"I'm not massive on stats" - What metrics are linked with winning in Scottish Football

Last Saturday during his press conference after Celtic’s 2-1 victory over Dunfermline, Neil Lennon had the following exchange with Keith McGinty of the 90 Minute Cynic (emphasis mine)

Keith McGinty: Are you satisfied with the quality of the shots?

Neil Lennon: I don’t know what you mean.

KM: Were they coming from too far out?

NL:No but sometimes when you’ve got that amount of bodies in front of you, you’ve got to take shots. I want them to shoot. You see Sky all the time, you see the Gerrard’s, the Lampard’s, the Scholes’, scoring goals from outside the box. I encourage that from my players because it’s sometimes difficult playing through teams, sometimes a 25 yarder does the job. The goalie made some good saves. I don’t discourage any of my players taking shots as long as there’s belief they are going to hit the target or work the goalkeeper because anything can happen after that. 36? So we couldn’t have played that badly, and I’m not massive on stats but one stat I do look out for is attempts on goal.

Now, Neil Lennon’s admission that he does not put much weight behind stats is probably not a massive surprise to most, however there was a lot to unpack in this answer. In this particular game, Celtic indeed did take 36 shots. There is no doubt that getting more shots than your opponent is a good thing. However, 25 of those shots against Dunfermline came from outside the box. Given that on average shots outside the box are scored 4.4% of the time in the Premiership (this gets higher and lower depending on where you are specifically outside the box), these are not the most efficient way for a team to try and score.

CelticDunf.jpg

No one expects Neil Lennon to be able create his own regression model, but a manager at the level he is at in modern…erm football today should at least be literate in concepts in statistical analysis in football. A data analyst or analytics department can help managers gain advantages in the margins now more than ever. In the series “Take Us Home”, Leeds United director of football Victor Orta was discussing the data and analysis tools Leeds had and said, “They key to success is converting the information to knowledge.”

Neil Lennon already has an extensive amount of football knowledge. The information statistical analysis can provide can help expand that knowledge. Whether a manager is in charge of a title contender or a team clawing to avoid relegation, any edge the manager and club can find can be the difference between agony and ecstasy at the season’s end. Willingly dismissing the benefits of analytics without investigation seems like covering your eyes when starring at the metaphorical low hanging fruit in front of you.

To transition from a philosophical discussion to a practical one, an article discussing Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne’s performance against Tottenham by Ryan O’Hanlon helped to highlight just what insight stats can provide. The article was well written and comprehensive, but this tweet in the article from CoachTech Soccer, a coaching consultancy, stood out.

Made by the always informative 21st Club, the graphs above show the win percentage in the Bundesdliga, EPL, and MLS when a club has a higher total in a specific metric in a match than their opponent. What a great idea! Looking at what stats are linked with winning is such a simple yet great application of stats. Statistical analysis in football is a tool in a club’s toolbox to try and win more. Knowing what stats lead to victory is vital for any club, no matter how “massive” you are on stats. With our data for the Premiership that Ortec provides (check out our Patreon to help us continue to provide these stats, by the way), we can recreate these graphs and see what stats led to more winning in the 2018-19 SPFL Premiership.

Win Percentage when a team out performed the opposition in various metrics for the SPFL Premiership 2018-19.

Win Percentage when a team out performed the opposition in various metrics for the SPFL Premiership 2018-19.

Perhaps Neil Lennon was sandbagging us all with his knowledge about stats! Last season shots on target was the metric that led to victory the most and had the highest average points per game when a team had a higher total than their opponent. This was closely followed by expected goals, and shots in the box. So the stat Lennon mentions he checks most often in his press conference last weekend is indeed important. However, Neil Lennon’s philosophy on how to get those shots on target that lead to goals might need re-examined.

We see on the graph above that taking more shots from outside the box only led to victory last season 43.86% of the time, the lowest win percentage of any metric listed and second lowest average points per game. 30.26% of matches last season where teams had more shots outside the box resulted in a draw for that team, the highest percentage of draws among any of the metrics listed. Celtic spent all afternoon blasting shots from distance against Dunfermline and, knowing what we do do now about shots from distance, they perhaps unsurprisingly toiled their way to a 1-1 scoreline after 90 minutes.

PPG per Metric.png

Another tactic Neil Lennon deployed to try and beat the packed Dunfermline defense was to cross balls in from the wings. While we do not have official numbers for the crosses attempted by Celtic in this League Cup fixture, from observation it seemed to fall somewhere between a whole lot and “stop it already”. Last season, Celtic attempted over 7 more crosses per game under Neil Lennon than they did under Brendan Rodgers, which coincided with a seeming dip in performances during that same time.

It seemed the reliance on crosses under Lennon could have been coming to an end after Celtic’s first two matches in the Premiership, each a resounding victory for Celtic. Yet, the tactic returned in the match against Dunfermline. We see how in the graphs above how crosses had one of the lowest impacts on winning in the Premiership last season. Despite what a well known cliche might tell you, pinging balls into the “mixer” is not an effective way to win in Scotland.

Celtic will surely face more packed, deep defenses this season in Scotland. Dunfermline were impressive in their discipline staying organized at Celtic Park and were able to frustrate Celtic and force them into long shots and crosses, but Celtic’s inefficient tactics certainly did not help matters. Celtic will need to find another way to beat packed defenses or they could see a repeat of the frustrations felt against Dunfermline.

On a macro level, this type of simple statistical analysis can do wonders for any team. Managers can utilize this type of knowledge to better prepare their team and game plan against their opponents. Knowing what behaviors lead to winning is something every manager should be interested in.

If you are interested in more statistical and tactical analysis of Scottish football, check out Modern Fitba’s patreon site. For Patreon’s, we have a a podcast, a weekly newsletter, and access to a database of statistics for Scottish Premiership players and teams. To learn more, check out our Patreon page.