Despite suffering from a thigh strain over the last few weeks, I’ve been around the first team squad a lot and there’s a really positive atmosphere in the gym and on the training ground. We’re not going to make it up through automatic promotion now, but if I were a betting man, I’d back us to beat any of the teams in and around the top six.
My reasoning for that is pretty simple: we’ve been playing well, getting good possession, keeping a lot of clean sheets and we’ve got a few players coming back that could make a real difference. So I thought I’d get a few stats off our friends at Opta to see whether my view of the season so far was correct, and whether the lads’ view of the run in was based on quantifiable reality, or just blind sporting optimism.
Luck can be costly
I know it sounds very unscientific, and I do genuinely believe that we need to focus on the things we can affect in football (and in life for that matter), but luck plays a huge part in success. We’ve had fewer penalties (3) than any team except Charlton (1) and ten less than leaders Leicester! How many games could ten extra penalties have won us?
The big one for us was Charlie Austin’s injury back in January time, but there’s also been Alejandro Faurlin, Andy Johnson, Matty Phillips, Kevin Doyle: all good players who could make a difference in the final third and get us a few goals. So if I can avoid getting three more yellows in the run in, we should finally have pretty much our strongest team available for the last few games of the season – and the three play-off games!
When push comes to shove, the measure of any defence is the number of clean sheets it keeps. So we’ve got to be happy with the fact that we’ve kept 17 in 42 games – a record that only Middlesbrough can match, and three more than anyone in the play-off places. After that you have to look at the total number of goals conceded – and with just 39 we come out on top of that too. Those aren’t the only measure of defensive resilience though, we also do well in terms of interceptions (485 for the season) with only Wigan (582) doing better than us in the top half of the table. When you ally that to the fact that our distribution stats (see below) are significantly better than our play-off rivals, I think you can surmise that we’ve been intercepting more balls in defensive areas than our competitors and that has helped our good defensive form.
As you’d probably expect of a team with established Premier League midfielders like myself, Niko Krancjar, Ravel Morrison, Jermaine Jenas, Yossi Benayoun and Gary O’Neill, we’ve got some pretty impressive distribution stats. We’ve got the best passing accuracy in the division (80%), the highest possession in the division (57.2%) and the highest passing accuracy in the opposing half (73%). Individually those stats show that we’ve been passing and moving the ball well, but when combined they show a comfort on the ball and a dominance of possession and distribution that mirrors my own experience of the vast majority of games we’ve played this season: we’ve bossed the ball and largely dominated our opponents.
Sharing attacking responsibilities
Despite missing the last few months of the season, Charlie Austin is our leading scorer by nine goals, which highlights the fact that the rest of us just haven’t been chipping in anywhere near enough. Ravel Morrison has done really well with his six goals since arriving on loan from the Boleyn Ground, but after that we’ve got Junior Hoillet on four, Yossi, Matty Phillips and Bobby on three and then a few others on two. Despite that we aren’t far behind when it comes to average shots on goal (4.33), average total shots (10.40) and goals scored (54).
Cause for optimism
And strangely that’s what gives me cause for optimism for the rest of the season. Apart from Ravel, all the players we’d expect to be scoring goals are either coming back into form or coming back from injury. Charlie’s had a few run outs now, Bobby Zamora played well in the win against Forest, And Matty, Bobby and Yossi Benayoun all played well and got on the score sheet. So if we can keep it tight at the back, keep our possession stats up and then add a few goals, I’d have us down as shoe-in for a play-off win at Wembley!