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Saturday, 3 September 2011

Stoke City.An Extraordinary Premiership Team.

Stoke City Team Photo.2010/11.
Love them or hate them and the split is very lopsided, it's very difficult to ignore Stoke City.
Decades lurking around the nether regions of English football,occasionally winning obscure cup competitions,but generally producing very patchy results finally ended when they crept almost unnoticed back into the top flight three seasons ago.

Once there it took them just 45 minutes to divide opinion.3-0 down to an unremarkable,midtable bound Bolton side,critics were split between The Potters eclipsing Derby's record as the worst Premier side of all time or merely being relegation certainties.Irish bookmaker,Paddy Power took the latter view,paid out eight months early on relegation,reaping extra publicity from the irate reaction from thousands of Stoke fans in the process.

So how is it that come May 2009,Stoke were comfortably still a Premiership side,Paddy was handing out free ice cream at their last home game by way of apology and they're now entering their 4th season as Europa Cup hopefuls with a Wembley final appearance under their belts.

Home Advantage.

The obvious place to start given that the Britannia Stadium is also known as "The Bear Pit" and the Stoke fans are widely acknowledged as the loudest in the Premiership.

Measured over a long enough period of time,all teams show an improved level of performance at their home ground compared to when they are the visitors.If you look at the records of enough teams it isn't uncommon to see some seasons when a team does play uncommonly well at home.However,these fully expected statistical blips are almost always down to small sample sizes and once more games are included they disappear.

For example Man U's average goal differential at home last year was about 1.3 goals per game better than you'd expect them to have performed if their games had been held at a neutral venue.But over the whole of the noughties (including last season's "blip") home field advantage was worth just over 0.5 of a goal per game to the Red Devils,very close to the EPL average for all sides over the same timescale.

Chelsea experienced the reverse effect in 2004/05.They had a virtually identical home and away record,so they actually played consistently better on the road and their home field advantage was negative to the tune of about 3 tenths of a goal.However,over the decade as a whole,like Man U their home field advantage was a positive 4 tenths of a goal.Smack on the league average.

 In the case of Stoke City the excessively good home form compared to their overall form has yet to start to fall towards the average for the league after three seasons.They perform almost a goal a game better at the Britiannia compared to their expected performance at a neutral venue.That's over half a goal higher than the historical league average for home advantage in the Premiership.

If this effect is real and sustainable,it's likely to be a result of a combination of factors.The fans play a part as anyone who witnessed the sustained support coming from the stands during 10 men Stoke's 1-0 win over Man City.As does the pitch dimensions,deliberately narrowed to assist Pulis' preferred pressing style of defence and Stoke's trademark longthrow.So reasons do exist to make a case for Stoke's larger home field advantage being a real effect.However,crowds will quieten and Delap is not ageless.

Making Goalbound Shots Count.

There's a perception that the best teams do things better than the worst teams and it's generally true.Better teams tend have more shots,they're more accurate and they're more difficult to save.This can be confirmed if we look at the average "on target" shots per game for the Premiership regulars over the last six season.I've split the results by home or away venue,but the results are consistent.The big four have had the most on target shots per game regardless of venue.Stoke by comparison prop up the away table and are above only Birmingham in the home one.

Shots on Target,split by venue for the Premiership 2005-2011.

TEAM. On Target
Shots per Home Game.
On Target
Shots per Away Game.
MAN UTD. 10.4 7.3
CHELSEA 9.1 7.7
ARSENAL. 9.1 6.9
LIVERPOOL. 8.8 6.6
TOTTENHAM. 8.8 6.1
PORTSMOUTH. 7.7 5.0
BOLTON. 7.3 4.7
EVERTON. 7.2 5.6
MAN CITY. 7.1 5.5
WEST BROM. 7.0 5.4
NEWCASTLE. 6.9 4.7
WEST HAM. 6.7 5.1
WIGAN. 6.5 5.3
MIDDLESBRO' 6.3 5.0
FULHAM. 6.3 4.8
SUNDERLAND. 6.2 4.8
ASTON VILLA. 6.1 5.6
BLACKBURN. 6.1 5.2
STOKE. 5.3 3.7
BIRMINGHAM. 5.2 4.5

The picture alters if we move on to consider how efficient these on target shots are.There's a strong linear relationship between the amount of on target shots and the amount of goals scored and we can use this to predict how many goals a certain number of on target shots should typically produce.If we compare a team's theoretical goal tally with that team's actual goal tally we can see which teams score more goals than you'd expect from their shot numbers.These teams are making the absolute maximum from their on goal attempts.

Stoke are now ranked the 3rd most efficient team away from home and the most efficient team at home in terms of turning on target shots into goals.At home if they were an averagely proficient side they would have expected to score 62 home EPL goals from their 310 on target shots instead of the 77 they've actually netted.An improvement of 25%.
Away from home,last week at WBA they had just one shot on target,but they used it to score the winning goal.

Goals Scored per Shots on Target for Home Premiership Teams from 2005-2011.

Home Team. Shots on
target per Game
Total Shots
on Target.
Actual Goals
Scored.
Predicted
Number of Goals.
"Extra"
Goals Scored.
% Difference.
Stoke. 5.34 310 77 62 15 24
Chelsea. 9.13 1050 262 230 32 14
Birmingham. 5.17 393 87 81 6 8
Blackburn. 6.07 698 161 150 11 7
Liverpool. 8.80 1012 236 221 15 6
Man Utd. 10.36 1191 277 262 15 6
A.Villa. 6.10 702 159 151 8 5
Arsenal. 9.07 1043 240 228 12 5
Man City. 7.04 810 183 175 8 4
Everton. 7.23 831 186 180 6 3
Middlesbro' 6.33 481 103 101 2 2
Fulham. 6.30 724 156 156 0 0
Newcastle. 6.88 660 141 141 0 0
WBA. 6.98 405 78 84 -6 -7
West Ham. 6.74 768 155 166 -11 -7
Tottenham. 8.80 1021 202 221 -19 -9
Sunderland. 6.21 596 113 127 -14 -11
Bolton. 7.25 834 161 181 -20 -11
Wigan. 6.53 751 122 162 -40 -25
Portsmouth. 7.74 735 119 159 -40 -25

If you can't increase the average number of shots you have,the next best thing is to make sure the ones you do have count and this is the approach Stoke have taken.At home they scored 0.25 of a goal a game more than their shot count would usually merit,that translates to an extra 0.17 of a point per home game or nearly 3.5 extra league points over a season.Very useful in a league where the battle to survive goes down to the final weeks for so many teams.

Possession and Lack of it.

It's no secret that Stoke don't have the ball very much during a game.10 men Norwich in the second week of the current season were the first team to allow Stoke over 50% possession in the EPL.Rather like buses Stoke then repeated the feat the very next week at WBA.Nothing for 114 games and then twice in a fortnight.

Accurate possession figures are difficult to obtain,but a reasonable approximation for Stoke last season is that they had the ball for about 37% of the time it was in play.The ball is in play for about 60 of the 90+minutes a soccer match is supposed to last.At other times the ball is being lovingly prepared at a free kick (in Arsenal's case) or wiped with a towel (in Stoke's).Therefore Stoke only have the ball in their possession for just over 20 minutes.So how do they make use of that possession.

In the table below I've collected the possession figures for every EPL team from last season.I've then calculated for how long each team actually possessed the ball in minutes on average during a game.Lastly,because scoring is the main aim when you have the ball,I've calculated how many minutes of actual possession a team needs to score.This figure naturally won't tell you who scores the most EPL goals,but it will tell you who makes the most efficient use of possession in goal scoring terms.Once again Stoke feature at or near the top.Manchester United were undisputed goal kings of last season's EPL they had the ball for longer than any team bar Chelsea and Arsenal and were the most ruthless when it came to turning minutes on the ball into goals,scoring a goal every 17 minutes of actual possession.Stoke chased the champions home in second,netting a goal every 19 minutes of possession.

TEAM. POSSESSION
%.
POSSESSION
MINUTES per GOAL SCORED.
MAN UTD. 55 16.9
STOKE. 37 19.2
WBA. 47 20.0
LIVERPOOL. 51 20.5
CHELSEA. 60 20.7
BLACKPOOL. 48 21.0
NEWCASTLE. 49 21.1
ARSENAL. 64 21.3
MAN CITY. 53 21.3
BLACKBURN. 41 21.6
EVERTON. 47 22.2
BOLTON. 48 23.6
FULHAM. 48 23.9
TOTTENHAM. 55 25.1
ASTON VILLA. 50 25.2
WEST HAM. 46 25.3
SUNDERLAND. 48 25.8
WOLVES. 53 27.5
WIGAN. 50 30.0
BIRMINGHAM. 47 30.2

Goalscoring grabs all the headlines,but defences are equally important and many great teams are often built from the back.So the next table explores how frugal are EPL defences.Time of actual possession is factored into the calculation,this time we see which teams can hold out longest before they concede a goal.Teams from the big four predominate near the top(although Arsenal's defensive frailty is dramatically exposed),but Stoke appear in second place once again,this time being pipped by the other Manchester side,their FA Cup final opponents City.Teams on average need 32 minutes of possession to beat either Sorensen or Begovic,granted they're going to almost certainly have the lions share of the ball,but they are going to have to work for their breakthrough and they'll also have to contend with facing the second most efficient attack in the EPL playing on the counter.

TEAM. OPPONENT
POSSESSION MINUTES per GOAL CONCEDED.
MAN CITY 33.8
STOKE 31.5
CHELSEA 29.3
MAN UTD 29.0
FULHAM 28.8
EVERTON 28.1
LIVERPOOL 26.8
BLACKBURN 23.8
TOTTENHAM 23.5
BOLTON 22.1
SUNDERLAND 22.1
BIRMINGHAM 22.0
NEWCASTLE 21.2
ASTON VILLA 20.1
ARSENAL 20.0
WIGAN 19.6
WEST HAM 18.6
WBA 17.9
WOLVES 17.1
BLACKPOOL 15.9


Disciplined Defence.

Lastly,we'll use possession statistics to dismantle another commonly held belief about The Potters.Namely that they commit lots of fouls.We've already seen that Stoke spend more time trying to regain possession than any other team in the EPL.As the vast majority of fouls are committed when a team is trying to regain the ball,we can use the possession statistics to calculate the average time their opponents have the ball before Stoke commit an offence.Once again the perceived wisdom is stood on it's head.Stoke are actually the most disciplined side in the EPL,they face long periods of the game playing without the ball,but they stay disciplined for the longest time before they commit to a rash challenge.Stoke's opponents have the ball for well over three and a half minutes before the referee blows for a foul.Compare this to Arsenal who commit a foul every two minutes of opponent possession.

TEAM. OPPONENT
POSSESSION MINUTES per FOUL CONCEDED.
STOKE 3.6
WBA 3.3
WEST HAM 3.2
BIRMINGHAM 3.2
BLACKBURN 3.1
BLACKPOOL 3.1
SUNDERLAND 3.1
TOTTENHAM 3.0
MAN CITY 2.8
FULHAM 2.8
EVERTON 2.8
NEWCASTLE 2.8
ASTON VILLA 2.7
MAN UTD 2.7
LIVERPOOL 2.7
WIGAN 2.6
WOLVES 2.6
BOLTON 2.6
CHELSEA 2.4
ARSENAL 2.0

The advantage of this disciplined approach is reaped on a few fronts.Teams as we have seen enjoy lots of time with the ball against Stoke,but they find scoring very difficult and they don't even get cheap free kicks.In short for long periods of time almost nothing good happens for Stoke's opponents even though they have the ball.Secondly,Stoke can by staying disciplined absorb lots of pressure without the imminent threat of a red card through persistent fouling,a lesson perhaps for Arsenal whose plethora of early season red cards have cost them large swings in win probability and league points.

Hopefully,this post goes some way towards refuting the unbalanced,often preconceived opinions that proliferate around English football's second oldest professional club.They should really be the darlings of the statistical community.They have become an established EPL team by identifying qualities that have been undervalued or completely ignored by many other teams and Tony Pulis has tactically outwitted other Premiership managers,both great and small.Even better he has,with the unwitting help of the media disguised many of the techniques his team has used to thrive.

They entered the EPL with a squad of players that was inferior to most of the teams already there.But they quickly identified a method of play that maximized the talent available to them.The pitch is the narrowest allowable,but it is legal and there is no limit on how far a player can throw the ball.Closing down opponents when they have the ball may be frustrating to play against or at times to watch,but again it doesn't breach any laws of the game,except perhaps the imaginary aesthetic ones.And being ruthless with one's chances and difficult to score against are traits that the best teams in the world aspire to.
The worry if you are a Stoke fan is that the attributes that lead to Stoke's success tend to be transient and fluctuate,both upwards and downwards in virtually every other team on the planet.Keeping all the balls continually in the air and defying regression towards the mean may prove impossible longer term.Also the acquisition of more expensive players and possibly fracturing the unique team spirit that seems to exist at Stoke may result in their uniqueness dissipating.The press reaction to their transfer window dealings has been very positive......and their track record in analysing Stoke hasn't been great.Once the media start praising The Potters it's probably time for their fans to start to worry.



10 comments:

  1. Excellent read, well done

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  2. Exceptional analysis.

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  3. this excellent analasys should be posted to Arsene Wenger so he can come up with more stupid idea's to get arsole to win something

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  4. some blinding stats there!

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  5. And we'll just get better and better as well.

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  6. Brilliant analysis! Scarily the media have already started to praise us :|

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  7. Thanks for all comments and an especial thanks to everyone who's help to put the article out there. The response has been amazing.Thanks guys :-)

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  8. Some nice analysis. You should check out KickOff.co.uk they do some similar stuff to you but they've got a load of cool graphics on there.

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  9. Cheers Rob,I've bookmarked the site.Agree about the cool graphics:-).

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