While there have been numerous great advances in analytics in football, most in the public sphere have come on the attacking side of the ball. We have quite a few metrics to judge a club’s attack, comment on if a player is over-performing or under-performing, or if a certain player has faced some bad luck and could be banging in the goals any day now. Trying to use an analytical approach to judge the defensive side of football has been a bit tougher, particularly on an individual basis. If a center back is making a lot of blocks, that could be interpreted as a good thing, but if the same center back is constantly giving the ball away and forced into making those blocks because of it, that might be misleading. We do have some tools we can use to judge the defensive performance of a club besides looking at goals conceded. Below is the SPFL table with a focus on some statistics on defense in the SPFL Premiership.
Looking at that table, I wanted to focus first on the save percentage for each club. Perhaps the biggest move of the January transfer season occurred when Aberdeen lost their loanee keeper from Liverpool Danny Ward. After seeing Adam Bogdan flub and flail in the goal during a 2-2 draw in the FA Cup to Exeter City, Jurgen Klopp decided to recall the 22 year old Ward to presumably be the back up keeper for the Reds. At Aberdeen, Ward was in the middle of very good season, recording 11 clean sheets and having the best save percentage in the SPFL Premiership at 75.6% while playing every minute in the SPFL for the Dons thus far this season.
Ward had a decent defense in front of him, with Aberdeen conceding an expected goal total of 1.009 per match, good for 3rd best in the league and the 4th best shots conceded and shots on target conceded averages in the league. Yet, Ward leaving creates a big hole in between the sticks for the Dons, as not only in the 22 year old heading back to Merseyside but Aberdeen agreed to extend the loan of their own young keeper Danny Rogers to Championship side Falkirk days before Ward was recalled. Rogers has been good for Falkirk in his time there, with an 81% save percentage, as calculated by The Rangers Report and could fill the shoes that Ward left if he is recalled, but an agreement between Aberdeen and Falkirk is needed. If Rogers is not brought back, Aberdeen could face trouble replicating the fine form they experienced in the first half of the season.
While we are discussing defenses and keepers, I would ask you all to keep Kilmarnock’s poor keeper Jamie MacDonald in your thoughts and prayers. MacDonald faces the highest number of shots on target in the league by some distance and his defense allows the highest expected goals conceded in total and per match in the league, yet MacDonald has a respectable 70% save rate. Kilmarnock’s defensive numbers point to some relegation level performances and it is probably only some life saving goalkeeping from MacDonald (and some bad goalkeeping from Dundee United’s various keepers this season) that are keeping Killie from the automatic relegation spot.
Believe it or not, I am not a Ross County supporter, despite having written a few different articles either praising individuals on the Staggies or discussing the positive start to the beginning of the season they have had. Ross County have been very good on attack this season, but they have also been able to rely on a solid defensive performance from their back line, despite giving up 33 goals, which is 8th in the league. While County have given up so many goals this season, they have the 2nd best xG Conceded Average behind only Celtic at 0.829 and the 3rd best Shots on Target Conceded Average behind Celtic and Hearts at 3.8. So why are they giving so many goals despite having underlying numbers that suggest a solid defensive unit? Yep, you guessed it. The guy between the sticks. Scott Fox is a well respected keeper in Scotland and has battled injury and missed a few matches for Ross County this season. While Fox was injured, in his place was Gary Woods who is on loan from Leyton Orient. Between Fox and Woods, they have a save percentage of 60.7%, second worst in the SPFL only in front of Dundee United. The Staggies have seen a lot of positives in the first half of the season, but they will need to see a huge improvement in goal keeping if they want to finish in the top 6 of the table at year’s end.
Finally, a quick word about Celtic’s much maligned defense. Ronny Deila has discussed “individual errors” by the defense that have cost Celtic. Many Celtic fans have very fair criticisms of the shortcomings of Celtic’s back four (and even sometimes keeper Craig Gordon), albeit most of these criticisms have been for European performances this season. Yet in league play, the defensive metrics suggest Celtic’s defense has had a good season. Celtic lead the league in goals conceded, xG conceded per match, shots conceded per match, and shots on target conceded per match. While some of this can be attributed to the usual dominance in possession Celtic enjoy, Celtic’s defense help make things easy for keeper Craig Gordon in the league and allowing Gordon to turn in a 72.4% save percentage this season. While the Celtic defense has veteran Mikael Lustig at right back, Dedryck Boyata, Jozo Simunovic, and Kieran Tierney make up a very young defense that is gaining experience each match and if they can eliminate the “individual errors”, the Celtic defense can turn from a topic of strife to a topic of comfort for the Celtic support.