Strange stats: Arsenal headers, Spurs interceptions…

Date published: Thursday 25th May 2017 11:55

The best thing in the world is football. The second best thing is football stats. (I know, but pity me.) So now that the numbers are no longer a moving target, it’s time for a three-part season stats round-up, the first two parts devoted to team stats, the third to individual stats. But we’ll do it with a twist: instead of the regular stats you’ll see so much of in the next few days (on this site as well), we’ll concentrate on unusual stats and oddities. Almost all stats are from, with a few from Squawka, which uses Opta.

Let’s start, appropriately enough, with Leicester City, and last year’s stat of the season. In 2015/16, the Foxes led the league in aerial duels, but won a smaller percentage than anyone else — and still won the title. If we look in on them this year, we find something very similar. They were second in total aerial duels (you can’t catch the Burnley bombardiers), and again last in aerial duel percentage – but of course finished mid-table.

The kicker is that two years ago, under Nigel Pearson, they showed the same pattern: first in total aerial duels, 19th in aerial duel percentage. That year they needed a miracle to escape relegation. Tactics. What’s the point of tactics?

Meanwhile, Crystal Palace, featuring Christian Benteke, were top this season at winning aerial duels. Stoke City finished second, which means in four years under Mark Hughes, the Potters have finished first, first, fifth and second. That’s Mark Hughes, not Tony Pulis. And by the way, under José Mourinho, Manchester United have jumped from 19th to third.

One more stat on aerial duels: Burnley’s flying aces registered 750 more aerial duels than last-place Spurs. That sounds gigantic, but it isn’t the record. Two years ago Leicester registered 799 more than Liverpool.

Home/away splits are always interesting, since they tell you a lot about tactics. If you can figure them out, that is. Manchester City finished second in the league in attempted tackles at home, 16th in attempted tackles away. I wish I had a neat explanation for this, but I don’t. Were they really that less aggressive away?

Here’s another home/away split which I don’t quite get. ‘Clearances’is a stat which favours hoofers: get the ball out of there in a hurry, and don’t worry where it does. Hence Burnley and Sunderland lead the pack here, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City at the bottom. Hull City are about where you’d expect in fifth. But at home they’re first, away they’re 15th. Shouldn’t a team like that be hoofing it more away than at home?

Finally a pair of splits which I think I understand. Stoke City are fourth in fouls at home, 13th away. They’re a conservative side who tend to sit back away, and so don’t commit many fouls. But at home they have to attack more, and so need to foul more to break up opponents’ attacks. Hull City, for the same reason, have an even larger split: seventh in fouls at home, 20th away.

On to interceptions. One stat we’ve mentioned in earlier articles has been José Mourinho’s complete transformation in this department: his Real Madrid and recent Chelsea teams were famously low, but this season’s Manchester United are second in the league. But the year’s most remarkable interception stat comes from north London. Spurs have the fewest interceptions with 314, fully 96 lower than the next lowest team, Liverpool. That’s the largest gap from 20th to 19th in the eight years since such stats were kept.

What makes it doubly interesting is that Spurs under Pochettino haven’t always been like this. In his first year, they ranked fifth in interceptions; in his second year, tenth. Given their tremendous success this season, look for their interceptions to stay low for a while longer.

One of the odder stats in the basket is passes blocked, which to my knowledge is kept only by Naturally, the teams with the fewest passes blocked are the ones that sit back: three of the bottom four are Stoke, Sunderland and Hull. (Bournemouth are the anomaly – maybe they’re just not that good at anticipating passes. They’re low in interceptions too.) At the top in blocked passes is Southampton. But they’re only 13th in interceptions. Again, I don’t get it.

And speaking of not getting it, Man City come up with a skewed stat in blocked passes, similar to the one in tackles: third at home, tied for 17th away. And yet they’re 13th home and 14th away in interceptions. If Whoscored gave us detailed criteria for distinguishing one stat from the other, we might get some help here, but they don’t.

What causes a team to get fouled more than others? You’d think teams with more possession, or top teams, would get fouled more often, but it doesn’t always work that way. Most famously, in the three years 2012/13 to 2014/15, Manchester City were 19th, 20th, and 20th in fouls suffered, and in the last of those years wound up with 51 below the next lowest total. In those particular three years, the most fouled teams were Everton, Sunderland and Liverpool.

This year? Bournemouth, about as middle-of-the-road a team as you’ll find in other stats, were fouled more than any other side. Last year, with the same tactics, they were seventh, 85 behind the leaders Chelsea.

There’s a bit of a pattern this year, with low-possession teams tending to get fouled less: West Brom and Leicester are 19th and 20th in times fouled. But then Arsenal are 16th and Liverpool 18th, while Chelsea are second and Spurs fifth. Crystal Palace, well below 50% possession, are third. Go figure.

On to shots. One of the regular features of Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs is the frequency with which they shoot from distance. This year a remarkable 46.8% of their shots came from outside the area, up from 45.6% last year. Of course the IT crowd will tell you that the thing about Arsenal is that they always try and walk it in, and the Gunners gun from outside only 33.0% of the time.

Shots taken leads to shots blocked. Sunderland, relegated this season, had fully 34.1% of their shots blocked. But two other teams in the relegation race, Hull and Swansea, were 20th and 19th in this stat, with only 22.2% and 22.4%. Chelsea had 26.9% blocked, almost exactly the league average.

Shots that you block are tied closely to shots you face. The more you face, the more you tend to block, and Burnley lead in both categories. But the Clarets are special in this regard. I highly recommend this article from Mark Thompson, which will tell you why Burnley not only led the league with 5.8 blocks/game, but why their margin over second-placed Hull is more than twice as large as any other margin between teams adjacent in the table.

While we’re on shots, let’s go to body parts. The stat you’ve waited for all your life is which team was most right-footed: it was Liverpool, who took only 27.5% of their footed shots with the left. Middlebrough, relying largely on Alvaro Negredo, were the only side to take more shots with the left than the right.

Continuing with body parts, take three guesses on which team scored the most headed goals. Wrong, wrong and wrong. It’s Arsenal, with 17. And guess which team set an all-time record for fewest headed goals in a season? Right, it’s Sunderland, with only one. (How did Hull City let Billy Jones through that afternoon?) keeps totals for counter-attack goals and shots, and in 2013/14 they must have tightened the definition significantly. Starting that year, teams average much lower numbers in these categories. I mention this because if Whoscored is defining counter-attacks in any sort of reasonable fashion these days, the stat of the year is that Southampton, in 38 games, took exactly 0 shots from counter-attacks. Not one shot, never mind a goal. But it’s not as strange as it looks, because Crystal Palace are credited with only two shots, and Stoke City only one. Incidentally Stoke had only one counter-attack shot last year as well, but in 2014/15 they were fourth in the league, with 16.

Set-piece goals are probably the most important stat that people tend to neglect. You’ll read a fair amount about teams struggling against set-pieces (Liverpool), but not so often about teams putting it in the net. A set-piece goal counts just as much as any other, and you don’t have to be named Pulis or Allardyce to take advantage. In 2013/14, all the talk was about the brilliant Liverpool attack, but they also scored an extraordinary 26 goals from set-pieces, the highest since such stats were kept. Manchester City won the title that year with 20 set-piece goals; the next year they finished second with only 12, and eight more goals might have made the difference.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that the team scoring the most set-piece goals this year wasn’t West Brom, it was Chelsea, with 22. The rest of the top seven were left in the dust: Tottenham 13, Liverpool 13, Arsenal 12, Everton 12, Man City 11, Man United 7. Last in the league was Sunderland, with only five, three of which were scored in the final four games of the season.

The word count is mounting, so let’s end the first instalment here. Next time more team stats, but let’s go off-topic and conclude with a Mike Dean stat, always welcome in these troubled times. We must sadly report that for the fifth consecutive year, the master failed to top the list in penalties awarded per match. But style’s the name of that game, and in our hearts, and hopefully someday on magazine covers, he’ll always be first.

Peter Goldstein

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