It’s the 5го of December. The world is in a transitionary phase between Trump’s electoral win and his inauguration, the lead-up to Christmas is well underway, and Middlesbrough have just beaten Hull City. It takes their 5-game form guide to a healthy looking and palindromic win, draw, loss, draw, win – 8 points in 5, which is pretty handy for a team that, in the summer, was one of those tipped for relegation.
Fast forward to Wednesday 5 April. Middlesbrough have just lost 4-2 at Hull, having taken 0 (yes, zero) shots in the second half, taking them 7 points away from safety. They, along with the only team below them in the table Sunderland, look more than a little dead and more than a little buried.
What went wrong?
Boro, famously, are not a team to go and see if you like seeing goals. Only 5 teams in the league have conceded fewer than them (Southampton are level with 37 against), but they’ve also scored the least in the league (22), fewer than Romelu Lukaku has scored by himself (23). A back four of Patrick van Aanholt, Gareth McAuley, Gary Cahill, and Marcos Alonso would only have scored 3 fewer (4, 6, 4, and 5 – replace Van Aanholt with Milner and they would be level, but Milner’s have all been penalties).
Unfortunately for Boro, their low-scoring turned into no-scoring in 2017. I happened to be following the game with a Middlesbrough supporting friend in the pub. “We could still score three,” he said in jest tinged with desperate hope as Hull went 3-1 up. Not including that game, they’d only scored 3 goals in the whole of 2017. It’s a wonder that they even scored a second.
What had happened at the turn of the year, that fateful passing of nights into days and todays into yesterdays, was seemingly nothing at all. Nothing meaningful. Boro have taken a similar amount of shots per game in the latter half of the season (so far) as they did in the first 19 games, and a similar amount of shots on target – 9.1 vs 9.5 and 2.6 vs 2.4.
Yet they’ve scored less than half the amount of goals per game – 0.89 against 0.42. This means that their conversion rate has gone down to a slightly below average 9.83% to an absolutely manager-killing 4.39% in 2017.
Boro are actually conceding at basically the same rate as before – just over a shot fewer per game in 2017, but half a shot on target more, and essentially the same number of goals per game. It’s clearly their attack which has proven to be the problem, the goal drought starving them of the draws and odd win that their tight defence was able to put them in positions for.
A 12-game conversion rate of below 5% is terrible enough that it has to have meaningful reasons behind it, and not even the most fervent evangelical can believe that the devil has that strong an influence in the world.
Yet, two obvious potential causes of poor conversion rates – a lot of headers or a lot of shots outside the box – aren’t evident in Middlesbrough’s 2017. Middlesbrough are not taking any fewer shots inside the box in the latter half of the season, nor are they taking significantly more headers (their percentage of shots in the box that are headers is almost dead on 33% in both halves).
It’s their shots in the danger zone which is where the lack of goals is coming from (excluding the six-yard box where chances are far less frequent and have been converted more consistently, so the width of the six-yard box but from six-to-eighteen yards out).
In the first 19 games – according to Stratagem data – they had 48 chances there, resulting in 11 goals, for about a 23% conversion rate. In the following 10 games (the data isn’t quite up to date with the hectic schedule) they’ve had 28 chances and scored just 1 – a conversion rate of just 4%.
Stratagem’s data also suggests that the number of players between these shots and the goal isn’t that different in either half of the season – there’s been roughly the same amount in the way, around 2.6 on average for non-headed shots. (Defensive pressures understandably have different effects for headed and non-headed shots).
However, in terms of the amount of pressure that the shooter comes under when taking their shot, there does seem to be something of a difference. For the first half of the season, according to Stratagem, Boro’s non-headed shots in the danger zone area had somewhere between light and low defensive pressure on average. More recently, this has bounced up to between low and medium defensive pressure when taking a shot.
This is interesting because one would probably expect that if there was to be an increase in one of these measures, there’d be an increase in another. An increase in either, though, probably indicates a slowing – or otherwise ineffectiveness – in attacking play. This won’t have contributed to all of Boro’s conversion dip, or all of their problems in general, but it’s probably responsible for part of it.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.
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