With so much else going on, Southampton’s fall from top-4 contenders last season to top-half strugglers this has slipped beneath the radar, currently 10th after 22 games.
The most obvious changes since last season are the absences of Morgan Scheiderlin and Toby Alderweireld. Given that both were seen as key cogs in the defensive machine, missing one could perhaps have been overcome, missing both may be a much larger challenge for the team. However, just as mentioned in an article earlier in the season, Southampton defensive stats still aren’t that worrying.
They’re conceding an extra 1.4 shots per game and 0.2 shots on target per game than last season, which are not huge amounts. But they’re also taking more shots meaning that, on balance, while their shot difference per game is down slightly from +3.3 to +2.7, their shot on target difference is actually up a little from +1.4 to +1.8 per game.
Paul Riley’s expected goals model, based on shots on target teams make, therefore has Southampton doing better too. Their xG difference per match is up slightly from +0.41 to +0.50 this season from last. Yet last season they finished 7th, and now they’ve been struggling to stay in the top half of the table. So what’s going on?
Variance, probably, to an extent at least.
Dan Altman wrote an article earlier this month in which he highlighted the role of variance in title challenges (though this can of course be applied across league positions). When you compare the expected goal amounts and the actual goals for Southampton, it could be said that the needle of variance has swung away from their favour between last season and this.
Using Danny Page’s expected goals simulator, we can see the variance in goal amounts that Southampton’s shots on target would give them, the green columns being the amount of goals they’ve actually scored or conceded.
The variance last season more or less cancels itself out, scoring and conceding slightly fewer than would, on average, be expected. However, this season they’re ‘unfortunate’ on both sides, and very far away from scoring what would normally be expected from their shots on target. They’re nearly 7 goals down on what their ‘expected’ average would be, taking both scoring and conceding into account.
This won’t be the be-all and end-all of their different performance this season, but it can definitely be considered a factor. Southampton are only 3 points behind 7th (and actually have the 7th best goal difference in the league, even with their ‘unfortunate variance’). The club have had 11 results where a single goal in their favour could have won them more points (6 draws and 5 single goal losses).
If they had scored just 3 more goals, which wouldn’t even get them to their expected mean for goals scored, they could have three more points and be just where they were at the end of last season.
Of course, all clubs will experience variance, and so there will undoubtedly be other clubs in the Premier League who will be able to say similar things in relation to ‘unfortunate variance’, and there’s no real guarantee that things will get better, although statistically they probably will. But the Saints can pray that their ‘fortune’ changes.
Paul Riley is on Twitter at @footballfactman; Danny Page is on Twitter at @DannyPage; Dan Altman is on Twitter at @altmandaniel or @NYAsoccer.
NB: The word ‘fortune’ is generally in quote marks here because the discussion about what counts as ‘luck or ‘fortune’ is a difficult and complicated one, but is a (largely semantic) debate for another time.
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