What the underlying data says about Sunderland, Hull City and Peterborough United's League One promotion hopes
After that dark night at Shrewsbury Town, automatic promotion seemed a long-shot at best for Sunderland.
A 2-1 defeat had left the Black Cats eight points adrift of the top two and outside the play-off places after an indifferent run of form.
Since then, howeverSunderland have yet to taste defeat and have played themselves firmly back into contention for a return to the Championship.
But in a keenly-contested division, there are a host of teams who will still fancy their chances of a late surge towards the top two.
So what does the underlying data suggest about Sunderland’s promotion chances compared to their rivals?
We’ve taken a look at each of the top seven teams in League One, their last ten games in the division and the data behind the results to assess who are the form teams in the division as enter the final run-in...
PPG – SUNDERLAND LEAD THE WAY
The simplest metric to examine is points-per-game, and which side has average the most points in their last ten games.
And in that regard, it’s Sunderland who are the division’s form team.
They have average 2.3 points per game in their last ten outings, which is more than any of the other sides in the top seven.
If they can continue that average for the remainder of the campaign, it would see the Black Cats finish on around 89 points – a tally which would almost certainly guarantee automatic promotion.
The current top two, Hull City and Peterborough United, also have a strong record having averaged 2 points per game over the same length of time and remain well on track to be there or thereabouts come the end of the term.
Charlton, too, are showing some signs of improvement and are now averaging 1.6 points per game – and may be further buoyed by the arrival of new manager Nigel Adkins.
But there are some teams beginning to tail-off slightly. Doncaster are now averaging just 0.9 points per game while Portsmouth and Lincoln picked up an average of just one point per game over their last ten league outings.
Sunderland, then, seem to be the side with momentum behind them ahead of the run-in.
THE UNDERLYING TRENDS - WHERE PETERBOROUGH ARE OUT IN FRONT
But a glance at some of the underlying data may not suggest that the Black Cats are the form team in League One.
Sunderland’s expected goals (xG) are among the lowest of the top seven over the last ten games, while their expected goals against (xGA) remain fairly high.
The Black Cats have been expected to score 1.28 goals per game during that period, but their xGA stands at 1.33.
That points to a team who are struggling to create, and who can be susceptible to conceding with a degree of regularity.
The concern would be that if these trends continue, then Sunderland could come undone. For now, though, the reality is very different to what the data suggests.
Sunderland haven’t failed to score since January 2 and have conceded just once in their last five games – so they are bucking the trends in this regard.
But there is no hiding from the fact that some sides are creating more chances than the Black Cats, while also surrendering less at the other end.
Peterborough look to be the best-equipped side when it comes to an xG v xGA comparison. Darren Ferguson’s are tipped to score plenty with an xG of 1.81 per game, and are only expected to concede 1.19 goals per game at the other end.
Doncaster, too, have a good xG v xGA average while Hull City’s record is also fairly steady.
THE REALITY – WHERE SUNDERLAND SHINE
xG and xGA are good metrics to see how effective a side should be, but the reality can often be in contrast to what the data suggests.
And there is perhaps no better example than Sunderland at present.
While the xG and xGA data suggests they should be struggling for results, the reality is that they have scored 20 times in the last ten games while only conceding six goals.
Only Hull City have scored more in that period, while no side has conceded that few at the other end.
The Black Cats, therefore, are showing a sharp attack and a solid defence. If that isn’t indicative of a side in promotion contention, then what is?
As too are Hull City. A comparison of average goals scored per game v average goals conceded per games puts the Wearsiders and the Tigers at the right end of the spectrum, and suggest it is they who will pull clear come the end of the campaign.
Peterborough, while scoring plenty, are also susceptible at the back while Doncaster, Portsmouth and Lincoln have shipped more than they scored over the last ten games.
There are clearly plenty of intangible qualities at play in the promotion race.
Squad depth, as has regularly been noted by Lee Johnson, will prove key in the coming weeks while we do not yet know the impact Adkins at Charlton and the Cowley brothers at Portsmouth will have in the run-in.
But the data can paint a clear picture of whether a side are genuine promotion contenders – and based on the last ten games, Sunderland will certainly fall into that category.
While chance creation may need to improve as per the xG statistic, the underlying data suggests that the Black Cats will undoubtedly be there or thereabouts come the end of the term.
Hull City and Peterborough United will also come into the equation based upon their statistics – and Sunderland’s two fixtures against those sides in the coming weeks may yet prove key in the race to reach the Championship.