Sunderland, a name that till last season, had become synonymous to valiant and eventually victorious relegation battles. This season, however, the club was synonymous to a free-fall. They were deservedly the early favorites for relegation this season. Dubiously, they equalised Manchester City’s 1995-96 record for the worst start in a Premier League season (2 points in 10 games), winning none and drawing just two in their first 10 games.
But with two more game weeks having gone by, the picture is slightly better. The team that had just scored seven goals in ten games, has scored five in the next two. The team that had collected just two points in ten matches, now have 8 in 12. Something has clicked for the Black Cats in the last two matches. Has it been Anichebe? Or has it been Pickford’s form? Or is it just Moyes getting his mid-table mojo back?
This mini-turnaround could be due to many reasons. In this post, I will try to look at the stats of these two games (Bournemouth and Hull), and compare them to the ten initial matches.
It could be due to the Moyes masterstroke of starting Victor Anichebe but Sunderland attacked much better in the last two games, as compared to the previous ten. They had a marginally higher number of shots (10 per 90 mins vs. 8.9) but 85% of those shots were assisted, compared to the 66% of the 8.9 shots earlier. Sunderland were also more active and accurate from the wings as they pulled back more passes from the byline and crossed more accurately in these two wins. Sunderland also took a higher percentage of shots from inside the box in these two games, leading to a higher shot conversion.
Other than these, there are no major stats where the team’s performance was different than the earlier games. In some cases, like big chances created, successful free kick crosses, Sunderland were a bit better in the earlier games.
So it might be premature to call including Anichebe in the starting lineup against Bournemouth a masterstroke, but his introduction has certainly induced some cohesion at the top for Sunderland. This has allowed Defoe to look to pass to scoring partners who are genuine goal threats (Sunderland’s third against Hull) instead of trying to score all the goals by himself. With the introduction of Anichebe, Defoe himself gets space in the channels to move about the box and line up better shots (Sunderland’s first against Hull). Introduction of the ex-Everton player has made Moyes change the formation that allows these movements and key passes, from which Sunderland has benefited at the front.
But what is going on at the back? A team that had leaked 20 goals in 10 games, have conceded only one in last two. I say “only” because it is a big improvement in defensive form. What has led to this improvement?
I think it is a combination of more urgent defending and improvement in Pickford’s form. The only defensive stat (for their defenders) to have a meaningful improvement in the last two games is no. of clearances. Effective clearances have gone up to 32.5 per 90 mins in these two games, from 22.7 in the previous ten. Interceptions in the box have also gone up by just a bit. These numbers mean that Bournemouth and Hull have had fewer loose balls to create goal scoring opportunities with, as compared to Sunderland’s earlier opponents. This also means that these two teams have had fewer opportunities to provide dangerous through passes to their attackers in Sunderland’s box.
But on its own, just because Sunderland are clearing more effectively and stopping a couple of more through balls does not mean that they should concede so 75% fewer goals. Pickford has had two really good games, as borne out by his WhoScored ratings. His ratings against Bournemouth and Hull were 7.8 and 8.7 respectively, while after those two games his overall season average rating is 7.05.
There are two stats that highlight this improvement more than anything. No. of inside-the-box shots saved and crosses caught. First let us look at the impact of the first one. In the first 10 games, Sunderland’s opponents had 10.3 shots (per 90 mins) from inside the box. Assuming an accuracy of 30% (overall shot accuracy average for all opponents), opponents had 3 shots on target from inside the box. Of these, Pickford saved 1.6 shots per 90 mins. That means that just by virtue of shooting from inside the box, opponents were guaranteed at least one goal per 90 minutes. But in the last two matches, Pickford has saved 4.5 inside-the-box shots per 90 minutes (thrice the earlier avg). So even while opponents had more shots from inside the box (13.5 per 90) at a higher accuracy (36%) in the last two games (actually defensive weaknesses), they only had 0.36 inside-the-box shots on target that were not saved by Pickford (4.86 ITBSOT – 4.5 ITB Shots saved).
Similarly, in crosses caught also, we can see Pickford’s improvement. For the first ten matches, opponents crossed 16.7 times per 90 minutes, but Pickford only caught only one (1.3) of those. In the last two games however, while opponents crossed 29.5 times (more compact shape of defence), Pickford caught the attempted crosses 3.5 times per 90 minutes. Without this improvement, it is possible that he would have to face more shots from inside the box.
So overall, Sunderland has benefited in a large way from the change in personnel upfront with the inclusion of Anichebe, which makes attack slightly more incisive. The team has also benefited with a little bit of improvement in defence in terms of effective clearing and a more compact shape. But the bulk of the improvement in defence comes from the goal keeper who has been brilliant over the last two games.
The question remains however, will these improvements be enough to keep the most rampant attack of the league quite at Anfield on Saturday?