The numbers suggest better control of games at the start of this season than last.
Though there are limitations to the metric, it’s instructive that they had an inferior XG to their opponents in five of their first ten games last season.
That’s down to two this season, the draw with Ipswich and the defeat to Peterborough.
PUTTING THE NUMBERS INTO CONTEXT
The numbers, of course, only tell part of the story.
Ruthless finishing and resilience in the defensive third are an absolutely vital component for any side and explains why Ipswich Town are the early pacesetters when key statistical metrics would suggest otherwise.
Their centre-backs have been excellent and they have scored some superb goals.
As Ross himself would say, it’s a myth that promoted teams play well every week. What separates promoted sides from those who just miss out is often how they grind out results when short of their best. Can they ride out spells of pressure in games? Can they be clinical in tricky conditions or when struggling for fluency in their play?
In Sunderland’s case the numbers do provide some context to the story of the campaign so far, and they would largely back up the manager’s assessment of his where his team are at.
The signs of defensive improvement will please Ross, who has insisted that goalscoring was not the issue last season. As they did last season, they are proving very adept at turning shots and entries into the final third into goals. The quality of Aiden McGeady, Chris Maguire and co telling again.
Ross has pointed to the defensive issues on a statistical level, with Sunderland’s clean sheet tally inferior to that of the sides who finished above them.
More broadly, it was also telling that the teams above generally had settled partnerships that produced a consistency of performance.
Luton had Matty Pearson and Sonny Bradley, Barnsley Ethan Pinnock and Liam Lindsay, Portsmouth Matt Clarke and Jack Whatmough (an injury to the latter having a big impact on their season).
Luton would sell both of their full-backs to Premier League clubs after stellar campaigns.
It has not been easy for Ross to achieve that so far in terms of selection, with Conor McLaughlin taking time to settle and Denver Hume still growing into senior football.
Performances nevertheless have clearly improved, Jordan Willis making an obvious difference with his pace and strength.
Though the clean sheets have been elusive, the experience of Joel Lynch and Laurens De Bock in the last week will offer hope that they will soon follow.
The partnership of Lynch and Willis in particular is one that looks well suited to dealing with the challenges of League One and could offer a platform for the rest of the team to find greater stability and control.
Ross has said regularly that he feels defensively Sunderland have been better this campaign, drawing reference to the reduced number of big saves Jon McLaughlin has been asked to make.
The numbers back that up and bode well going forward.
In attack, it is clear that they can get better.
Ross has tried to go with an attacking structure for most of the campaign, switching to a 4-4-2 after the Ipswich draw that he has broadly stuck to ever since.
In recent weeks there have been particularly encouraging signs with Luke O’Nien moving into more advanced areas. It’s provided more energy and variety to an attack that always seems to score, but can without doubt create more. It’s also helped Ross with his preferred gameplan of breaking teams open by stretching them early.
They have work to do but the balance of the side against MK Dons was good.
There is room for improvement, and one league goal between Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke underlines the biggest challenge for Ross in the final third.
The presence of Marc McNulty, a lively and effective figure when fit thus far, at least means their options look more varied than they did last season.
After the win over MK Dons, Ross was asked to reflect on his team’s start to the season and how League One is shaping up.
“It’s tight in terms of that top six, seven, eight teams,” he said.
“We’ve kept ourselves amongst it, we seep saying about room for improvement and do we feel we’ll get better, yeah we do.
“It’s been a good start for us, with the cup games it’s one defeat in 13.
“It’s alright, it gives us a platform to build on, but we’ve got to keep striving to improve.”
The statistics very much back that up.
Some decent signs, and some clear areas where improvements can be made.
Below, we’ve ranked the current top eight in terms of their XG goal difference so far.
This is obviously a crude metric for analysis but it does help to generally identify which teams are enjoying some element of control and dominance in games.
Wycombe Wanderers: 4.8
Coventry City: 4.7
Bristol Rovers: 0.9
So Sunderland have shown in the opening ten games that they have the quality and are putting in the performances so sustain a tilt at promotion over the course of the season.
Defensively, they have made significant improvements and in attack, they are doing OK with room for growth.
They key now is to turn those defensive improvements into clean sheets, and Ross will hope that the added experience of Lynch and De Bock, as well as the likelihood that McLaughlin will start making bigger contributions, can go a long way into turning that into reality.
Coaxing more goals from his strikers remains a key priority, and he will hope that the balance his side looks to have had of late, with O’Nien causing problems and the midfield impressing behind him, can produce more chances for them.
A promising start, a platform, with scope for improvement.
All stats courtesy of wyscout.com