What the data is telling us about the League One promotion race and the biggest threats to Sunderland's hopes

Any football follower is likely at some stage in August to hear the phrase 'judge me after ten games'.

Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 12:30 pm

We're used to hearing it from managers, hoping to ward off or at least temper snap judgments after a disappointing early-season loss or a particularly poor display.

It's a cliche but one that makes a degree of sense, a point at which the sample size is big enough to make some tentative assessments on patterns of performance and also at which you have likely played a reasonable cross-section of opposition from both ends of the table.

Saturday's League One fixtures kept Wigan Athletic and Sunderland in the automatic promotion places, even if their results were radically different.

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Sunderland have made an encouraging start to the League One season

And it also meant that every side in the division has now played at least ten games.

So it seems a good point to dig a little deeper, to assess how Sunderland's performances are comparing to their promotion rivals and try and spot any teams who are seemingly performing better than their current position would suggest.

A radical summer overhaul on Wearside has seen Lee Johnson's side undergo a significant shift in playing philosophy, and the points haul they have returned is an eye-catching one given that they are a new group still finding cohesion. A number of key summer signings are still yet to hit match fitness, and will hope to play a key part in the weeks and months ahead.

Sunderland's statistics tell you that Johnson has quickly established them as one of the most dangerous sides in the division.

On Wyscout's modelling they are sixth in terms of their Expected Goals total, which is calculated by measuring the likelihood of each attempt leading to a goal. That broadly sits in line with the fact that after ten games, they have produced the fifth most goals in the division.

A number of other key attacking performance metrics underline their position as one of the division's most dangerous sides.

They average an impressive 17.96 touches in the opposition penalty box per game, which is the fourth best in the division.

They are also fourth in the division for shots-per-90, with well over half of those being taken from dangerous positions inside the box.

And despite the fact that they are having less possession in games than in previous seasons, that is having little effect on their output.

Supporters have enjoyed a more fluid and incisive style of play and the numbers underline it.

Sunderland sit in the top five on a number of key passing statistics, including progressive passes, smart passes and deep completions.

Interestingly, top of all of those particular metrics are Bolton Wanderers, who impressed many at the Stadium of Light recently and whose early-position as play-off contenders looks well founded.

Wyscout's model has them with the second-best XG in the division, closely followed by an MK Dons side whose excellent form is also underpinned by a superb set of attacking numbers.

Both will threaten the top end of the division if they maintain their current attacking performance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both (like Sunderland) have playing philosophies that mean they cede a reasonable number of shots and chances through the game.

Sunderland rank 12th on Wyscout's model for expected goals against, with Bolton fourteenth and MK Dons tenth.

The Black Cats have also conceded the seventh-most shots in the division.

On these numbers, some of the other key challengers for promotion emerge.

Though their attacking numbers are relatively modest (14th for XG, sixth for touches in the opposition box and 16th for shots), Leam Richardson's Wigan Athletic have been simply superb defensively.

They boast the best XG-against in the division with a hugely impressive 8.74, and also have the best PPDA metric in the division.PPDA measures the aggressiveness of a team's press by calculating how many passes an opponent completes before they are disrupted by any defensive action (tackle, interception, etc.)

Sunderland are in the top ten on this front, but it's something they will hope to improve on as the group becomes more settled.

With good quality in the final third to supplement, those numbers quickly explain why Richardson's side have been so impressive in the early-season games.

They can last the course, you can suspect.

Also more impressive defensively than offensively are Danny Cowley's Portsmouth, who have perhaps been a bit unfortunate with their results so far.

Their defensive cohesion and pressing was certainly on show against Sunderland at Fratton Park this weekend.

Alongside Oxford United, they are perhaps the two teams whose statistical performance suggests they will climb towards the top six in the months ahead, if those trends are continued.

The team worth keeping the closest eye on are Paul Warne's Rotherham United.

Recent results have been impressive for a side all expected to compete for the top-two, but they are still catching up after some poor results in the opening weeks.

Statistically their performances are simply superb. The best XG in the division, the second-best XG against, The most shots in the division, the most crosses. The fewest shots conceded, the third-best PPDA.

Now within just two points of the top (albeit having played a game more), they are serious automatic promotion contenders.

In Sunderland's context, there are a few key factors to consider.

One is that XG models can vary, and that can be significant with a still relatively small sample size. In some cases, their attacking and defensive performance is measured better, and this early in the season that can be fairly significant when it comes to rankings (this model from the superb @Experimental361 has them third for XG and eighth for XGA, for example).

Another is gamestate.

In only three games so far have they trailed, and on the opening day it was for a matter of minutes.

As such, you would expect them to be under pressure for spells and their numbers to reflect that.

And finally is the very obvious point that their utterly woeful performance against Portsmouth saw their attacking and defensive numbers take a fairly severe hit.

On the whole, the early trends broadly fit the table we are seeing.

The likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town need significant improvement to challenge (though the latter have defended relatively well and an improvement in their record on that front can be expected).

Those at the top look capable of lasting the course, especially Warne's Rotherham and Richardson's Wigan.

For Sunderland, their points haul is excellent and the performances largely encouraging.

Johnson is confident that there is much improvement to come from his side, and has talked about better game management and more clinical counter-attacking as two key potential areas for growth.

He has also warned that one key challenge will be maintaining their encouraging attacking output when playing conditions generally worsen through the winter period.

The same will also likely be true of Bolton Wanderers and MK Dons.

This looks like being one of the most competitive League One divisions in some time, and the quality is certainly the highest since Sunderland's first season after dropping down to the level.

Given the significant changes both on the pitch and off it over the course of the summer, there is much to be encouraged about and the status of early promotion frontrunners is well earned.

If Johnson is right that improvement can be expected, then it could be an exciting campaign ahead.

*all stats courtesy of wyscout.com

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